How to Catch Crabs: Crabbing Tips That Will Keep Your Pot Full

How to Catch Crabs
Written by Neal Walker

For those of us looking to become more self-sufficient, there is nothing better than catching the food that ends up on our plates. If you’re lucky enough to live near the ocean there is a veritable banquet waiting nearby in the murky depths of the sea.

Fresh, self-caught seafood is not only plentiful and delicious but also fairly easy to catch. Among seafood, there are many delicacies with one of the most sought after being crab.

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If you know how to catch crabs you can keep you and your family fed with tasty morsels for many months of the year.

See also: How to Catch Crawfish: Shell Out on A Crayfish Trap

It’s also a lot of fun, especially with the kids and can make a nice day out for the family. If you’ve never been crabbing before it can seem a daunting task, but with a few tips and tricks, it’s rather easy.

Common Types Of Crabs And Where To Find Them

Before we take a look at the best ways of fishing for crabs, it’s useful to know which crabs you will be able to catch in your area. There are several species of edible crabs living on the East and West coastlines of the US, below are the most common;

  • Blue crab
  • Stone crab
  • Dungeness crab
  • Red rock crab

Blue crab

Named after the sapphire hue of its claws and legs, this ill-tempered but delicious delicacy can be found on the East coast of the Americas. It can be found as far North as Nova Scotia, all the way down to Uruguay via the Gulf of Mexico.

Blue crab

They generally thrive in coastal estuaries and lagoons, will eat more or less anything and can grow up to 9” wide in the shell. Due to declining populations most areas regulate the fishing of these crabs, and restrictions are in place.

It is worth speaking to the local authority for information on a specific area. Despite this, they are still among the most popular recreational catches along the East coast. The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland is widely considered one of the most bountiful areas, with an estimated one-third of the nation’s blue crabs coming from there. The season generally begins in April and lasts until December.

Stone crab

Slightly smaller than the blue crab, measuring in at an average 5 – 6” wide across the shell, they are also found along much of the East coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They’re brownish red with gray spots and large claws. The limbs of the stone crab detach easily to escape predators and are able to grow back.

Stone crab

It is only their claws that are eaten, so when caught it is common practice to remove one claw and return the live crab to the water. They feed on oysters and other small crustaceans and can normally be found beneath jetties, rocky areas and oyster reefs.

They can be legally harvested between October 15th until May 15th and there are often restrictions in place. These may vary depending on where you are fishing so check in advance.

Dungeness crab

One of the largest species of edible crab caught by recreational crabbers found on the West coast. They inhabit the coast from as far South as California, right up to Alaska. Larger specimens can reach up to ten inches across the shell, with an average of around seven inches.

Dungeness crab

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They are a light reddish brown in color, with some having a purple hue on the shell. They are prized for the taste of their meat, which has been described as delicate and sweet. They can normally be found on the edge of eelgrass and in areas of sand or sandy mud.

They are typically in season between November and June, though this varies from place to place, as do the regulations regarding how they are caught. Always check with local authorities before heading out.

Red rock crab

Though not as popular as the larger Dungeness crab, the red rock crab is another tasty morsel found along the West Coast. It is a largely underrated catch, due to the amount of Dungeness crabs available, but it certainly has a delicious taste and makes a fantastic supper.

Red rock crab

It is a popular catch in Southern California where Dungeness crabs are less often caught, along with yellow and brown rock crabs.

They typically grow to around seven inches wide at the shell and are brick red in color. They generally live in rocky areas, gravel or kelp beds and are not equipped to survive in sandier conditions.

Their season normally begins in mid-October and lasts until the end of December, though this depends entirely on the area.

Where And When Should You Look for Crabs?

All of the above crabs are most commonly found in tidal salt water, including bays, saltwater inlets, and river estuaries. Don’t try looking for them in fresh water as they cannot survive in purely freshwater.

Crabbing on piers or docks will normally bring you a measure of success, as crabs are known to loiter around underwater structures. If you have access to a boat you will find yourself with more options. Various crab species can be found along the length of both the West and East coasts.

Typically, the largest crabs are found on the North West coast, though both East and West are home to delicious morsels.

Most crabs can be lured out and caught throughout the day, however, there are certain times that will yield better results. Many successful crabbers insist that the best time to catch crabs is during the night. This is because many crabs are nocturnal and are thus more active during hours of darkness.

Catching crabs

Of course it is not always feasible to stay out all night, however, one can leave a trap out overnight. Another key time is during “slack tide”, i.e. the two hours or so between high and low tide and vice versa. During this time the water is moving slower than at any other time of the day.

They won’t be fighting against the current as much, allowing them to move more freely on the seabed in order to feed. In turn, they are more likely to go for your bait. If you cannot make that two-hour slot, crabbing during the incoming tide is preferable.

