Most recreational anglers in South Florida are quite familiar with our excellent lobster fishery however, there’s another tasty crustacean to target. I was first introduced to stone crabbing, by hand, about three years ago by some friends who had quickly perfected the technique and since then it has become a favorite, especially on rough days when going offshore is impossible. Recreational anglers have two ways to target stone crabs, by traps like those that commercial fishermen use and by hand.
Traps are the passive approach, harvesting instead of catching if you will, and while very effective, traps can easily be lost, damaged or stolen and require a bit of an investment up front. I personally prefer to make a day out of stone crabbing and opt to catch them by hand in a manner similar to lobstering. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission provides a full summary of the applicable regulations for those of us targeting stone crabs. In short, a claw must be 2 and 3/4 inches to keep and we are allowed one gallon of claws per person or two gallons per vessel, whichever is less. If you plan on using traps you’re limited to a max of 5 per person and the trap must be labeled with your name and address as well.
Stone crabbing by hand can be an exciting and rewarding activity for anglers looking to try something different in South Florida. To start with, I recommend a good pair of gloves to protect your hands as well as a net like you would use to lobster with. Additionally, a pair of dive booties with a hard sole is invaluable when wading across grass flats with the potential for pieces of coral and sea urchins. Now that you’re armored against most of the potential dangers you’ll face while searching for stone crabs, you’re ready to get started.
Stone crabs, as their name implies, can often be found in rocky areas like along jetties or sea walls. While you can have success targeting them there, such areas are often harder to access and have strong currents to deal with which can make catching them difficult. Make things easy for yourself and crew and target stone crabs on the ocean side of shallow grass flats in anywhere from 1 to 5 feet of water. Stone crabs burrow holes into seagrass flats and rest there when not out foraging for food. The bright white pile of sand that is the sand the stone crab dug out to create his lair is a dead giveaway of where they are. Slowly motoring over or near flats and looking for the white splotches created by a stone crab digging out its home are the best way to target them. Unlike lobster, stone crabs are almost always solitary but that’s ok, a single flat can often have a dozen or more holes with stone crabs.
Once you’ve spotted a stone crab hole, slowly enter the water from the boat, from the down current side if possible, and slowly wade toward it. It’s important not to do two things, stir up the water with your footsteps and make a lot of commotion and thus scare the crab deep into his hole. As you approach a stone crab hole you’ll be able to determine which direction the entrance is facing and which way the hole is going, fortunately the water on the shallow flats is almost always clear enough to see this from several feet away. Everything up until this point is done slowly, so as not to spook the stone crab but now that you’re in position, it’s time to move quickly. Quickly reach one arm into the hole trying to pin the stone crab to the bottom and then quickly grab him and toss him into your net in your opposite hand. While it sounds difficult, the stone crab will almost always be within the first foot or so of the hole and if you’re quick they won’t have time to retreat deeper into their cave. Once the stone crab is in your net your can grasp each claw with one of your hands, measure their claw length if necessary and separate the claw you intend to keep from the crab. Here is a quick video showing how to separate the claw from the crab to ensure the crab’s survival and allow it to regrow another claw.
While not as popular as recreational lobstering, stone crabbing by hand is a lot of fun and there’s nothing like a great stone crab feast to cap off a great day on the water. When you’re trying it for the first couple times it can be intimidating to stick your hand into a stone crab’s hole but you’ll quickly figure out they’re rather slow and if you’re fast can get them into your net and under control. While regulations allow for recreational harvesters to take both class and claws as small as 2 and 3/4 inches, I think you will see that with the abundance of large claws on stone crabs that it makes sense to exercise conservation and target larger claws which have enough meat to make it worth your while. Have fun and try not to get pinched!