EASTER in this neck of the woods means only one thing to a lot of seafood lovers – crabs.
Both blue swimmer and mud crabs are in great numbers and are easily caught in the backwaters of our estuaries and major river systems right along the coast.
Basic witches’ hats or dilly pots have a limit of five per person and for fully enclosed traps you are able to have only one per person. All can be bought from tackle shops or they are easy enough to make yourself. Just write your name, address and phone number on the floats and you’re away. But before you start laying out your gear, you should make a check of local fishing regulations. For instance, you aren’t allowed to use enclosed traps anywhere in Lake Macquarie or in the Richmond River downstream of Burns Point ferry. A quick check with your local fisheries office can save a lot of grief later.
The best spots to put out traps are around seagrass beds or mudflats in the upper estuary sections, or a few kilometres from the mouth of the river. This is usually the start of mangrove habitat and mud crab territory. Muddies love the dirty water around the mangroves where a mud bottom predominates.
Blue swimmers are taken almost anywhere there is clean, clear, salty water.
I prefer to use mullet or flathead frames for bait but any fish frames will entice crabs. Witches’ hats and dilly hoops need to be checked a little more frequently than a fully enclosed trap.
With another one or two people in the boat, you can run 10 or 15 witches’ hats which will make for better catches. But be sensible about the number of crabs you take and let the female crabs go if they are full of eggs under their tail flap. A male crab has a tapered, triangular tail flap, while a female’s is more squared off to hold the egg cluster.
A male blue swimmer is usually larger than a female and has a striking blue or purplish tinge to parts of the shell and claws. A female is usually more brownish and may have less developed claws.
Crabs, especially large mud crabs, can inflict severe wounds and are capable of taking off a small finger, especially a kid’s finger, so handle them with extreme care. I have wrestled a number of big mud crabs with a piece of doweling and the wood was so mangled and crushed half-way through. It showed me the strength these crabs have – don’t play with them.
All crabs’ movements are affected by rain. The more rain and discoloration in the water, the wider the mud crab will wander. It will leave the back creeks and be found in the dirty water even at the mouths of rivers or the heads of an estuary. As the water clears it will return to a creek or far-away mangrove-fringed area of the waterway.
Blue swimmers wander all over the waterways and can be found on clear sand around moorings, under the boats, around seagrass beds and deeper trenches and channels. Having said that, remember that traps placed in tidal channels may need some weight to hold them down in fast-flowing water. A few ounces of sheet lead or thick lead wire wrapped around the rings of witches’ hats and dilly pots is usually all that is needed. And always make sure that your traps and their floats don’t obstruct boat traffic.
Around Easter every year is by far the best time to chase crabs. Both muddies and blue swimmers are usually full of meat as they haven’t spawned yet. When crabs have spawned they will be almost empty of the white meat and their bodies are soft. They are very light in weight compared with a full crab which hasn’t spawned. A couple of taps on the carapace (main body shell) or the claw can help – if you get a hollow sort of sound, there’s a good chance the crab will be ‘empty’ so you may as well return them to the water. A heavy crab is by far a better crab.
Cooking crabs is no science: A large pot of boiling water with a small amount of cooking salt for taste is all that is needed. Simply drop the crabs in and when the water returns to the boil, cook for eight minutes. They turn bright red and they’re done. To make the meat easy to separate from the shell, drop them straight into an ice slurry to cool quickly.
Cooked crabmeat can be taken out of the shell and frozen but eaten fresh is best. You can also smoke crab meat for added flavour.
SIZE AND BAG LIMITS
Muddies and blue swimmers are measured along the body, from the notch between the two most protruding frontal teeth to the centre of the posterior margin of the carapace or shell. A blue swimmer must be at least 6cm from front to back, while a muddy must be 8.5cm. You can keep 20 blue swimmers per person and five mud crabs, which is a mighty big feed and plenty of cooking and shelling. And remember, all female crabs carrying those little eggs under their tails must be returned to the water immediately.
Mud crabs have powerful claws which can inflict nasty wounds if not handled properly. Chasing a muddie around a boat can be dangerous as well as frustrating.
Good crabbing country: Mangroves, mud, grass beds and structure. Both mud crabs and blue swimmers have been caught here.
A large male blue swimmer crab has much sweeter-tasting meat than a mud crab, the author says.
During heavy rain mud crabs are flushed out of creeks and drains and can be found in dirty water nearly anywhere in the lower estuary. They retreat back to the upper reaches when the water starts to clear.
A male (‘buck’) and a female (‘jenny’) blue swimmer are easy to tell apart: The female’s tail flap is wider and takes on a hairy appearance. When there are masses of tiny ‘berries’ or egg sacs under the jenny’s flap, she must be returned to the water by law.
Blue swimmer crabs are taken over very clean sandy bottoms at times and are very clean and shiny.