The incoming tide is gentler than the outgoing tide and brings with it increased salinity, ensuring the conditions are more favorable for crabs. This is particularly relevant when crabbing at river mouths, as the outgoing tide can be so strong that it will drag your equipment under.

The best time of the year for crabbing depends on the species of crab you intend to catch. The majority of popular crab seasons begin in fall and carry on over winter. As always, check with the local authorities for specific details regarding the season and the restrictions.

What General Equipment Is Required?

Most of the equipment you will require when crabbing is common regardless of the species you are seeking. Fortunately, this allows you the flexibility of catching more than one type while out and about.

Of course, the specific equipment you will need will depend on the method of crabbing you choose to employ. We will discuss specific equipment in detail along with the method it is used for below. For the time being, we will focus on the most important gear relevant to most of the methods.

  • Bait
  • Storage container
  • Safety equipment
  • Net
  • Measuring device
  • License


Most methods of catching crabs rely on using bait to lure them to you. Different species of crabs will have different diets, however, most are not fussy and will eat anything. This is fortunate for the crabber as pretty much any kind of meat can be used.

Catching crabs bait

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With that said there are certain types of bait that have a proven track record. Tough meat works particularly well for crabs, as they will grip onto it firmly in order to tear it, allowing the crabber to pull them toward the surface.

Popular examples include chicken or duck neck, which is cheap and easy to come by. Chicken or turkey legs can also be used with good results. Other crabbers use chunks of fish, eel or baitfish, or a combination of fish and meat.

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Some people claim hot dogs are a cheap alternative, but since they are so soft crabs often make short work of them. Another tip is to leave meat out for a day or so before use. The theory is the pungent smell is more attractive to crabs. A bait bag can be purchased to keep things tidier and easier, especially if using traps.

Storage container

This can be anything from a large ten-liter bucket to a cool box filled with ice water. It is important to keep any crabs you have caught alive until you are ready to cook them, as once they die they soon begin to spoil and eating them is likely to make you very sick.

Using ice dulls a crab’s senses making them easier to handle, and keeps them alive. A container with a lid is most useful if you are to transport your catch using a car. If you’re planning to catch a lot of crabs, use a larger container.

Bear in mind that crabs need oxygen to survive and if your bucket is full of crabs, they will soon deplete the oxygen in the water and die. Change the water frequently if you’re out for several hours.

Safety equipment

Crabs can be quite an aggressive handful, especially to the inexperienced. While there are techniques that one can use to hold a crab safely, a thick pair of crabbing gloves will save your skin from cuts. These are generally made of heavy duty rubber and will prevent even the most tenacious crab from breaking the skin.

Crabs Safety equipment

Another option is to carry a pair of tongs with which to handle your catch. This is the safest method as you can keep an angry crab at arm’s length. Finally, ensure you carry with you a pack of Band-Aids and a small bottle of medicinal alcohol. Should you get pinched and cut you will be able to wash the wound and cover it.


A good quality net, though not vital for every method, is a useful tool to have about when crabbing. A dip net is normally fairly cheap and can be picked up from many shops at the coast. The best, sturdiest types can be obtained from fishing stores.

These are far more durable than the one you probably played with as a kid, and they’re generally bigger as well. For some methods using a net to scoop up your crab is essential, but even if the method you choose doesn’t require a net, it’s useful to have with you, just in case.

Measuring device

This is an essential piece of kit to have with you when there are size restrictions in place and you are required to ensure the crabs you catch are legally big enough. A simple, adjustable caliper is the best option as this can be moved to fit and measure the shell or claw exactly.

Measuring device

Some fishing stores will have special calipers for sale with the legal sizes marked on them. A ruler or tape measure can be used, but are generally more difficult to use and less accurate.


Most importantly you will require a license in many areas in order to legally crab. Check with the local authorities the requirements and any restrictions. Licenses are generally fairly cheap, and help to ensure that crabs, as well as many other species of sea life,  are not overfished.

Methods for Catching Crabs

Most crabs can be successfully caught using one of these methods regardless of the species. The differences come in finding the ideal location to try to catch a certain species, but the method remains the same.

There are several methods the crabber has in his arsenal, ranging from very easy methods requiring little equipment to more complicated methods that require a boat.

Catching crabs with a hand line

This is the easiest method one can use to catch crabs. Regardless of its ease of use, it is effective and a favorite among recreational crabbers for the simplicity and minimal equipment required.

Also, if you are set up at the right time and in the right place, you can have your first catch within minutes. The equipment required consists of;

  • Bait
  • Line/long string – this must be long enough to reach the bottom of the water. A weight can also be used to ensure it reaches the bottom and can be tied on
  • Dip net

The process simply involves attaching a piece of tough bait, such as chicken neck to your line and casting it into the water. Allow it to sink to the bottom and tie the line off if possible. This allows you to potentially set up multiple lines, however, you can keep the line in your hand if needs be.

