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Crabbing by Canoe or Kayak
  |  First Published: December 2005



With the hot weather upon us, hundreds of recreational fishing boat owners are out there trying to catch themselves a feed of crabs.

You can gain an advantage over the masses by using a shallow drafted canoe or kayak. These small craft can paddle across sandbars blocking off small creeks or inlets and will get you right up into narrow channels and mangrove forests to reach prime mudcrab habitats that the majority of powerboat-crabbers will never have the opportunity to access.

My first experience of crabbing by paddle-craft was when I was a young bloke in the early 1970’s but, after a gap of nearly three decades, I was intrigued when I discovered lighter designed paddle-craft than the marine ply surf-ski and long-board I originally used.

These days I prefer to engage in this method of crabbing in an appropriate paddle-craft to suit the type of terrain I will be visiting. If I am crabbing in narrow creeks or channels right up in the mangroves where tight turning, paddling across partially submerged logs, ducking under branches, and reversing is the order of the day then I use a lightweight ‘Sit On Top’ kayak no more than 4m long.

However, if I am crabbing in larger creeks over shallow mudflats, or around the edges of mangrove islands where there is more room to turn, then I prefer to use a double kayak or canoe where the front seating position can be used to carry the pots and some of the gear, leaving me with more working space around my feet. Of course if I bring along my wife or a friend, we end up carrying the pots in our laps but it does allow us to crab with up to eight pots out. Like other serious paddle-fishers I use different craft for different applications and find that owning both a single and a double kayak still costs less than owning a powerboat.

Modern recreational kayaks can be ordered with hatches or moulded wells in the hull that make it much easier to carry tackle, food and water than it used to be when using the old style Surf-Ski. I prefer the ‘plastic’ roto-moulded kayaks for operating in very tight territory, as they are more resilient when slid over logs, bumped into mangrove trees, and scraped across the occasional rocky bottom.

As most formerly ‘remote’ launching spots around Brisbane have now been enveloped by urban sprawl, I tend to crab in the smaller mangrove creeks that are still difficult for tinnies to access on normal tides but that can easily be reached by paddling a few kilometres from a convenient suburban boat ramp or beach. These days I like to enjoy the ‘kayak-crabbing experience’ and only crab after sunrise when I can see what I am doing and have fewer insects to contend with. I like to get home by late morning before the sun gets hot and this usually gives me about four hours of good crabbing time on an average summer day.

In Queensland one person can legally crab with up to four pots so I use the small collapsible models available from fishing tackle shops for around $6 each. When using my single SOT kayak, each tagged pot is collapsed and stacked four high on the front deck before the whole stack is then held in place by two long bungee straps fastened across them. I carry the mandatory branded floats in a separately attached cloth bag held in place on the rear deck using short bungee straps. Extra gear is carried in the hatches or in a woven bag that I keep in front of me.

I prefer to keep out of deep or fast flowing water when crabbing and use no more than 7m of strong cord per pot. I carry it coiled in each collapsed pot and tied to the frame ready for deployment. Each cord is then attached to a float at time of first placement and removed again when it’s time to pack everything away and head for home. I like to put at least two pots right up in the mangrove forests as the tide rises, the cord on them needs to be as short as possible otherwise it can become tangled around submerged branches which could mean that an extra trip may be required on the falling tide to retrieve it.

On a kayak it is best not to have messy bait all over the deck therefore I usually buy two whole frozen mullet that I cut in half and tie into the pots using plastic mesh bait holders sealed and attached with cable ties. If I have frozen fish frames from a previous fishing trip then I will take four suitably sized frames instead of buying bait. This is sufficient bait for a normal four hour crabbing session and will survive the piranha-like picking of the dozens of juvenile bream and toadfish that sometimes inhabit the creeks I frequent.

I try to start far enough up the creek to minimise the chances of small tinnies ‘working’ the same area and then position the four pots about 50-200m apart in likely territory where I have noticed nearby mudcrab holes in the banks at low tide (it is always a good idea to initially check out a new crabbing spot at low tide).

When my SOT kayak is loaded with collapsible pots I have to take a slightly wider forward stroke to avoid hitting them with the paddle but I can still move fairly quickly and ‘working’ four pots that may be spread over 200m to 1km is not a problem. Once the pots are in the water it is just a matter of ‘doing the rounds’ to pull them up to check for crabs. As I check the pots once every hour, a lot of time is occupied with paddling back and forth, which I figure increases my fitness level. I worked out that, by the time I paddle a couple of kilometres to a crabbing area and then check the pots every hour before heading for home four hours later, I end up paddling about 10km in an average morning which necessitates carrying sufficient water and food to keep the energy level up.

Sometimes, when I have the pots placed relatively closely together, I take the opportunity to fish a few different spots with a handline simply fitted with a hook baited with a small piece of flesh or a soft plastic lure to while away any spare time in between checking the pots.

When the pots are pulled most crabs caught are jennies (females) or undersized bucks (males) and must be released. This is quite easy to do as the collapsible pots are designed to open easily by releasing the two clips allowing the crabs to be shaken free beside the hull (I usually use an extra clip for insurance as the standard ones tend to open at the wrong time if you’re not careful).

The hard part occurs whenever I catch a crab that appears to be of ‘legal’ size and I have to open the pot on the deck just in front of me between my feet (in Queensland a mudcrab must be male and 15 cm across the carapace). Then I have to grab it by the flippers, measure it, and place it in one of the two heavy-duty woven bags that I carry for this purpose (I make sure that the paddle blade is kept handy to afford protection if the crab escapes). I usually only bring two bags as I reckon that a brace of mudcrabs for a pleasant morning out on the water in a kayak is fair value. If I am lucky enough to catch more than two bucks then I release the smaller of the two already on board and still keep only two.

Running the risk of having a mudcrab loose on a kayak deck might be regarded as ‘extreme crabbing’ as even small muddies can severely damage a finger or worse that they manage to latch onto. Kayak crabbing is, therefore, not for everyone but, so far, I haven’t lost any valuable pieces of anatomy.

If you are considering giving crabbing a go from your kayak or canoe this summer it is a good idea to wear your PFD as, even in shallow water, you’ll be glad you did if you suddenly find yourself in the drink and trying to right your craft as well as hanging on to all your gear before it floats off down the creek.

In spite of the fact that the ‘kayak-crabbing experience’ can be a bit daunting to some people, I reckon a tasty Queensland mudcrab freshly caught in the morning and served for lunch makes it well worthwhile.

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