A Guide to Crabbing in the Lowcountry: Fresh Air, Fun Sport, Free Seafood
The scientific name is Callinectes sapidus, Greek for “savory beautiful swimmer.”
Americans more commonly know it as the Atlantic blue crab, which for folks living in the South Carolina Lowcountry loosely translates to “delicious free dinner.”
Crabbing seems to be the unofficial pastime of Pawleys Island and the surrounding backwaters of Georgetown County. It’s hard to cross the causeway or pass a private dock without seeing someone trying to catch the tasty crustaceans.
For those new to the area or the activity, we’ve assembled an easy beginner’s guide to catch, trap, cook and crack these scrumptious sea creatures, and we’ve consulted one of the county’s most experienced experts in the sport.
“I’ve been crabbing since I was a kid, so more than 70 years,” said 80-year-old Lou Pasculli, who relocated from New Jersey back in the 1990s. “I’ve always loved being outdoors on the water. The older I get the more I enjoy it.”
Not to mention the free, fresh seafood. The reward of sitting outside and soaking up the South Carolina sunshine and scenery sometimes comes with the added bonus of a bountiful bucket of blue crabs as a delectable delicacy.
But before you’re ready to wet a line and fire up the steam kettle, here are a few things you will need to get started:
* License: A valid South Carolina Saltwater Recreational Fishing License is required for ages 17 and over unless you are using three or fewer drop baskets, hand lines or fold-up traps per person. Three lines are usually plenty for people looking for a casual day of crabbing. But if you want to go all out or use a large crab pot, pick up a license for $5 to $10 (14-day/annual) online (www.dnr.sc.gov/purchase), by phone (866-714-3611), or at a local outdoors store.
* Equipment: The gear required to go crabbing is modest and cheap, and many of the essentials might already be in your possession. You will need rope (quarter-inch or more in diameter) and a sharp knife to cut it into sections. You can purchase rope, drop baskets or fold-up traps at a local outfitter. The most affordable and reliable option is the two-ring drop basket. They’re less than $10 apiece and can yield a nice return on years of crabbing.
* Bait: Fortunately for crabbers, their prey is not particularly picky. “Crabs will eat anything,” joked Pasculli, who was using bait fish he caught earlier in the day. Crabbers can pick up some relatively cheap grub for the crustaceans to chow on – fish heads, chicken necks and backs, and almost any odorous meat will do (my daughter caught her first blue crab with a leftover hot dog). Bring along a cooler or 5-gallon bucket, ruler, gloves or crab-grabbers, hand sanitizer and a towel.
Easy as A-B-Crabbing
* Now that you’re all geared up, it’s time to find a good time, tide and location. Although you can go year-round, crabs are less active in colder water, so early summer through late fall is the best time for success. Crabs travel in and out of the inlets with the tide, so two hours before and after high tide are peak times. The causeways in Pawleys Island and Litchfield and piers in Murrells Inlet and Georgetown are prime public spots, while many prefer the peace of a private dock.
* Once you’ve found your honey hole, attach the bait to the center of your basket. Crabs are expert thieves and can quickly swipe bait from a basket unless it’s properly secured with good knots. Attach the rope to your baskets and drop them in the water until they sink with no slack in the line and tie it off on a piling. If you want to try chicken-necking, simply tie your bait to a string, drop it in the water and wait for a nibble. Pulling it up with a crab in tow takes some touch but it works.
* Be patient and wait at least 5-10 minutes before checking your basket. Crabs are fairly slow movers and they follow their noses to the source of the smelly aroma. Give them time to find and feast on your bait before snatching it away. When you’re ready to check your trap, give a strong but steady tug on the line to prevent the crabs from escaping. Pull them to dry land and use heavy work gloves or a set of crab-grabbers to put the keepers (5 inches or more from point to point) in a cooler or bucket while returning the little ones and females with eggs. Even playing catch-and-release is fun, and you will want your grandkids to do this someday.
“It’s so peaceful that sometimes I use the time to pray,” Pasculli said, “not to catch more crabs, but to give thanks to the Lord for letting me spend another day enjoying his creation.”
Free Seafood Buffet
* Once the fun is over, the reward begins. Rinse off your keepers and place them on ice (this will make the cooking process easier) while preparing your steam pot with boiling water. Some like to boil the crabs in a mixture of water, beer and seasonings, while others prefer them sprinkled with Old Bay and steamed. There is no wrong answer, just a matter of taste. Once the crab shells start to turn a bright red, they’re ready for eating. Just set them aside to let them cool.
* Some complain there’s not enough meat on a blue crab to go to the trouble of cracking it. Those are the same folks who don’t know how to properly pick them. Use a set of crab crackers on the claws, applying just enough force to hear a slight crunch. Gently pull the meat from inside the shell, dip it in drawn butter and you’ve got a bite-sized piece of juicy claw meat. There’s more where that came from inside the cavity. Start at the underbelly and peel open the shell, discarding the interior (lungs and other organs), using your thumbs to dislodge the tasty meat on the exterior (where the claws attach).
* The best way to serve crabs is also the easiest to clean up. Cover a big table with newspapers, pour the crabs out, and it’s every man for himself. After the carnage, simply fold up the scraps inside the newspapers and the mess is gone. Make it a meal with a Lowcountry Boil, adding shrimp, sausage, corn and red potatoes to the pot. If you have the patience, pick the blue crabs clean and use the meat to make crab cakes or a topping for a steak or fish dish. Invite the neighbors to an old-fashioned crab pickin’, or follow Pasculli’s old recipe by baking the stripped-down crabs in butter and bread crumbs.
“If I can catch at least six keepers I have enough for a nice appetizer,” Pasculli said. “If I catch more I’ll have friends come over for dinner. It can take an hour or so to eat, and they make for great conversation while you eat.”
Fun, free, fresh and flavorful? Why more people don’t go crabbing is Greek to me.