Both are tried and true methods for netting a magnificent meal
Crab season in Texas is better than it has been in many years. For the past few seasons, crabbers have seen a lot more big, meaty blue crabs — so why are they so hard to find at grocery stores, fish markets or local restaurants?
It all comes down to business and the bottom line. Commercial crabbers in Texas can fetch a much higher rate for their catch by selling to crab houses in Maryland.
That’s right — the state is well known for its steamed crabs, which often go for as high as $100 a dozen. But once Maryland has exhausted native blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, it imports juicy jumbos from Texas and Louisiana, which means that at least commercially, there isn’t much left for us here at home.
But that doesn’t mean crab lovers on the Texas Gulf Coast have to go without, or settle for the small guys you’ll sometimes find for sale. You can catch some of our biggest native blues yourself with just a little extra work and a couple of dollars worth of chicken necks.
Crabbing is a simple and accessible pastime that’s easy to learn, whether you’re already a fan of fishing or not. There are two methods you can try for yourself.
Whichever you use, your first step is to buy a package of chicken necks from the grocery store. These are easy to find on the Texas coast, where the rest of the state sends the affordable and popular crab bait. But if you can’t find necks, get the cheapest cut of chicken that’s available.
At its simplest, crabbing is nothing more than a chicken neck on a string and a long-handled net. This low-budget method requires a little more hands-on engagement than a crab trap, but is perfect for kids and easy to keep at the ready.
1. On the end of several feet of string, securely tie a strong knot around a chicken neck. Make sure it can’t come loose easily.
2. Drop your line into the water and allow it to sink to the bottom. Coil the slack in your string on the bank or pier. Now, sit back, relax and keep an eye on that slack, which will start to unwind and pull away as a crab grabs your bait and tries to make off with it.
3. Once you see it going out, grab hold of the line. If the crab has gone a ways out, gently pull the line back in. Don’t yank too hard or fast, or you might spook your crab into letting go. When you can reach it, use your fishing net to scoop up the crab and bring it in.
There are a few different kinds of crab traps, but the most popular enclosed wire box traps will run you about $30 to $40 at an outdoors store or bait shop. The line that goes with them (sold with a float for boat use) is around $5. You can even find them at Buc-ee’s in Texas City. A small hole in the structure allows too-small crabs to crawl back out, while legal-size ones get trapped inside.
These are much bulkier to lug around than a clip and some string, but they’re best left overnight, so you can set them, leave them for the day, and come back to collect your catch whenever you’re ready. They’re great for folks who don’t love long periods of waiting quietly in the hot sun.
1. Fill the center compartment of your trap with chicken necks and secure the top.
2. Tie the trap to a dock cleat or other secure structure near the water, or to your boat.
3. Drop the trap into the water and let it sink, making sure it hits the bottom.
4. Pull up the trap and see what you’ve caught. You can easily release the crabs into your cooler by pulling open the bottom panel of the trap, which is secured by elastic, and shaking the crabs free.
Tips for new crabbers
• Know your legal limits. In Texas, a blue crab less than 5 inches from point to point must be thrown back. If you catch a reddish tan stone crab with uneven black-tipped claws, you may twist off and keep the bigger claw only; stone crabs must always be thrown back, after which their claw will grow back.
• Once removed from the water, live crabs should be immediately put on ice. This stops them from being too feisty and ensures that they stay fresh until you make it home.
• The best crabbing coincides with warmer weather. Your best bet is roughly from late May to mid-December.
• Leave your chicken necks at room temperature for a bit before crabbing. This helps bring out that lovely sulfuric aroma that makes the crabs come scuttling.
• Sometimes, while chicken necking, your bait will get away or float instead of sink. Tie a bait clip onto the end of your string (looks like a big safety pin; available at outdoors stores or bait shops) and hook the chicken with the clip to add weight and get a better hold.
• Open crab traps, like two-ring drop nets, often come in much cheaper versions. They work just fine, but require a closer eye and can’t be left overnight, as the crabs can easily escape.
Boost your gumbo flavor with crab stock
Did you know that the secret to a rich, deeply flavorful seafood gumbo broth could be ending up in your trash can?
Making stock from the otherwise unused parts of your seafood not only saves you money on store-bought broth or bouillon, it makes use of the whole animal and imparts a flavor you just can’t achieve any other way.
Here’s a recipe for gumbo stock so good, you’ll never trash your shells again.
1. Boil your crabs with boiling spices of choice. These are easy to find in pre-mixed packages at the store.
2. Once they’ve turned red, about 15 to 20 minutes depending on size, drain and discard boiling water.
3. Once cool enough to handle, use crab crackers and a pick to remove the meat from your catch, setting the meat aside and keeping it refrigerated until it’s time to serve your gumbo. Reserve all shells and bodies.
4. In a stock pot, combine the empty crab shells with your shrimp heads and shells and cleaned fish bodies, if you’ve got them, along with the stems, skins and trimmings of an onion, green bell pepper and celery.
5. Cover with water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for an hour.
6. Strain and reserve your stock for whenever you’re ready to make gumbo. It can be refrigerated up to three days or frozen.
7. You could stir the entire bowl of crab meat into the gumbo once everything else is done cooking, but for better presentation and flavor/texture of your crab meat, add a spoonful to each individual bowl before ladling in the hot soup.