Other ways of Catching Crabs

I agree with Fushi that catching crabs on a pier is probably the easiest, most relaxing way to go, provided that you are not looking to catch more than a couple of dozen at any given time. It is also a great way to crab if you are acompanying some kids as well. I was once living in a small house near the Maggothy River in Severna Park, Maryland, and would while away many an evening with a half-dozen or so pieces of chicken neck, chicken back, or salted eel tied on strings which were tied to the pier near my house, while I lay in wait with my dip-net. Not that pork balls are bad bait, I just never tried them. Crabs will eat just about anything, including a drowned man. Around that time in about 1985 or so, I read in the local newspaper that many local waterman were using bull lips for bait. They said they held up well on a trotline, and that crabs go crazy for them. It also sounds nasty, but I also had good luck crabbing in dirty old Baltimore Harbor on the pier by the boat launch near the Hanover Street Bridge.

Crab Traps

Crab traps are often seen for sale at just about any Wal-Mart or place that sells fishing tackle in the Chesapeake Bay region. They consist of a wire mesh platform which bait is tied to, such as Chicken Necks, eel, or small fish such as Menhaden, or Spot. Though designs vary somewhat, the platform usually has 4 sides that lay flat on the bottom attached by a hinge to the bait platform, and to a rope that goes to a float on the surface or is tied to a boat or pier. When the rope is pulled, the sides swing up, trapping any crabs or fish feasting on the bait. Traps tend to work okay in backwaters and off of piers, but strong tidal currents tend to make them tip over. They are primarily used by recreational crabbers, who are often derisively called chicken neckers by professional watermen, referring to the bait recreational crabbers most often use.

Crabbing Techniques used by Watermen on the Chesapeake Bay

Crab Potting

By far, the vast majority of crabs which are taken from the Chesapeake Bay by watermen are taken with a crab pot. A crab pot is a wire mesh cage about 70 cm square which has funnels in the upper section for the crabs to enter the upper section of the pot. Once inside the upper section of the pot, the crabs find their way to the lower section through a V-shaped funnel to the lower section, attracted by the bait chamber, which usually contains one or more Menhaden aka Bunkers, but sometimes Bluefish, or Spot, depending on preference and availability. Once the crabs find their way into the lower chamber, it is almost impossible for them to find their way out again, but recently new crabpots are required to have culling rings which allow undersized crabs to escape. A rope line and float are attached to the pot to allow the pot to be found, pulled up, emptied of crabs and other marine organisms, and restocked with bait. Because of their effectiveness IIRC, recreational crabbers are limited to 2 crabpots on their own private pier. In many parts of the bay, crabpots are so numerous that it becomes difficult for a boat to navigate between all of the floats, and often an unwary boater will have to deal with a snagged propeller when he runs over a crabpot line. Sometimes he will also have to deal with an angry waterman as well.


A trot line is often used on some of the shallower rivers and bays that branch off the main part of Chesapeake Bay. They can often be seen in places such as the Wye River, Eastern Bay and in the waters near Tilghman Island. These are some of the richest waters of the bay, and crabs can grow large here if they are not caught before their time. A trot line consists of a long rope about as thick as a clothesline, which has baits tied to it every few feet. At each end of the trot line is an anchor of some sort to keep the line on the bottom, as well as a float to find and pick up the line. Once the line is laid, the crabber works the line by putting the line on a roller attached to the side of the boat and travelling slowly up and down the line. This slowly raises the line off the bottom and out of the water. If a crab is chewing on one of the baits, it will generally hang on until the line breaks the surface before letting go. This gives time for someone with a dip-net to position the net underneath the crab just before it lets go. Usually the crab will drop right into the net! It is not a bad way to crab if you have a boat and two people, one to drive the boat, and one to man the net. I once caught over a bushel of crabs in less than an hour near Fort Armistead with a small 100 meter long trot line, but professional crabbers often run lines greater than 1 Km in length.

Trotliners used to use salted eel for baits, but the market for eel in Japan in recent years has forced the price of eel too high for general use as trotline bait anymore. Often crabbers have turned to such things as bull lips, chicken necks, and other by-products of the meatpacking industry.

Dredging, or Scraping

Dredging for crabs is done by dragging a dredge net over the bottom. The dredge digs into the first few inches of mud on the bottom of the bay, and deposits anything it digs up into the net. It is usually done in the dead of winter to catch the female sponge crab, while it is hibernating. In the winter, mature female crabs known as sooks that have mated form a spongy mass of up to several million eggs on their shells, and bury themselves in the mud of the lower bay, from Windmill Point to Cape Charles. In the spring the eggs hatch and the female crab, its life's purpose complete, swims out to sea to meet her fate. Dredging for crabs is a controversial method of crabbing, particularly for Marylanders, who often blame poor harvests of crabs on excessive numbers of female crabs taken during dredging, which is usually done only by Virginia watermen. Dredging also disturbs the underwater grasses that provide cover for young fish, crabs, and other marine life.

Scraping is a lighter form of dredging, and is usually done on the waters of the lower eastern shore, from Tilghman Island down to Tangier Sound. A light dredge can be pushed along the bottom while someone with a dip-net tries to catch any crabs stirred up by the dredge, but the net also catches soft shell crabs which have just molted, and peelers, and doublers which are in the process of molting. Watermen pull a longer dredge behind their boats, the long sock-like net catches any crabs, grass, and other things that find their way into the net. Again, the primary target is soft shell crabs and peelers, which are on their way to becoming soft shell crabs.

To keep the new shells from hardening, the crabber puts the soft shells crabs in fresh water until he gets them to market or the frying pan at home. Peelers are put in large open tanks and are watched until they molt, and are immediately placed in fresh water until they are ready to be packed in ice to be taken to market. Soft shell crabs command a premium price on the market, and make a great sandwich, so it is worth the extra effort to catch them during mating season, when female crabs molt and mate while still softshells.

I still crab occasionally with handlines, particularly when I visit my parents, who live on the Corrotoman River in Virginia. It is especially fun watching my nieces and nephews work the handlines and pull up the pots to see what is inside.