Stone crab season is upon us. Crabbing starts Saturday and runs until May 15, and commercial fishermen are already scouting out the best spots, hoping to haul in loads of claws. Notice I write about harvesting claws, not crabs. That's because the Florida west coast delicacy is renewable. While other crabs lose their lives to fill our bellies, the stone crab gives up its claw and is tossed back into the water. It can take adult crabs a year to regenerate a lost claw, and even less time for juveniles, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Making the scenario even better is the sweet, delicate meat that makes waiting all summer for stone crab season worth it. You could opt to eat out at a number of local restaurants itching to put those pinchers on plates. And there's nothing wrong with that. But trying crabbing out yourself isn't a bad idea, either. Here is some insight from regulators and local stone crab aficionados.
Claws must be 2.75 inches to harvest. While it is legal to take both claws if they meet size requirements, having no claws makes it harder for crabs to get food. And that means it takes longer for them to regenerate claws.
Recreational fishermen are allowed five traps, which can only be pulled in the daylight and can't be sunk in navigational channels. The traps must have at least a 6-foot rope attached, along with a buoy with a 2-inch "R" on it. The trap's height, width or length can't measure more than 2 feet, and must have the angler's name and address printed on it.
A saltwater fishing license is required. Recreational fishermen can take in 1 gallon of claws or 2 gallons per boat, whichever is less.
Break the claws off correctly, or the crab will die. A video from the wildlife commission explains: Have both claws firmly in hand, and with one hand, "make a motion straight down, which is a good break."
Diving along Tampa Bay area sea walls, jetties or dock pilings could yield dinner without the overnight wait of setting traps.
"It can be physically challenging," said Neal Pinney, a dive instructor at Bill Jackson's Shop For Adventure in Pinellas Park. "It takes a little bit of an adventurous soul."
Pinney said the practice is legal as long as crabbers have a mask, snorkel, dive fin, bag, dive flag and measuring tool. Using a net to scoop up a stone crab is frowned upon, he said.
"You're not allowed to use a tool to rake them out," Pinney said. "It has to be by trap or by hand."
Find a spot with good water flow that keeps oxygen levels up and keeps scraps floating by, he said. Big rocks provide shelter and protection from predators.
In clear water, crabs tend to be stationary, avoiding predators.
The reverse can be said for those trying to lure crabs to their traps, says Thomas Shook, general manager at Frenchy's Seafood Co. When water is mixed up after a storm, crabs are more likely to venture out, less afraid that a hungry octopus or fish might spot them.
"When the water gets stirred up that's generally good for us," Shook said. "Our fishing gets real slow during nice weather. And then when a cold front comes through and stirs it up, you get a push of crabs."
As far as bait, Shook uses pig feet before transitioning to mullet as the weather gets cooler. He said the pig feet last multiple days, where mullet get picked apart by bait fish sooner.
"The bait fish get out of here as the water cools down," he said. "If you were to put the mullet in right now, you'd probably not have bait in your trap in a day."
Pig feet and grouper head are hard to get if you're a recreational fisherman, and that's where chicken comes in, said Steve Fennell, general manager at Billy's Stone Crab in Tierra Verde.
"A recreational crabber would probably use like chicken thighs or chicken legs, just whatever stuff you can buy in the stores," he said. Fennell added that the stinkier the bait, the better, so it's no problem if you leave the chicken out for days at a time.
There's no secret recipe for success in trap placement, either, the two GMs said.
"There's nothing that says they're not going to be in 5 feet of water or 20 feet of water," Fennell said. "Right now, the pros are out there and they're placing their traps. … They're just looking for the crabs. They could be in tight to the beach or 10 miles out, and there's no rhyme or reason why."