Worth Repeating: Soft Crab Season Opens Ever So Quietly

By: Jack Russell

Message from the Cap’n is a compilation of fishing advice, waterman and weather insights, Chesapeake lore, and ordinary malarkey from the folks who keep their feet wet in the Potomac and St. Mary’s rivers.

It’s that time of year again, Message from the Cap’n has to address the great harbinger of the season, the soft crab. In reviewing notes from prior years, an interesting testament to the gallons of rainfall in 2019 popped out: From the 2019 Interpretive Buoy System: Water Temperature in the lower Potomac is 69.7 degrees F and the salinity is 6.8 parts per unit — taken over the Mother’s Day weekend.  In 2017, a weekend later, the lower Potomac water temperature was 62 degrees Fahrenheit and salinity just below 13 parts per unit.

Soft Crabs are in season now in the Chesapeake

As the bay water temperature rises in the spring above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the Chesapeake Bay Blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) shed their shells in their growth process. Our first “run” of soft crabs in the Lower Potomac consists of mostly males because they overwintered here. The male crabs seek fresher water in the summertime than the female and migrate toward our headwaters where the water is fresher. As they migrate back down the rivers and bays, they bury in the mud when the water temperature falls to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and lower.

This is how it happens — on You Tube.

Legends about the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab

Most famous is the Legend of the Indian Princess, seen on the shell of all  crabs. It has been told that the Yeocamico Indians wanted to pay tribute to the “Gods of the Water,” and in doing so their chief painted a picture of an Indian princess on the back shell of a crab and threw it overboard. The gods imprinted all blue crabs henceforth with the beautiful picture. (Let your imagination drift a bit …)

The Indian princess’ arms are at her side. Her dress is high waist-ed, the skirt falls in tiers toward the edge of the shell. Once you see her dress it is easy to see her head near the shell’s hinge.

How to tell when a crab is going to shed its shell

In its growth process the blue crab will shed its shell about 15 to 18 times and lives about three years. Crabs literally “get too big for their britches” and shed as their process of growth.

soft crab shedding

Anyone enjoying crabs around the Chesapeake Bay should be able to tell when a crab is getting ready to shed (molt). Keep in mind that there are many ways to tell when the process will occur. Here is my simple way: Crabs have walking legs and a swimming fin on each side of their body. The sign that a crab is getting ready to shed is located on the swimming fin in the joint just above the last circular flipper. It looks like a fish hook.

The darker the red in the sign, the closer the crab is to molting. A general rule of thumb: the sign starts white when crab is about 10 days from shedding, pink when seven days from shedding and RED when crab is four days from becoming a soft crab.

Cleaning a soft crab

Crabs are only soft for about four hours in the water. Our holding boxes are checked on a regular basis so the crabs don’t turn into “paper-shells.” Once frozen these crabs turn white and are of inferior quality.

Preparing a soft crab for cooking can be daunting. Our parents used to use a sharp paring knife to clean soft crabs in small lots. Today, scissors are mostly the tool of choice when cleaning dozens for the commercial market. First, those who are a bit squeamish may want to brace themselves, cut off the eyes, then scoop the the sandbag out from behind them. That is the most important thing to do when cleaning a soft crab, get rid of the sandbag. Then, remove the “dead man’s fingers,” which are equivalent to lungs and are attached beneath the points of the soft shell which can be easily lifted up to remove them. On the dorsal side of the crab, lift and cut off the apron. The soft crab is now “cleaned” and you are ready for a fried treat from the Chesapeake.

After 2 years the Western Approach to Smith Island finally got dredged so the Day trips on the Twister will continue. For Info Call 410-425-2771

GET THIS TRIP OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST:  Starts May 25, From Point Lookout State Park, leave at 10;30am and return at 4:15pm, $45 per head

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