If you have ever seen a blue crab move through the water, then you know why this genus was dubbed Callinectes, or "beautiful swimmer." For those who have only encountered this crab steamed or boiled and served on a plate, then you undoubtedly understand why scientists later added the species name sapidus, which means "savory," to taxonomic description. But the best thing about these crustaceans is their ability to rebound after subtle changes in the environment. "Some of the local crabbers have noticed over the past five years a reduction in the number of crabs because of the drought conditions and reduced water flow into Tampa Bay," said Dr. Ryan Gandy, who studies blue crabs for the St. Petersburg-based Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "But because of the wet winter, we have already seen a dramatic rebound in the number of blue crabs."
Blue crabs do best when there is plenty of freshwater mixing with the saltwater that flows in with the tide. When the freshwater flow is reduced and the salinity becomes too high, the crabs don't reproduce in great numbers, Gandy said.
"When the water gets too salty, the crabs get stressed," he said. "It is a real delicate balance."
Crabbing is good year-round in Florida, but things really pick up during the summer.
You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. All it takes to catch crabs is a piece of string and a smelly fish head.
Crabs, like humans, are opportunistic omnivores. That means they will eat just about anything that doesn't eat them first. The typical blue crab's diet includes mollusks, worms, fish and other crabs.
That is why you find crabs around sea grass beds, which offer protection from predators as well as plenty of things to eat.
But you'll also find these crabs prowling seemingly lifeless canals and swimming sideways across desolate mud flats. In fact, female blue crabs have been documented as traveling 500 miles in 100 days.
Blue crabs can be found all along the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They spawn year-round in Florida, but in the Tampa Bay area, peak time is March through May.
"The best crabbing is usually on the south side of the bay," Gandy said. "And right now is as good a time as any to go."
Any dead, oily fish will attract crabs. Shad and mullet are the baits of choice for commercial crabbers. Some folks use cat food. But chicken backs and necks seem to be most popular. In fact, crabbers were once called "chicken neckers."
A good place to try to catch crabs is off any sea wall or dock. You can use a fold-up trap, but to be successful, you need to play close attention. The weighted, "open" trap lays flat with the bait in the middle. When the crab grabs the bait, the crabber pulls on the lines and shuts the trap.
Wading for crabs is another popular method. All you need is a mesh net with a 4-foot handle. The larger the mesh, the faster it will move through the water.
Wait for low tide, and wade in 2 or 3 feet of water. Look for an area with good stands of sea grass. Scoop up the crabs as they try to run for cover. This method works particularly well at night with a spotlight or lantern.
Another easy method calls for a store-bought throw line. These weighted rigs are inexpensive and easy to use. Simply hook the bait to the weight and toss it out. Then retrieve the bait slowly. As the crab eats, drag the bait back to the waiting net.
This method also works using string and a chicken neck or fish head. Tie the bait to the string and toss it out. Be sure to use weight to keep the bait from floating.
Now it's time to cook them. Be sure to steam or boil the crabs for at least 15 minutes to kill any parasites or pathogens.