In the Florida Keys, comfortably removed from one of the worst winters New England has known, there are plenty of diversions beyond watching the weather channel and enjoying the plentiful sun-drenched days, ocean breezes and soaring birds. My son-in-law, Jacques, and I have taken up stone crabbing.

Stone crabs are a delicacy — an expensive delicacy. The average Joe and Jane doesn’t indulge in stone crabs regularly. Crab prices vary from $25 a pound and up. During the many years that we have been coming to the Keys, Diane and I had, until recently, dined on stone crabs just once. Feeling flush a few years back, we bought a couple of pounds of claws, some special dip, and sat out back of our trailer home and pounded shells and picked sumptuous crab meat to our hearts’ delight.

Florida residents are allowed to put out five recreational stone crab traps. A trap is a one-and-a-half by one-and-a-half foot black, plastic, vented box. It is weighted at the bottom with a thin layer of concrete. The box has a cover, and an entry hole for the crab. Attached to the trap is about 15 feet of nylon rope and a Styrofoam buoy, painted up in a personalized color of choice.

Frozen pig’s feet are purchased locally and used as bait. One pig’s foot is good for about a week or so.

Jacques’ traps are all in the Florida Back Bay in about 6 feet or less of water, not far from the marina where he keeps his boat. All of the bait sites are waypointed on the boat GPS. We try to check the traps about every seven days. As you might guess, some days are better than others. A good day is seven or eight stone crab claws in the cooler.

In the scheme of things, stone crabs have quite a lineage. Their ancestors date back three million years. They feed on oysters, other mollusks and sea grass. How can a stone crab break open an oyster? Get your pinky nipped by one of these vice-grip pincers and you’ll understand how.

The harvest works like this: You reach in the trap and gingerly grab the crab from behind, getting a firm grip on the inside of each claw (chelae). The claw, to be legal, must measure 2.75 inches from the joint to the black tip of the claw. A legal claw is taken by breaking it off where it meets the crab’s main shell. The clawless crab is then returned to the water. If the claw is removed properly, the crab has about a 50 percent chance of survival. (Crabs sometimes escape predators by sacrificing a claw). A stone crab’s principal predators are sea turtles, groupers and humans.

Commercial crabbing, like lobstering in Maine, is big business in south Florida. The Back Bay area is peppered with crab trap buoys, which can be a navigational challenge at times to boaters. I read about one commercial crabber who tends 600 traps a day.

One part of the crabbing regulation that surprises me is that you are allowed to take both claws. Studies have shown that a one-clawed crab has a considerably higher survival rate than a clawless one. In day-to-day crabbing, it is common to find a crab with only one legal claw; perhaps this explains the rationale behind the regulation.

Most reports indicate that the Florida crabbing industry is being managed in a responsible and sustainable way.

When you buy stone crabs, the claws come in four sizes: medium, large, jumbo, and colossal. As table fare, and as one of nature’s critters, the stone crab is special. Now that we are gathering our own, they taste even better.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.