Twenty years ago, a local scuba instructor named Jon Willis persuaded me to go stone crabbing beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
I must confess that I was a little apprehensive. The water is deep and murky. The current is swift. The area is also known for large sharks.
When I asked if I would need any specialized equipment, Willis told me to buy an 18-inch crowbar. At first I thought it was to ward off hammerheads. Then he explained that it was to pull myself along the bottom against the tide.
My colleague, photographer Mike Pease, was the first one in. As soon as he hit the water, the current ripped off one of his swim fins.
When it was my turn, I grabbed the rocks at the bottom of the bridge support and sliced the front of my wet suit. The visibility was a paltry 4 to 6 feet.
Willis dropped down first, and I followed. His fin kicked me in the face and knocked off my mask. A panic-filled minute later, I found him at the base of the bridge.
He pointed over my shoulder as a large tarpon swam by. Then he put his hand on top of his head, mimicking a shark fin. Seconds later, a large hammerhead went by in pursuit of the tarpon.
Eventually, I got down to the business of hunting stone crabs. The first one I found under a large rock pinched my finger. I let out a scream underwater that startled my dive companions. A few weeks later, my fingernail fell off.
After about 45 minutes underwater, we surfaced. Willis and fellow scuba instructor Chad Carney had a couple of dozen crab claws between them.
I had one and a heck of a sore thumb.
Over the years, I eventually figured out how to catch stone crabs. The crow bar, as it turns out, has other uses. It is great for flipping over rocks and helps to save your hands from getting cut up by barnacles.
To remove a claw without killing the crab, simply pick up the crustacean with both hands, then gently bend one claw outward. With steady pressure, the crab should "drop" the claw. You'll know you have done it right if the break is clean. If meat is hanging out, the crab will die. Release your crab back into the water so it can regenerate that claw.
But take care when dealing with the business end of the crab, the claws. If a crab nips you, it can easily turn a fingernail black overnight. That large claw, the one most prized for the dinner table, is designed for crushing mollusks. So imagine what it can do to a human finger.
An alternative method
There are other ways to catch stone crabs. One of the most popular is to grab a bucket and wade along a rocky shoreline. Crabs hide in holes under rocks and other debris. They especially like to hide in rocky outcroppings near sea grass beds.
Wait for low tide, then wade until you find a burrow; the entrance is often marked by discarded shells.
Use the flat end of the crowbar to coax the crab out of its hole for capture. It's also a good idea to bring a dip net and a bucket or bag to carry the claws.
A sustainable fishery
Stone crabs can be found from North Carolina to Mexico, but Florida has always been the commercial capital for these shellfish.
The stone crab has the honor of being the only sustainable marine resource in the United States. It will easily release one claw when threatened, and thus it can be returned to the water unharmed.
According to state biologists, about 20 percent of the claws measured in fish houses have been regenerated, evidence that crabs do survive after being declawed.