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Mud crab tips for the holidays
  |  First Published: January 2016



Chasing mud crabs over the summer holidays is a popular pastime and a long held tradition for many QLD families. What’s great about crabbing is that if you put some pots out while having a fish you may be able to take home a great feed of succulent crabs for the family, even if the fishing is poor. When the winds are too strong for a fish, or the kids are getting bored over the school holidays, crabbing becomes an even better option.

If you do have kids, or even relatives or friends with kids and haven’t taken them crabbing before, it’s a must! The anticipation of pulling a crab pot up is always fun, but it is made all the more enjoyable with kids. I always grin ear to ear when I hear the squeals of delight from the kids as they struggle with the weight of the pot and, as it’s heaved into the boat.

Yet, despite the popularity of crabbbing, not all mud crabbers are as successful as they could be. This article provides some quick and easy tips to help lift your success rate in catching a feed of beautiful muddies this summer and beyond.

TYPE OF POTS

Rectangular pots are a cheap and lightweight option that collapse, making them easy to transport or carry. You might consider them if space is tight in your boat or you need to carry them out on the mudflats by foot. These pots do suffer a few negative design flaws.

I have found the nylon mesh in these pots is thin and will need to be repaired after a few crab trips as crabs attempt to escape. The metal latches that close the pots are also weak and do not last, often needing to be replaced with wire.

They only have two entry points and, off-the-shelf, these entry points are usually very loose and will allow crabs to easily escape. You can go some way to overcoming this problem by using snap lock ties to pull the mesh tight and tighten the entry points. This makes the entry springier and allows easier access, while at the same time making it more difficult for the crabs to escape.

Finally, these pots don’t come with a decent in-built bait pouch. In fact the tiny bait pouch they come with would barely be big enough to attract a soldier crab, let alone a muddy! I also see a few people tie their bait directly to the bottom of the pot with fishing line or off-the-shelf steel bait clips. This gives crabs and fish easy access to quickly tear it to shreds, leaving you with little or no bait if left overnight.

Plastic mesh bait holders are a better option, which you can buy from tackle shops. These will keep your bait intact longer although once again they are not big enough for big baits like chicken carcasses. I used to make my own with gutter-guard and snap lock ties until I got sick of repairing the damage from crabs after only a couple of trips.

The best option for the rectangular pot is to purchase heavy duty drawstring bait bags that are secured to either end of the pot with nylon line and metal hooks. They will keep the bait intact longer and make baiting up (and disposing of it) a breeze.

Round, four-entry heavy-duty crab pots are a much better option unless space or weight is an issue. The heavy-duty versions of these pots cost a little more but will last much longer than the lightweight versions. The mesh is stronger as are the thicker galvanised rings. Heavy-duty pots are also heavier and less likely to move in the current. This might not be an issue in small drains, but it is in bigger bays and rivers. Your pot is more likely to be where you left it rather than drifting with the current 500m or so down the system.

The round pots also have four entry points, making it easier for a crab to enter, while the entry points come tight and springy off the shelf. They also come with in-built bait holders, which make crabbing much easier.

You can also purchase specially designed triangular pots that are still heavy-duty yet smaller and a good option from the shore. The other great advantage of these pots is that the triangular design allows easy access to narrow drains or into tight mangrove spots which standard pots might not be able to get into. I have used these and they are a great option from the shore – Coucom’s Crabpots and Fishing Gear at Yeppoon have these for sale online.

Hayes crab pots also make a range of pots, from the drop pot to the all nighter. The drop pot has a large opening at the top and is probably best suited to sand crabs for drops of 30-60 minutes. The Hayes all nighter (with a smaller single top opening) would be a better option for overnight muddy sessions.

BEST BAITS

Fresh bait is best for crabbing, and you should always replace your bait each day if you leave your pots in the water.

This has been well known for a while now by the majority of crabbers, although I don’t think this was always the case. In fact about 15 years ago, my brother-in-law and I wanted to test the myth that rotten smelly baits are best. We put smelly fish carcasses in a couple of pots, while we used fresh bait in another pot nearby in equally good locations.

Even after the first night, the smelly baits remained untouched while the freshly baited pots had crabs in each day. On top of that, the stench of the rotten baits was overpowering! We eventually decided to ditch them after about 3-4 days as our laughter from the stench turned to dry retching after we pulled them up. I’ve only used fresh baits since.

Top crabbing baits include chicken carcasses, chicken pieces, pilchards, mullet or other oily fish. Try a local butcher for cheap chicken carcasses (usually 50c-$1 each), or fresh seafood shops for cheap oily fish carcasses.

The further north you go in QLD, the more common kangaroo meat and bones are for sale for use in crab pots and some crabbers up north swear by this bait. My mates and I have certainly done very well on kangaroo at Stanage Bay in the past, catching some monster crabs that are on offer there.

BEST TIMES

Pots left overnight will usually yield the best results. However, if theft is a problem, then place your pots out during the day on a rising tide and fish nearby. Rain will also bring on the crabs, although, if you get a lot of rain, move the pots to deeper water in the creek channels as the more dense saline water (which the crabs prefer) will sit below the muddier fresh water on top.

Another myth is that you can only catch crabs in months with an ‘r’ in them. In bigger bays like Moreton Bay, the edges of channels close to mangrove-lined islands are productive locations even through autumn and into winter. You get some monster crabs, full of meat in these spots during the cooler months as the crabs move to deeper water during these times.

LOCATIONS

Entrances to creek drains that are lined with mangroves, and drains just wide enough to fit a small boat into are perfect locations for a mud crab. Try to get your pots up as far up the drain as you can.