The line should be slack, so that you can see when a crab is biting and pulling at your bait. When you have a bite, slowly drawn the line up. It is essential you do this slowly and carefully, as crabs, especially bigger ones, may get spooked and release the bait.

As the line approaches the surface, scoop up the crab in your net. Be sure to keep an eye on the current of the water and place your net accordingly. This helps ensure that the crab will end up in your net even if it escapes the line before you’ve scooped it up.

With the crab in the net, bring it to shore and check it for size and if it’s big enough, put it in your storage container. This method can be carried out from a boat, or from land, i.e. a pier or dock. Just bear in mind that you will need a longer line if you’re further out to sea in a boat.

Catching crabs using a trap from the shore

This is among the most popular and common methods of crabbing from the shore. It’s very similar to the hand line method, but the crab becomes trapped in a cage of such sort.

This means you don’t need to use a net, but you will have to invest in a trap or two. There are several types of traps;

  • Ring nets: this is the cheapest and simplest type of trap and has a net basket design. Two wire rings make the top and bottom with the top ring being larger. When deployed it will, in theory, lay flat on the seabed. When pulled up, the top ring moves up first, creating a walled net, thus trapping crabs inside while you bring them to the surface.
  • Pyramid traps: also known as a star trap, these work in the same way as the ring trap, but when pulled up they create a pyramid shape. This closes the top of the trap ensuring crabs cannot escape while the trap is lifted.

They work in more or less the same way, in that they are filled with bait, weighted down and dropped into the water, with a line or rope attached. Allow them to sink to the bottom and ensure the line is slack and then tied off.

Again, several traps can be set at once. Next, you simply wait, for perhaps ten minutes or so before pulling firmly and quickly on the rope. This snaps the trap shut, trapping the crab or crabs inside. Then pull it up to the surface and see how successful you have been.

The process can be repeated as many times as you like. Seasoned crabbers say that the more bait you use the better since the smell will be stronger and is more likely to attract hungry crabs over.

When one is in there eating, the sounds and smells will inevitably attract more over. Ensure the bait is secured to your trap to avoid it floating away.

There are other styles of traps, but they all work in the same way. The disadvantage of these traps is that crabs can enter, eat your bait and leave before you have a chance to trap them and pull them up.

This is why tough bait is best for this kind of traps. Also, the trap may not land flat, allowing crabs to eat the bait from underneath the trap.

Catching crabs using a pot

Widely considered the most effective method of catching crabs, this can be done from the shore or from a boat with relative ease. Pots or cages range in size and styles, with the most basic being a simple wire cage with one entry door that opens only one way.

More complex and expensive options are more durable, have several entrances, bait trays and small exit holes for smaller crabs among other features. They work in much the same way as the traps above, in that they are loaded with bait, weighted down and dropped to the bottom.

A length of rope is attached in order to pull the trap back up. If the traps are to be left unattended for any amount of time a float or buoy should be tied to it, to make it easy to locate, and to warn boats of its presence.

This is most important if using a boat and crabbing in deeper waters. Again, ensure the bait is tied down and secure in your trap, and the more bait the better.

Set your pots and leave overnight for best results, just be sure to attach a buoy, labeled with your name and contact details. The buoy can also be anchored to ensure it remains in the same place. A weight can be attached to the line between the pot and the buoy. From the shore, ensure they are set deep enough and lay beneath the tide line.

Again, under piers and docks is a good location. Using pots with a boat enables you to crab away from potentially crowded sites on the shore.

When checking your catch, ensure that you take only live crabs, as any that have died could already be spoilt.

Get Cracking

Having had a thorough look into the world of crabs and crabbing you are now ready to head out to the coast and give it a go. It is essential however that you abide by regulations and ensure that you are crabbing legally.

Make sure you are within the legal season and that you return any crab that doesn’t meet the restrictions. This is important for the sustainability of crabbing, ensuring that generations to come can also benefit from the delights found in the murky depths.

If you have access to a boat, by all means, get out on the water, but mark your pots and label them correctly and place them safely.

Be sure you know what type of crab you’re looking for and know where you’re likely to find them. It’s no use seeking out Dungeness crabs along the East coast, for example, you would be far better off looking for Blue crabs or Stone crabs.

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Learn how to identify the crab you want to catch and which are not edible.

Finally consider the time and place, bearing in mind that crabs prefer salt water, are more active at night and during the slack tide. Armed with this knowledge you will be ready to take home fresh crab for dinner for many months throughout the year. Don’t forget to checkout our top fishing backpack to gear yourself up for a good catch.

What is your best crabbing tip? Let us know in the comments section.


Neal Walker

Neal Walker started fishing when he was 4. His father took him to the fishing trips all over USA and Canada. Later he took Angling Education Program at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but most of his knowledge comes from experience. Now he takes his sons with him to share his passion.