How To Catch Crab: A guide on how to go crabbing

I don’t remember ever being taught how to crab, we kinda learned via osmosis. We watched the grownups, mimicked them, and discovered by ourselves.

Trial and error, creative thinking and a heap of dumb luck were all part of our childhood crab journey.

To be honest, we often returned home without fish, but hardly ever missed a feed of crabs.

Crabs are delicious. And catching them is a heap of fun and very rewarding. Crabbing isn’t rocket science, but there’s plenty to learn.

This article is a reminder to all the weekend anglers to get out and revisit the joys of crabbing. And it’s easy to do at the same time you’re fishing.

Today, with the aid of illustrations and videos, I’m going to focus on some solid crabbing basics so you can incorporate crabbing into your fishing expeditions.

I’ll assume readers have a very limited knowledge, so I’ll make sure all the critical crab basics are here.

The Anglers Perspective on how to Catch crab

When we were kids, catching fish was the primary goal. The crabs were kinda secondary. We went fishing, not crabbing.

However, on reflection, we probably did spend a decent amount of time focused on the crabs. Particularly when the fish were off the chew.

These days, 40 odd years later, the fish are still the focus. However, we approach the fishing/crabbing combo with a little more structure. We wanna catch fish, and we wanna catch crabs.

The goal is that we catch and release a heap of fish, bring home a fish or two for dinner, but also bring home a heap of crabs for a big cook-up.

This makes for a busy fishing/crabbing day. There’s no cast and hope here. We’re actively hunting.

A Note to the Crab Focused Crabber

While my focus in this article is to get anglers out hunting crab, these crab tips are more than pertinent to the hunter seeking crab alone.

All the techniques identified in this article are sure winners. Particularly if you head out with a single-minded ‘crabs or die’ attitude.

And, by the way, while a boat will have significant benefits, it’s not required. Land based anglers/crabbers can still get amongst the crabs with the following techniques.

Crab Identification Guide

There are well over 800 crab species. You certainly won’t be catching all of them. The likely contenders will be blue crabs, king crabs, red rock crab, dungeness crab and a few others.

There are more of course, and the species you catch will be determined by location, not technique. All crabs respond to the same crabbing techniques, with only a few exceptions.

You will need to be able to identify crab species and sex to ensure you are crabbing legally. There are different rules for different species in different locations.

Crab Identification Tip

Download pics of the crabs you intend to hunt and keep them in your phone. Don’t rely on a network connection while you’re out crabbing. Have pics on your phone.

Here’s a great example of the sort of resource you can download into your phone. This is an identification resource for a blue crab.

Identifying male and female is also important. In some states, taking sooks (mature females) carries special restrictions.

Check out this short video below about how to identify male and female crabs.

Personally, I won’t take females at all, particularly the big ones. These are important breeding stock and are best left in the water.

Green Crabs

Contrary to the beliefs of some, you CAN eat green crabs. But these pesky guys are not local. They’re an invasive species and they’re very destructive to local environments.

Eating green crabs is a good option. But whatever you do, when you catch undersized green crabs, do not put them back in the water.

Anglers frequently use them as live bait for fishing. Don’t. If you can get them out of the water and out of the food chain, all the better.

The green crab is aggressive and eats everything in its path, including other crab species and creatures such as clams.

Their presence has been devastating on clam industries and clam growing environments. 

Crabs, the Environment and the Law

Like recreational fishing, crabbing is regulated by the law. There are laws and restrictions on crabbing methods, species, catch numbers and a host of other things.

The tricky thing is that laws vary from state to state, and even local government regions. Laws can also be seasonal.

Get informed, else it may cost you. Violations can often carry pretty hefty fines.

I’d love to write the definitive crab-law article to provide a one-stop regulation resource. This would be fraught, however.

Such an article would require an expert level of fisheries legalese. That ain’t me. My legal acumen hits its top gear at protected species, catch limits, size limits and seasons – and only for the areas I fish and crab.

