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Stone crab claws worth the trouble

If you want to catch stone crabs, wade along a nice stretch of rocky shoreline at low tide. Bring along a flat bar to help coax the crab out of its hiding place, a dip-net to scoop it out of the shallow water and a bucket or bag to carry the claws. That's the easy way.

Or you could buy a $50 commercial fishing license, get a stone crab permit from the state and build yourself some wooden crab traps.

That's the serious way.

Then again, you could get some air tanks, an underwater flashlight, a crowbar and a good pair of gloves, and head out to the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Then, keeping an eye open for large hammerhead sharks, freighters and pleasure boaters, dive down about 40 feet.

And if you don't get sucked out to sea by the fast-moving current, lose your way in murky water or get tangled up in the miles of discarded fishing line, chances are you'll find dozens of the tasty crabs hiding in the rubble around the pilings.

Some people may consider that the crazy way. But it works.

There aren't many people willing to go through that much trouble for a few dozen stone crab claws. As a result, when other areas have been picked clean by stone crab hunters, you'll still find plenty of these crafty crustaceans around the Skyway.

"It's not for everybody," said Chad Carney, a scuba instructor at the Tackle Shack in Pinellas Park. "The water is dirty and fast and you have to watch out for boats definitely not for the novice and sometimes not even for the experienced."

The stone crab season opened this past Monday. On Wednesday, Carney and fellow instructor Jon Willis gathered about 50 stone crab claws during two dives around the bridge and its approaches. But even that early in the season, it was obvious by the number of one-armed crabs that other divers had been there before.

Carney and Willis first dived along the southern approaches to the bridge and that proved most productive. The current there isn't as great as under the main span, but you still need an 18-inch crowbar to help pull yourself along the bottom. The straight end also can be used to help coax the crab out of its hole.

A powerful waterproof light will help locate the crabs. You can get by without one in shallow water, but with 4-foot visibility under the main span, a light is essential.

A good pair of sturdy gloves will protect your hands from the barnacles on the pilings. Gloves made of Kevlar, the same stuff they use to make bullet-proof vests, work best.

However, the gloves won't do much to protect your fingers from the pinch of a stone crab's claw. A fully-developed stone is strong enough to crush shellfish such as oysters and clams. So they'll leave a human finger badly bruised, if not broken.

Biologists estimate an adult stone crab's claw can exert approximately 1,400 pounds of pressure per square inch. Just imagine the world's heaviest man, the late Jon Brower Minnoch, standing on one leg in high heels on top of your finger.

"The only way to relieve the pinch is to break off the claw," said Dr. Theresa Bert, one of the state's leading stone crab biologists. "Typically, once they've got a hold of your finger, they won't let go."

Don't worry about breaking off the stone crab's claw, because if you do it correctly, it will grow back. The claw must measure 2} inches from elbow to tip of the lower finger. The state allows you to take two claws of legal size, but many environmentally conscious divers take only one so the crab can still fend for itself.

"A large crab can regrow a legal-sized claw within one or two years," Bert said. "This is the only fishery in the country where the animal that is harvested survives."

If you don't remove the claw properly, the crab will die. State law requires that the crab be returned to the water alive.

Here's how you do it: Grasp a claw in each hand. Hold the body firmly, then twist the claw down and away from the body. With steady pressure, the crab should "drop" the claw. You'll know you've done it right if the break is clean. If there is meat hanging out, the crab will die.

It is also unlawful to take claws from females bearing eggs, which should be visible on the underside of the crab. The use of hooks, spears or other devices that will crush or injure the crab's body is also prohibited. The season closes May 15.

A complete outdoors report appears in Friday's newspaper.