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Biting Back: Harvesting softshell crabs

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The smallest size are called Mediums. The next size up are Hotels. Primes are a bit bigger. The next size up are jumbos. The biggest are whales.

At first glance for the uninitiated, eating a soft crab can be an intimidating endeavor. A normal blue crab has a hard shell and two formidable pinching claws that can inflict quite a bit of damage to the unwary.

A soft crab is a blue crab that has molted its hard shell as part of the growth process, rendering it completely defenseless. It also makes it quite an unexpected tasty treat when deep fried, grilled or sauteed.

Ronnie and Linda Jett, who own Cockrell’s Creek Seafood Deli in Reedville, are very familiar with soft crabs. They sell up to 1,200 dozen of the delectable delicacies during the course of a season, which runs from the end of April or early May until the middle of September every year, with two bigger runs in May and August.

“I love them,” said Linda. “ I could eat them every day.”

Soft crabs come from peeler crabs that have been caught and put in shallow water-filled trays to molt. Watermen who specialize in soft crabs have shedding houses with many of the trays inside. Creek water is circulated through all the trays while the watermen wait for the peeler crabs to shed their shells and become the soft version.

Crabs that have molted must be retrieved as soon as possible or the other crabs in the trays will eat them. Remember, they are defenseless and cannot move once they molt until their new shell hardens in a day or two. 

Peeler crabs are caught in either peeler pots or peeler traps. A pot is like a regular crab pot, but has a tighter mesh to the wire. They are deployed by crabbers in shallow water along the shoreline of a creek, a river or the Bay, much the same as a regular pot, but in areas where the molting crabs are known to frequent.

A trap is like a miniature fish pound trap and is set at a right angle and close to the shoreline of creeks or rivers. A leader net guides crabs traveling along the water’s edge into the pound trap, which is a rectangular wooden box with tight wire mesh that is placed closer to the shore. It can be lifted out of its frame to unload the catch onto a waterman’s boat.

As the water warms in the spring, peelers are caught near the heads of the rivers or creeks first and gradually move toward the mouths and out into the Bay, according to Chip Williams, a peeler crabber from Reedville. He said the pots must be moved every day to keep up with the movement of the peelers. Years of experience have made him and other peeler crabbers familiar with this migration pattern. 

A jimmy crab (a large male crab) is put in the pot or trap to attract female peelers, a procedure called “studding” a pot, according to Williams. Male peelers do not need any bait, but apparently move into the pots or traps of their own volition, perhaps because they think it will be a safe place to molt, Williams said.

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Once the peelers become soft crabs they are refrigerated to keep them from hardening and are sold to various markets in the States and overseas. The Jetts sell them by the dozen or singly in their deli as soft crab sandwiches or meals.

Bigger size soft crabs bring higher prices. Prices also fluctuate with the time of year, the supply and demand and the distributor, as with any commodity.

The smallest size the Jetts sell are called hotels and sell for about $12 a dozen. Primes are a bit bigger and can bring about $20 a dozen. The next size up are jumbos and sell for about $28 a dozen. The biggest are whales and sell for anywhere from $32 to $36 a dozen. All these are spring prices that were provided by the Jetts.

As with all crabs or fish, soft crabs should be cleaned before cooking and eating. The face is cut off first. Then the apron underneath the crab is peeled back and cut off. Lastly the flaps on either side of the shell are lifted to cut out the lungs and intestines.

The crab is now ready to be cooked. A variety of recipes can be used with seasonings according to the cook’s discretion. But whatever the recipe, it is the whole crab that is consumed, intimidating claws and all.

For those who have ever been pinched by a hard crab’s claws, there’s a definite sense of satisfaction in biting back!

posted 05.29.2010

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