In that regard, take heart, it’s all you need to know too. 

And it’s no trouble to find your state and local rules online. They’re not onerous, and won’t encroach on your enjoyment at all.

How to Catch Crab

The most common method for catching crabs is with the use of crab traps, of which there are several types. This will be our focus.

You can also use a standard handline, great fun but a little hit and miss. There’s also a method called trotlining.

Let’s have a brief look at using a handline, followed by an introduction to trotline crabbing, and then we’ll get into traps.

Crabbing with a handline

All you need is a standard handline spool. A big one is a good idea. The 9-inch spool shown below is ideal.

Spool up with a heavy mono if you like. Especially if you have some old 80 pound laying around doing nothing. The thicker line is easier to manage, and the crabs don’t care.

Plenty of people will use string, but I find I can feel activity at the business end a little better with mono. Ultimately, both are fine.

Weight up with enough sinker to get your line and bait to the bottom. I tie a bean or channel sinker a few inches above the bait and tie it to keep it from moving. Then tie your bait to the line.

If you’re using a heavy bait such as a fish head or carcass, you can forget the sinker.

Use some common sense when connecting your bait. If it’s a chicken neck, use a simple secure knot that suits the shape of your bait. A couple of wraps, and lock it off. 

We’ll talk baits a little later.

The ’rig’ is not so important here. Just get your bait to the bottom so it will stay put on the bottom and on your line.

Now, drop it out of the boat, or off the jetty, or out into the river – wherever you may be.

Catching the Crab

It won’t feel like a bite that’s similar to how a fish bite feels. You may feel a little weight or subtle tugs. Pull the line up gently and smoothly, with a scoop at the ready.

If a crab is hanging on, make sure you get a scoop under it before it hits the surface, or you’ll lose it.

Crabs hang on to their food as if it’s their last ever meal. The tenacious little critters are reluctant to let go until they feel the surface. Even then, the stubborn beggars may still hang on.

However, when they feel the breeze on their shells, this is often their cue to let go. Have your scoop ready!

This is a really cool video below showing some great land based options for handlining for crabs. 

In fact, it’s one of the best videos of handlining for crabs I’ve seen – some excellent ideas, particularly for land based crabbers.

Most importantly, you can do this while you’re casting lures at your favorite fish. It’s so easy, and heaps of fun.

Throw out your crab bait, get is set on the bottom. Then grab your rod and cast lures for 10 minutes. Then check your crab line, making sure you have the scoop at the ready.

Trotlining for Crabs

Personally, trotlining doesn’t do it for me. But, I’ve never done it, so I can’t be critical. In a way, it reminds me of commercial longlining, of which I’m no fan.

I’ll not be going into trotlining in any detail. It’s a pretty involved method that deserves an article on its own.

Trotlining is a hands-on, high activity crabbing process that is reasonably equipment heavy, and requires a boat. There’s also a lot to learn.

The concept is pretty straight forward, but requires some serious coordination, particularly if you’re doing it alone.

This is not a crabbing method you can employ at the same time you’re fishing. Trotlining for crabs requires your full focus.

In many ways, trotlining is far more akin to commercial fishing than it is to recreational crabbing.

Yep. Plenty of trotliners will disagree with me. But that’s OK too. I’ll show you what it is, and you can be the judge.

Essentially, you run out more than a thousand yards of heavy string, with baits connected every 6 feet (there are laws about spacings and numbers).  Baits are most often chicken necks.

Here’s a great diagram. There are nuances and variations on this theme. But this method is pretty standard.


A couple of weights allows you to sink the line to the bottom. Weights are pretty substantial, by the way. Options include bricks or weights from old double-hung sash style windows.

A couple of floats or buoys allows you to retrieve the line with a long hook.

After a designated period the line is slowly retrieved through an outrigger device, that is usually home fashioned.

Motoring at a snail’s pace, the line is channeled through the outrigger bringing the crab-filled line to the surface.

