By Lenny Rudow
Crabbing 101: Trot Line, Pull Traps, and Chicken Necking
If you want to learn how to catch crabs from your boat, here's Lenny Rudow's basic crabbing primer.
Crabbing is more than a fun way to spend time on your boat—it’s also a great way to catch a magnificent meal, and as we discussed in Oyster Tonging from a Center Console, responsibly harvesting dinner from the aquatic environment is an excellent family activity that most kids love. So, are you ready to roll out that trot line? Drop those pull traps? Lower a hand-line or two? Welcome to the wonderful world of chicken-necking.
Yes, chicken-necking. That’s what we call crabbing with chicken necks as bait, here in Maryland. And having grown up in Baltimore, which has the highest per-capita intake of steamed blue crab in the entire world (Google it, if you don’t believe me) I feel eminently qualified to talk about this subject. So let’s break down crabbing by the methods you can use, in order of effectiveness.
1. Trot Line – Running a trot line is the best way to recreationally catch a big mess of crabs in a short period of time. If you pick a good spot and do it right, it’s possible to catch an entire bushel—four to six dozen hard crabs—in a couple of hours.
First you’ll need a line. Its length is restricted by laws which vary from state to state, but 500 feet is considered a “short” line and 1,000 feet is common. Trot line is usually 1/4” to 1/8” nylon or braided rope, and some crabbers add snoods. Yes, I said snoods—these are short dropper lines made of shock cord, which hold the baits.
Now that you have your line, you’ll need to bait it up; 5 pounds of chicken necks cut into two-inch segments should do the trick. Tie them to the line (or on the dangling snoods) with slip knots, so they’re easy to remove later. You’ll want a bait every four to five feet, so if you have a 1,000 foot trot line, that means tying on 250 or so chicken parts. This is a truly miserable experience, so if you have kids, you’ll want to get them involved and claim a supervisory role for yourself. TIP: bait the line outdoors or your house will smell for weeks. DOUBLE TIP: bait it in a screened enclosure, or you will attract a horde of flies.
As you bait your line, coil it in a tub or bucket. At either end, leave 10’ without any baits, and tie off a loop. To complete the line, you’ll want to attach two foot lengths of chain to the loops at either end, then clip on 20’ of line, a large float (a sealed five-gallon bucket works well), 20’ more line, then a five-pound mushroom anchor. Let’s have a look at the final product.
Finally, you need to attach a “stick” to your boat. The stick is a big U which you make out of PVC pipe. Simply piece together a eight or 10 inch deep U with a foot or so gap across the top, with a two to three foot long straight pipe attached to one end. Lash down the straight end to your console, rail, or a seat, so the U hangs over the side of your boat; this is what the trot line will actually run through. Clear as mud? This picture should help.
Now you’ll have to pick out a spot likely to hold crabs. Usually depths between three and 10 feet are about right, and you should try to choose an area where your line will go over a point or slow drop-off, so you can cover several different depths at the same time. Crabs will move shallower or deeper with the tides, so one section of the line or another could prove more or less effective through the course of a day. As you lay the line out try to keep it taunt, and if necessary, pull it tight before dropping down the anchor on the far end. Then go back to the start of the line, lift the float out of the water, and lay the line in the U of the stick. Shift into forward and creep along so the baits slowly rise up from the depths as the line slides through the U. Pick someone with fast reflexes to be the “scooper,” who will stand at the gunwales, net at the ready. When he or she sees a crab clinging to a bait, the scooper nets it and dumps the crab into a bushel basket. A good run down a 1,000’ line might take 15 or 20 minutes and produce a dozen or so keeper crabs, and a slow run produces just three or four.
Warning: The driver needs to pay attention, and head directly for the float at the end of the trot line – or risk running over the line with the prop.
2. Pull Traps – Pull traps (sometimes called “snatch traps”) may not be as effective as trot lines, but they’re a lot easier to set up and use. These consist of a square cage with four hinged sides and a bottom. The hinged sides fall open when the trap rests on the bottom, and swing up when you pull on the trap’s rope—capturing crabs inside.
Simply tie your bait on top of the bottom panel, tie 12’ or 15’ of line to the trap’s rope, and tie a float to the end. Drop down 10 or 20 traps in a row (again, check your local regulations to find out how many you’re allowed) and cruise back up to the first trap. Grab the float, give a quick tug on the rope to swing the sides closed, haul it in and drop the trap in the bottom of the boat to get out your catch. Then re-deploy the trap, and move on to the next one.
Obviously, since you have a small fraction of the number of baits a trot line would have, you can’t expect the same results. Catching a dozen keeper crabs in an hour with 10 pull traps is considered excellent. But considering how much easier baiting up and deploying the gear is, many people start their recreational crabbing careers with this option.
3. Chicken Necking – Although all forms of crabbing are referred to as chicken necking, the term comes from a specific technique. This one, folks, is as simple as it gets. Take a ball of string, peel off enough to reach bottom, and tie a chicken neck to the end. Then drop it over the side, and wait for the line to pull tight—that means there’s a crab nibbling away. Slowly inch the line up back up to the boat, until the crab comes within sight. Then scoop him up with a net, and drop the chicken neck back over the side.
Chicken necking can be done from a boat, pier, or even a beach. Most crabbers deploy several lines at the same time to increase their chances, but even with a half-dozen lines out, you’re doing good if you can catch three or four keepers in an hour using this technique.
You’ve caught your crabs—now what? This isn’t like buying them at the seafood store, folks, you’ll need to steam them up for yourself. Here’s how it’s done:
The Rudow Family Steamed Crab Recipe
1. One can cheap beer
2. Cider Vinegar
4. One cup Old Bay Seasoning
5. Two cups Morton’s Kosher salt
6. Two tablespoon ground mustard
7. Two tablespoons mustard seed
8. One tablespoon celery seed
9. One tablespoon regular mustard
- Pour the beer into a steam pot, then fill the can with cider vinegar and add it as well, followed by one can of water. Place a metal colander in the pot to keep the crabs out of the liquid—they should steam, not boil.
- Thoroughly mix the above spices in a bowl.
- Turn the heat up to high, until the pot begins steaming. Then toss the crabs into the pot, sprinkling the spices liberally on them. You want this stuff caked onto the shells, so don’t be stingy.
- Set a timer, and allow the crabs to steam for exactly 22 minutes.
- Lenny Rudow is Senior Editor for Dominion Marine Media, including Boats.com and Yachtworld.com. With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, he has contributed to publications including Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design who has won 28 BWI and OWAA writing awards.
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