They’re fun to catch, easy to cook and good to eat. Softshell crabs are popular around the world and are considered a delicacy in many lands. Because the shell is completely soft, the entire crab can be eaten. Despite what many believe, softshell crabs are not an individual species. In order to grow, a blue crab must periodically shed its shell and grow a new, larger one.
Immediately after undergoing this molting process, the crab has a soft, skin-smooth exterior. It takes days for the crabs’ exposed outer surface to harden. Until it does, the crab is highly vulnerable to predators (including hungry two-legged ones). A crab generally molts about once a month, growing 33 percent larger with each new shell. Crabs in the process of shedding their old shell are called busters, and busting out of the old shell on average takes a crab around 30 minutes. This process is repeated up to 25 times during a crab’s lifespan, which lasts two to three years.
Blue crabs are common to all North Carolina coastal waters and crabbing is great outdoor fun for anyone. Get a dip net with a basket of wire mesh or nylon rather than a cloth mesh net. The wire or nylon doesn’t allow the crabs to get tangled up so easily.
Most people go crabbing in the shallow waters of the sound where the crabs can be found hiding in the eelgrass while molting. For those who don’t mind taking their time, simply bait your trap (raw chicken scraps work great) and drop it off the side of the dock. Check your pot in an hour or two and you may be surprised by what you find. For those who don’t have any time to waste, the tried-and-true method called scrapping, where crabbers wade through the water or ride in a small boat, may be the better option. When scrappers spot a crab, they scoop it up in their net.
Remember to take along something to put the crabs in like a wooden bushel basket or cooler. When picking up the feisty creatures, don’t forget to wear gloves and closed-toe shoes. A crab must be held from the back, away from its pinching claws.
Another method is jimmy potting. A jimmy is a mature male crab and is easily recognized by the brilliant blue shading on its shell and claws. Female crabs are called sooks (adults) or a sally or she crab (not yet mature) and can be distinguished by the rounded aprons on their underside and their “painted fingernails” or red tips on their claws.
A few jimmies can be placed in a pot in the water where they will entice as many as 20 to 30 female peelers. Jimmy potting is usually done in areas where there is little or no plant cover.
Other methods are used for catching peelers but those mentioned here are among the most basic. Many people believe that a full moon yields larger catches of softshell crabs. This is reinforced by the fact that most commercial harvesters do indeed claim to see an increase in softshell crabs before and after a full moon. In North Carolina, the daily bag limit for blue crabs is 50 crabs per person per day, not to exceed 100 crabs per vessel per day.
Once you’ve caught your crabs, they must be dressed before eating. Live softshell crabs must first be “put down.” It may seem unpleasant, but the quickest way to do this to avoid prolonged pain for the crab is by sticking the point of a knife between the eyes. To clean the crab, cut it across the face at an upward angle so that the eye sockets and scaly section of the lower mouth are removed. Next lift each side of the shell and remove the gills.
Then turn the crab over and cut off the bottom apron. Rinse well. Softshells are best when fresh, although they can be purchased fully-dressed and frozen during the off-season. The simplest method of cooking a soft-shell crab is to bread and fry it. Dip the crab in eggwash and cracker meal and fry for five minutes on each side.