As the crabs hit the near surface, a keen hand nets the crabs. It looks like a heck of a lot of fun because you need to be quick.

Particularly if you have tightly spaced baits that have all been taken by crabs.

Trotlining can be a great method for bagging plenty of crabs when they’re on. But you won’t be doing any fishing while you’re waiting for the crabs to take the bait.

It’s a busy method of crabbing, and it’s not for everybody. However, if it sounds like your thing, check out these two videos.

This one shows how much fun it can be for the family. And this one shows the challenge of trotlining by yourself.

Crab Traps

Many of you will have seen the crab and cray traps used by commercial anglers. If you haven’t, check this out.

OK. This is the opposite end of recreational. These crabbers are working their butts off for a commercial operation.

However, they’re using the same grabbing methods you will use to hunt crab while you’re fishing – without the heavy machinery, of course.

In fact, depending on the crab traps you use, this method allows you to maximize your fishing time and maximize your crabbing time. It’s a win win.

On a good day, you’ll be taking home a seafood buffet.

2 Types of Crab Trap

Ok, there’s more than 2. But that’s more about a variation on a theme. There are a couple of basic concepts. Crab pots and crab nets.

1.The crab pot 

These traps come in a multitude of shapes and sizes with recreational traps often collapsible for storage convenience. 

They are usually round, triangular, rectangular, or shaped a little like your classic mailbox. Here are some examples.

Rectangular crab pot

Round crab pot

Mailbox shape & Collapsible crab pots

Pyramid shaped or star crab pots

There are many variations on these traps. But they all work on the same principle.

Baits are tied or placed in a pouch in the center of the trap. It’s important crabs can not access the bait from outside the trap.

The clever little things make their way through a single directional entrance to get at the bait. Once inside, they cannot get out. Mechanisms for the single entry vary from trap to trap.

Here’s a great video illustrating the process.

All of these styles of crab pot are very effective. The drawback with larger traps is that they can take up a lot of space, and can be difficult to get to a location.

They can be heavy, and messy. But a couple of traps is all you need to get yourself a great feed of crabs.

The collapsible traps are ideal if you are space challenged or prefer not to lug large crab pots long distances.

2. Net style crab traps:

These traps are very popular because they’re effective, dirt cheap and reasonably easy to carry and stow.

  • 2 ring crab net, or (drop net)
  • Single ring or witches hat crab trap, or tangle net

The drop net sits on the bottom in a collapsed form. Bait is secured to the center of the base. When you retrieve the net it becomes a basket, keeping the crabs secure. Great video here.

The witch’s hat works on entanglement. It sits on the bottom holding its shape with the use of floats.

When the crab attacks the base centralized bait, it gets entangled, particularly on the retrieve.

It can be a bit of a pain to untangle the angry nipping critters, but these nets are easy to use and effective, nonetheless.

This is a very popular method in Australia but is just as effective here in the US.

Here’s a great video showing how they work. Note the buoys they use, and the ID process they go through.

And if you thought crabs were big in the US. Check out the Aussie mud crab. These claws will take your leg off. 

Crab Trap Environmental Law

It’s important that you understand local laws about the size and design of crab traps.

Some traps, because of the size and other design features, require a license to use. You may even have to put identification on the traps.

Again, knowing the law is your responsibility.

A number of traps have quite rightly been outlawed because they can result in trapping and killing other species such as turtles.

In some locations, one side of a trap must be constructed of a biodegradable binding, so if a turtle or other creature is caught, they have a chance of survival.

Frequently, traps are forgotten, left behind or not retrieved for various reasons. It’s called ghost fishing. These traps become hazards to marine life, and fill our waterways with trash.

Do your best to secure your traps well, and don’t forget to remove them after your crabbing trip.

What is the best bait for crabbing?

Crabs are the ocean’s great scavengers. They’ll eat anything. That doesn’t mean you should put any old bit of rancid offal in your traps, however.

Some crabbers will go into detail and get very particular about crab baits. And it’s a long list. Don’t worry about it. Like really.

