Gourmets the world around salivate over its unique taste and texture and pay astonishing prices for the choicest jumbo lumps of body meat or the seasonal soft-shelled "peelers."

Yes, our own local blue crab is one of the finest delicacies in the seafood world but, in spite of its revered reputation, any residents and visitors in South Carolina's Lowcountry with a string and a chicken neck can catch a bucketful and enjoy them for free. Just walk down to a public dock or shoreline at the right time and catch your own.

Blue crabs have a scientific name Callinectes sapidus, which roughly translates to "savory beautiful swimmer." They are native to the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Texas, most heavily harvested in the Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina and Louisiana. South Carolina also has a strong commercial and recreational harvest annually.

outh Carolina law allows anyone with a saltwater recreational fishing license to harvest crabs. There is no limit on the number of crabs you can keep, but they must be five inches wide from point to point on the body, and any females with visible egg masses - called sponges - must be returned to the water unharmed.

There are a few restrictions for those fishing with traditional crab pots. Two pots are permitted per person and they must have an attached yellow buoy with your name and address or license number if you are going to leave your pots unattended. Pots can not be placed within 200 yards of a public boat landing for obvious reasons: to prevent the lines from getting tangled in outboard motors.

There are a few other restrictions, but essentially, you can catch as many legal-size crabs as you wish, almost anywhere in saltwater for the price of a saltwater license. What a deal!

Male crabs spend most of their time in our saltwater creeks, settling in brackish water that has their most favored concentration of salt, so excess rainfall - or more often, drought - causes them to concentrate in different areas. After our extended drought of a couple years ago, crab concentrations were found as far up the Combahee River as Cherokee Plantation, and on the Ashepoo River, they were fully two miles west of the US 17 bridge.

Female crabs, on the other hand, spend most of their time closer to the oceanfront and migrate farther up the creeks only to molt and breed. After breeding and molting in brackish waters, they migrate back to oceanfront areas where they spawn a couple months later. Commercial crabbers who work both creek and ocean waters harvest both male and female crabs, but individuals, who often crab in creeks and from docks, catch mostly male crabs.

Professional crabber Jerry Gault said most crabs are caught in deeper water in the winter and in shallow water in the warmer months. Though crabs are around all the time, Gault said the most productive times for recreational crabbing are late summer and fall - but that's also when they are cheapest to buy.

Professional crabbers get a second run of peelers in September, mostly as a by-catch in their regular traps because peeler traps are not effective after the spring run.

 

ard-shelled crabs are rated as No. 1 (over 5½ inches), No. 2 (5 to 5 ½ inches) and No. 3 (females over five inches). Few crabs get larger than six inches because the terminal molt - the last time a crab makes a new shell - generally occurs only once after sexual maturity for females and twice for males.

Commercial crabbers almost always use large, square crab pots with four entrance holes into a lower chamber. These traps have a one-way passage slot from the lower chamber to the upper chamber that takes advantage of captured crabs' instinct to swim upward. Once in the upper chamber, the odds of them escaping are greatly reduced.

Though square traps are the most-efficient way to catch crabs, many other devices and contraptions can do the job well and are more fun. The simplest and least-expensive is the string-and-chicken neck method. Any old piece of string tied to an oily bait - chicken necks are the standard because they are cheap, but fish heads also work great - with a sinker to get it to the bottom will catch crabs. Walk down to a public landing, dock or other place with access to shallow water and toss in the bait. In a couple minutes, slowly pull the bait in, and you will likely have a crab hanging on to it if crabs are in the area. As the crab nears the surface, slip a long-handled net under the crab and transfer it to your bucket if it is five inches wide or wider. If not, flip it back.

Speaking of buckets, when catching crabs, do not put water in your bucket or the crabs will suffocate and die when they quickly use up all the oxygen in the water. Crabs can breathe in and out of water. Keep them in a dry bucket in a cool spot if possible or at least covered with something to keep the sun off them.

Progressing up the ladder of crab-catching sophistication - but still keeping fun in the equation - are the various basket-style traps. There is the round, floppy basket; the square, drop-sided basket; and the pyramid-shaped, drop-sided basket, all of which work in the same way you attach some bait to the bottom and throw the basket into shallow water where the sides fall open and lay flat to the bottom. After a few minutes, you lift up on the rope attached to the basket, and that pulls the sides back up and entraps the crabs.

When working with blue cabs, remember that the claws pack a powerful wallop. Yes, they can really hurt you or your dog or your child. Be careful and wear rubber gloves like the pros wear if you are going to handle them with your hands.

Crabs are plentiful and pretty easy to catch, yet people still steal from crab pots. Gault said he doesn't know why normally honest people will pull a crab pot and take the crabs when they wouldn't steal from the supermarket. Taking crabs from traps is stealing.

Crabbing is easy, fun, a great family outing and another example of the bounty available in the Lowcountry. Few of us need any longer to live off the land and sea as Lowcountry ancestors did, but we can imagine it's possibility.

 

Destination Information

WHEN TO GO - Crabs are always around saltmarsh and inshore waters, but they're most plentiful and accessible during the warmer months. Pick any public dock or boat landing and have fun.

HOW TO GET THERE - To reach the Beaufort/Hilton Head area, take I-95 south to US 21 and take US 21 to Beaufort. From there, it's just a matter of locating a public boat ramp, pier or marina. Popular ones are the Edgar Glenn Landing at the SC 170 bridge over the Chechessee River, the Sands Landing on the tip of Port Royal, Lady's Island Landing on the south end of the US 21 bridge across the Beaufort River, Broad River Landing on the east side of the SC 170 bridge across the Broad River and the Pigeon Point Landing in Beaufort.

GUIDES/CRABBING INFO - Crabbing gear is available everywhere. In the Beaufort area, Boat and Dock Supply at 1734 Ribaut Rd. in Port Royal (843-986-0552) and Grayco Hardware, 136 Sea Island Parkway on Lady's Island (843-521-8060) and are good sources for information and crabbing supplies.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 910, Beaufort, 29901, 800-638-3525 or http://www.beaufortsc.org/; Port Royal Chamber of Commerce, PO Drawer 8, Port Royal, 29935, 843-986-2200 or www.2chambers.com/port_royal,_south_carolina.htm

MAPS - Delorme's South Carolina Atlas and Gazeteer 207-846-7000 or http://www.delorme.com/, shows most large boat landings. Top Spot waterproof map N233 also shows boat landings and marinas; it is available from local tackle shops.