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Learning The Fine Art Of Hand-Lining For Crabs

Georgia is always open for blue crab fishing. Just get some cheap chicken quarters or fish heads and some nylon string.

Craig James | August 27, 2019

Georgia’s coast offers up some of the finest saltwater fishing opportunities you will find along the eastern seaboard. Whether you like to chase giant redfish in the fall, big gator trout in the spring, jig for flounder in the summer or soak a shrimp any time of year to catch a multitude of species, Georgia has what you need for a good day in the salt.

The same can be said for blue crabs—that’s right, I said crabs. Georgia is home to millions upon millions of these tasty creatures, and yet in most places, they receive very little to no fishing pressure. Make a long drive up I-95 to Maryland and other northeastern states, and you will have to fight for a spot to catch them, as the fishery is more than a little competitive. Blue crabs bring top dollar for their sweet and flaky meat.

Most who are reading this story, especially those who live near, or have spent much time near the coast, know the basic ways to target a mess of blue crabs, but for those who don’t, I will hit on them quickly, along with the size limits and regulations, before I get down to my new favorite method I discovered earlier this summer.

Blue crabs don’t have a set season and may be targeted year-round by fisherman. Any crab that measures 5 inches or more from spike to spike (across the back) is fair game, with the exception of any sponge (egg bearing) crabs that must be released immediately. The daily limit per person is one bushel, or roughly 37 quarts. Either way, if you add it up, that is a pile of crabs.

By hand-lining with chicken, you could end up with a cooler full of blue crabs. Keep them on ice though. If you throw them in a bucket of water, they will die. At that point, the meat will ruin.

There are two methods for crab fishing you will see most frequently in Georgia’s waters. The first is the use of a square crab trap, usually a 2-foot-by-2-foot trap baited with chicken or fish and weighted down in deeper channels of creeks and rivers and marked with a lime green float that must bear the owner’s name and address. Fisherman can use up to six of these traps at a time to target crabs. Though this is an effective way to catch blue crabs, it requires some time to go out in a boat, set your traps and then return the next day.  

Another popular way that anglers catch crabs is with the use of a ring-type basket that is lifted from the water. These are the favorite tool of pier anglers looking to catch a mess of crabs for supper, and at times these traps can be very effective. 

Chicken thighs, a weight and some nylon string is all you need to catch some crabs for supper.

The traps are normally baited with chicken parts, dropped off the side of a pier, and checked every 15 minutes or so. The only downside to this method is piers are often crowded with anglers targeting crabs, and often crab baskets will be placed right next to each other, making for some competitive fishing. 

My new favorite method for catching crabs is hand-lining, and it is the simplest, cheapest and most fun way you can catch a mess of blue crabs for supper. I’m willing to bet most folks reading this have everything they need to give it a try. All you need to get started is some raw chicken (I like quarters because they are cheap), although you can also use fish heads from a recent fishing trip to avoid spending money or making a trip to the grocery store. You’ll also need some small diameter nylon string, a long-handled net and a few lead weights.

In today’s fishing world, you will be hard pressed to find a cheaper way to enjoy yourself on the water, and hand-lining is fun for all ages and is especially a big hit with children who can do it with little or no help from adults.

Basically, all that hand-lining consists of is tying a piece of chicken to a string with enough weight to make it sink, and then throwing it out and letting it sink to the bottom. You hold the string until you feel a crab tugging, and then you slowly pull him toward the shore. When the crab gets close enough to net, you slide the net under the crab before lifting it out of the water.

Sounds simple, right? Well it is, and it’s a good way to have a pile of fun without spending a bunch of money.   

Wonder what this plate would cost in a restaurant? You can make your own plate, but it starts with knowing how to properly clean a crab.

I reached out to Eddie Leonard, marine biologist at the Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources, and he had this to say about Georgia’s blue crab population and hand-lining.

“Though you don’t see a bunch of folks out doing it, hand-lining is an effective way to catch blue crabs. I lived in Florida at one time, and it was extremely popular down there. Everywhere there was a bridge, public dock or boat ramp, you could bet folks would be trying to catch crabs on hand-lines,” said Eddie. 

“And here in Georgia, we currently have a decent number of blue crabs. It isn’t as good as a fishery as it has been at times, but there are plenty to catch, regardless of what part of the coast you visit. You can bet if you’re fishing in saltwater, blue crabs are nearby. The key to finding good crab fishing areas is to move around and try different spots until you find the most productive places.” 

Since I’ve gotten into hand-lining for crabs, my favorite places are rock-lined banks that can be found near public fishing piers and boat ramps.

Often times you will have 20 or more crab nets tied to the railing on a pier or boat dock, and there is 50 yards of rocks running down beside the pier that is untouched by fisherman. This is a perfect place to throw out three or four hand-lines and kick back and wait for the crabs to bite.

I find that the most productive times for this type of fishing is two hours before and two hours after low tide. As with most other saltwater fishing, you can expect the bite to stop for 30 minutes or so during dead low tide when the water stops moving.    

When I throw my lines out, I like to throw my bait approximately 8 to 10 feet from the bank, and I like to spread my lines down the bank every 20 feet or so to spread my fishing area and up my odds of catching a pile of crabs in a hurry. 

Once all my lines are out, I will go back to my first one and begin to check them. If it’s a good day and the crabs are present in large numbers, it’s all you can do to check a line, put a crab in the cooler and move to the next line and repeat. Often a single piece of chicken will yield two or three keeper-sized crabs at a time when you’re fishing in the right place. 

The really good thing about spreading your lines out initially is it lets you see what areas are most productive that day, and after an hour or so, you can move your lines closer together and concentrate on the hot spot. 

The author really has a passion for family and getting his kids involved in the outdoors. He learned that catching blue crabs was something even his youngest kids could enjoy.

One thing I like to do is change my bait every hour to 90 minutes. After soaking in the salt for 60 minutes or so, I believe chicken or a fish head loses a lot of its scent and appeal. I have seen several times where I haven’t had a bite on a line in 45 minutes, and then I tie a fresh piece of chicken on, and I start catching crabs again. With chicken quarters averaging about .60 or .70 cents a pound, it doesn’t set you back too terribly bad to keep a fresh piece of chicken on the string.

Where allowed, floating public boat docks are a great place to catch crabs on hand-lines. Though other anglers with crab ring nets will be present, hand-lining has the advantage of being able to throw your bait to deeper water away from the dock’s fishing pressure. I find that often you can catch crabs like this when other dock anglers struggle to get any crabs to come into their traps. 

When catching crabs, it’s important to keep them alive until they can be cleaned. The best way to do so is with a frozen gallon jug in a cooler. Never put crabs into a bucket of water, as they will drown, and once dead in this environment, they cannot be eaten. After sitting in a cold cooler all day, the crabs will be alive, yet they won’t move much due to the cold temperature in the cooler. This makes cleaning the crabs a breeze, without having to worry about the crabs’ very strong and sharp claws. 

It’s important to note that crabs need to be properly cleaned to remove harmful toxins that are stored inside the crab. This is done by popping off the top of the crab’s shell and removing the insides. This renders the crab safe to eat without fear of contamination. I posted a video of how to do this at www.gon.com/fishing/hand-lining-for-crabs.

As the last of summer is upon us, hopefully you can make a trip to the salt and try your luck at hand-lining blue crabs. With a little luck, you will have a pile of fun, and have a delicious crab dinner for your efforts.

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