Fish carcasses and chicken necks. You really don’t need anything else for whatever crabbing method. Both of these baits are brilliant because they will entertain the crabs for hours.

Firstly, fish carcasses and chicken necks attract crabs from everywhere. They’re like a calling all crabs bull horn.

Secondly, a decent fish head/carcass or chicken neck involves plenty of ‘picking’ time. The ravenous little scavengers remain engaged in stripping to the bone for quite some time.

Thirdly, these baits are quite easy to tie or anchor to the trap or a handline. This is important. You don’t want the current or anything else to take the baits away.

If I had to choose from the two, I’d go for the chicken necks. While fish carcasses are good, they can be picked apart a lot faster than the necks.

The necks are also easier to tie on a handline.

It can be smelly and messy to have to keep fish carcasses. I prefer to leave them at the fish cleaning tables or leave them in the ocean.

Chicken necks are dirt cheap and they’ll keep in your freezer indefinitely. For me, and many other crabbers, chicken necks are the king of crab bait.

Crab Equipment List

Here is a list of the top crabbing equipment to make your day of crabbing more successful and smooth:

  • Crab pots or traps. Handline. As many pots as you can transport fit or handle
  • Crab Tongs. These are brilliant for handling crab
  • Crab cooler. A large cooler with ice. Putting live crabs on ice settles them down significantly. Until there sedated with the cold, they can be a handful to manage. Crabs don’t like you, and they’ll make it known
  • Crab measurer. I like the handle on these. You could make your own for the crab species you target
  • Large bucket or basket. This is for immediately holding crabs to sort before placing the keepers on ice. If you put them on the ground or floor of the boat, they’ll run…and run fast. Best option is a bushel basket. These are ideal
  • Baits
  • Heavy duty glove. Optional, but wise for some
  • Buoys. Solid polystyrene buoys are great. But don’t lose them. The last thing the ocean needs is more random polystyrene.
  • Extra rope and floats
  • Landing net. But you’ll have one anyway because you’re fishing right?

It may sound like a lot of kit. But it’s not really. Most of this stuff you can stow, even in a smaller boat.

For land based crabbers, it’s not too much to carry at all. A few pots or nets is no big deal to drag up to a jetty, wharf or riverbanks.

Best Time To Catch Crabs, Tide and Season for crabbing

Crabs are happiest when the water is around 70 to 75 degrees. This is late spring to early fall, depending on location, of course. This is generally the best time to catch crabs.

Just keep this in the back of your mind.

However, crabs are available all year round. You should be crabbing whenever you go fishing…or fish whenever you go crabbing.

There are local rules and regulations about the time of day and season. Make sure you check your local area.

There are arguments about the best time to catch crabs, best tides and best seasons. I’m not even going to go there.

I’m not the only one that will tell you that you will get awesome crab hauls that defy ‘classic’ times and conditions. You will also get buckets of nothing when conditions are perfect.

Think of it this way. If you haven’t got a trap in, you’re not going to catch any crabs. If you’re fishing…crab.

I prefer a slack tide. It’s easier as the current is easier to deal with. Crabs also seem to prefer not having to battle big currents.

However, again, just throw your pots out regardless of conditions. If there are crabs about, they head straight for your baits.

In short, any time you’re on the water is a great time to catch crab.

Where To Catch Crabs

It’s going to sound like a throw-away statement…but wherever you’re fishing is a great place to crab. Crabs are everywhere.

I prefer the harbours, estuaries, rivers, and lakes. Simply because it’s easier. I don’t mind the shallower water crabbing offshore, but once you’re offshore and the water’s deep, you’re starting to work hard.

Pulling up a crab pot from the depths by hand is a lot of hard work. Too much. It becomes more like work than a fun day crabbing.

Of course, commercial crabbers have specific crabbing grounds. However, these guys have plenty of heavy kit, and must make a living. All you want is some fun and a feed.