A tip in such locations is to look for signs of broken branches at the entrance to the small creek or drain. If the leaves on the broken branches are fresh, it suggests someone has crabbed there recently so it is wise to try elsewhere. If the broken branches are dead however, this should mean there had been sufficient time for new bucks or bucks to take up prime position in these locations as nature dictates.

Even small drains too small to get a boat up are top spots for muddies, just leave your pot in water that is deep enough to cover it at low tide outside the drain entrance.

Steep muddy banks, particularly those under overhanging trees or mangroves are also top spots. If you look closely on some steep muddy banks you may even see some of the mud crab holes at low tide. Submerged trees around muddy banks are also great locations.

Yet another terrain worth exploring are sharp bends in creeks where the bottom is always deeper on outer edge of where the creek funnels around.

It is largely unknown that mud crabs populate NSW estuaries as far down as the NSW south coast. As a result, such spots get light crabbing pressure. The crabs are located in such spots as a result of larvae carried with the currents after buried females spawn offshore in warmer northern waters from 27-30°C.

TECHNIQUES

A common mistake crabbers make, particularly around trees, is to accidentally place their pot on a branch/obstacle or having it land and sit sideways on the bottom. This makes for a free meal to crabs from outside the pot. To avoid this, make sure your pot is flat on the bottom by feeling the rope as you let it down. Once on the bottom it should feel like it is sitting flat and not unbalanced when you pull firmly on the rope without lifting the pot.

Another mistake crabbers can make is to leave their rope or line floating in the creek leaving it susceptible to propeller strikes. I always add a couple of clip-on sinkers (which you can buy from tackle shops) to the rope just below the float to ensure the rope sinks and is less likely to be hit by propellers.

CRABBING WITHOUT A BOAT

Apart from the types of locations mentioned above (if you can get to them by foot), there are a few other good locations crabbers without a boat can try. Probably the most underrated crabbing location for those without a boat are rocky foreshores in bays or estuaries. This includes Moreton Bay in Brisbane.

Such shorelines, which are a mixture of mud/sand and plates of rock, have a number of places under the rocks for crabs to hide during the day and venture out at night on the high tide. I’ve spotted the crabs at night just sitting at the edge of their holes, and I’ve also caught them in the shallows at night as I’ve chased prawns with dip nets. So give your local rocky creek or bay foreshores a go, you might be surprised.

The other worthy land-based location is expansive mud flats, particularly those close to the mangroves. Few boat crabbers will crab here as it’s too shallow to venture into. You can stick them in the mangroves themselves, or out on the flats. But be prepared to get a bit muddy.

CRABBING REGULATIONS

The first consideration in keeping a crab in QLD is to determine if it is legal. You cannot keep any female crabs in QLD. The abdominal flap can easily distinguish female crabs, as the female flap is much broader than that of males. Another difference is the claws, which are much larger in males.

Secondly, in QLD, a legal male or ‘buck’ must be a minimum of 15cm across the widest point of its carapace.

There is a limit of four pots per person and crab pots and dillies must be marked by an identifying tag bearing the surname and address of the owner.

When not attached to a fixed object (for example tied to a tree above the high water mark), all crab apparatus must have a light coloured surface float attached. The float must not be less than 15cm in any dimension and must be marked clearly with the owner’s name.

When tied to a fixed object, a tag must also be attached to part of the rope that is above the high water mark. The tag must be marked clearly with the owner’s name.

Lastly, there is now no age limit on recreational use of crab pots. This has sensibly been removed.

SIGNS OF A FULL CRAB

Once you have measured your crab and determined if it is legal, you then need to check if it is ‘full’ of meat or ‘empty.’ You waste time and the life of the crab by taking home empty crabs, as there is very little meat in them. They may feel heavy, but they are largely full of a lot of jelly-like goo. You can tell if a crab is empty because it will look shiny and green.

Signs of a crab that is likely to be full of meat include its colour. Full crabs are generally a duller green or even brown crabs with wear marks on the shells and ground down teeth on the claws. They might also have barnacle growth and a Maltese cross on the underside.

Another way to make sure your crab is full is to apply pressure with your thumb and finger either side of the carapace or turn it over and press firmly on the abdomen plates adjacent to the third leg. If the shell flexes at all, the crab is not full.

TAKING YOUR CRAB HOME

Many people just put their crabs in a bucket or esky and take them home. However, it is much better if you can tie them up so they can’t fight each other and pull off each other’s claws. There are plenty of YouTube videos on this including an easy to follow one on my Facebook page – Ontour Fishing Australia. This means a much better presented crab when you cook it whole and also less water can get in the claws or carapace during cooking which can affect the taste.

You can keep tied crabs alive for up to a week at home by putting them in a box or esky (with lid ajar) and placing a slightly damp hessian bag on top. You should also keep the box/esky of crabs in your garage or shed so there is less temperature variation and wind on the crabs. Wind and quick temperature changes will kill them. If you care for your full crabs this way, they can last up to a week or more.

Finally, the best way to cook your crab will depend on the recipe you want to use. My favourite is red Thai chilli mud crab, where you humanely kill the crab first (in the freezer) and then clean it and break it into pieces to add it to the ingredients in a wok. If you want fresh crab sandwiches a good option is to buy a large stock pot and boil it in the salt water you caught it in (i.e. bring some salt water home). Otherwise you should add a lot of salt to tap water in the pot. I also know someone who cooks his crabs in the pot on the BBQ. That way he does not stink the house out. Be very careful of course if young kids are near the BBQ.

I hope these tips allow you to catch a few extra crabs this summer and beyond!

For more tips, reports and giveaways, check out my Facebook page, Ontour Fishing Australia.

Until next time, bag your mates - not your limit!

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