How to handle Crabs

Getting snapped by a mature crab claw is bad. It’s painful and will cause injury. Gentle requests to let you go will be ignored. It’s angry at you, and as I said before, it doesn’t like you. 

It knows you want to eat it.

The best thing to do in this circumstance is remove the claw from the body by pulling the claw off. It’s easier than you imagine.

Preferably, you could learn how to handle crabs and avoid it in the first place.

We’ll look at a mud crab from India, to give you an idea of how others do it.

These people have to get it right. A mud crab will literally remove your finger from your hand. Check this out below…and don’t try this at home.

For the rest of us, check out this how to video.

Keeping Crab for the Table

You have to keep crabs on ice. When a crab dies its flesh will deteriorate very quickly. Eating this flesh can make you very sick.

You want your crabs to remain alive until they are ready to cook. The best thing you can do is put your keepers on ice.

It sends them into a near dormant state. They are far easier to handle and store like this. In fact, they’ll not move at all once super cold.

Cooking Your Crabs

Cooking crabs are not only and article to itself, but it’s also a library of books. There are so many ways to handle and cook crabs.

I’m old school and a traditionalist, and there are so many like me that will always prefer to do there crabs the most natural way you can, which is indeed the easiest.

Put a chilled crab in boiling water for 7 to 8 minutes per pound of crab. No messing about, nothing but boiling water and salt.

Crab flesh is delicious. It needs no flavor or ‘cheffing’. You can of course, but you won’t make it any better – just different.

I needn’t say any more. This video is an outstanding example of cooking Dungeness crab au natural. Check this out – boiling water and salt. It really doesn’t get any better.

Fishing and Crabbing. A summary of What to Do

Get all your kit together and head to your favorite spot, be it land based or aboard your favorite vessel.

For Boats

Set your crab pots in likely locations and mark your locations on your GPS if you have one.

If not, take a pic of some landmarks so you can navigate back to your pots. Head off and fish wherever you like.

Before its time to go back to the boat ramp, go back to your pots and collect the crabs. Remove the pots from the water.

While you’re fishing, put crab nets down in the place you’re fishing. Cast lures for 20 minutes, then check the crab nets. Carry on this process for as long as you like.

On Land

The principal is the same. However, you may want to drop your crab pots exactly where you’re fishing.

Leave your pots down for the duration of your session. If you’re using crab nets, check them every 15 to 20 minutes.

You can drop them from piers and wharves etc, or walk out with them to a river or estuary and set them in chest deep water.

If it’s too deep, toss them as far as you can.

Just be aware, that when you’re fishing, you can hook up big, and end up getting tangled with your crab trap ropes. Use common sense to avoid this.

Wrapping up Crabbing from an Anglers Perspective

It just makes sense. Crab while you fish. Fish while you crab. It’s not difficult, in fact, it’s a heap of fun and doubles your chances of taking home a seafood feast.

Sure, you’ll need to haul a bit more kit, but you won’t need a packhorse, and the few extra pounds of gear is well worth it.

Importantly, if you’re not stocked up with the appropriate crabbing equipment, don’t worry. It’s very affordable.

In fact, with as little as ten bucks you can be catching crabs. You don’t even need to go out of your way. Order what you don’t have online, and crab where you intend to fish.

Of course there’s a bit to learn. But having read this, you probably have most of the info you need to crab successfully for a lifetime.

When we were kids, we winged it, we had a ball, and we caught plenty of crabs. It’s not rocket science, it’s just plain old fun.

Just take 5 minutes off deliberating about what lure to cast and throw a crab pot instead. The fish don’t give a toss about the lure color. But the crabs are desperate for a feed of chicken neck.

Crab while you fish. You’ll love it.

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Sean Ward

Sean Ward

Hey there, my name is Sean – OnTrack Fishing is my site. I’m based in the UK yet I’ve been fortunate enough to catch bass in the States, barramundi in Australia, trout here at home and carp on the Danube delta. If I’m not fishing, or talking about fishing, then….I’m probably asleep.


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