Looking at a golden brown, fried soft shell blue crab on a dinner plate can bring either curiosity or excitement, depending on who’s looking. If you are unfamiliar with this great Gulf Coast delicacy, you really don’t know what you are missing. Let’s take a closer look at how this unique creature is harvested and cooked.
Each summer as temperatures rise, sportsmen on Mobile Bay start looking for an activity that is slightly more comfortable. The nighttime air is quite a difference from the summertime steam you experience on a normal July day. The activity we are referring to is the pursuit of soft-shell crabs.
A blue crab, in order to grow larger, is forced to shed its shell periodically and replace it with another that is very soft and flexible that will allow it to grow in size.
This temporary condition is known as a soft-shell crab. During this limited window, the entire crab’s body will be soft. For this very short time, almost the entire crab can be consumed, unlike during its normal hard-shell existence.
During the soft-shell phase, a blue crab can be fried, sautéed or steamed and consumed entirely. The various recipes are all good. Most of the finest restaurants on the Gulf Coast have this treat on the menu, especially during the softshell season when most of the molting occurs.
How It Happens
During the warmer months, May through September, blue crabs shed their hard shells and replace them with a larger version. This is the way the crabs grow in size. This molting process is called ‘shedding.’ A crab sheds its old shell and a soft, rubbery, body emerges that swells in size. The crab can swell as much as a third size larger in this process.
Blue crabs will not stay in the soft-shell stage very long if not removed from the water. It’s best to pull the crab from the water and place it on ice to retard the hardening process. Once the hardening process begins, the crab will move into the ‘paper shell’ stage. While the paper shells are still entirely edible, they don’t compare in quality to a sure enough soft-shell blue crab.
When to Go
You can find soft-shell blue crabs most any time after dark when they start moving into the shallows to shed. You will do the best on nights near the full moon period. The lunar cycle influences the crabs to go through with the molting process. The molting process is more pronounced during the several days before and after a full moon. There is also some molting activity during the new moon phase as well. While crabs are influenced by the moon periods, they will also shed outside these periods, yet not nearly as often as during the moon periods.
When there is a full moon, there will be crab seekers combing the shallows immediately after dark. While doing that can be productive, the hours before and after the actual full moon seem to be better. In fact, catching a full moon at 2 a.m. can often produce success all the way until dawn, after the early shift shell blue crab seekers have gone home.
The first thing you will need is a good light. A strong, bright, propane lantern is best. Next, you will need a dip net to scoop the crabs. The mesh should be fine so that the limp crabs won’t slide out of a standard crab net. You will need something to carry the soft shell blue crabs as you collect them. A small mesh bag with a drawstring is ideal for this. You can load the bag with crabs and tie it to your belt and out of the water.
Some soft-shell ‘pros’ opt for a container or vessel that can be pulled along as you walk A large plastic dish-washing pan does well in this situation. Drill a small hole at one end and run clothesline string in it. Tie a large enough knot and it won’t slip through the hole. You now have a lightweight container to transport your bounty. You can also store some bottled water, extra propane tank, bug repellant or ice in the pan and keep it with you.
Finally, you must have some protective footwear to keep from getting cuts from sharp shells, rocks, rusted metal or other debris. Old tennis shoes are best for this activity.
Where to Look
When the crabs move into the shallows to shed, they will be looking for a safe place to hide while in the most vulnerable stage of their adult life. While soft, the crabs will barely be able to move, making them easy targets for predators. the soft shell blue crabs will hide in grass and around old logs. They will use any type of place to hide while soft. Old buckets or tires in the water offer crabs protection. Always check around this debris while soft-shelling.
Old piers and docks will also provide soft shell blue crabs a place to hide. Look around the base of the pilings. There is usually a small washout at the base of these piling, especially where the pilings receive current. Be sure to inspect these pilings thoroughly, as this is an ideal hiding spot for the crabs.
A lot of times, the only way to tell if a crab is soft is to nudge it with your net. If the crab doesn’t run off quickly, you should go ahead and scoop it up and feel. If not soft, you can simply release it with your hand.
Another thing to look for is a crab shell with the claws pointing upward. This is the old shell of a crab just through molting. Be on the lookout in a 15- to 25-foot perimeter for the soft-shell crabs. They can’t move very fast while soft. Finally, be on the lookout for ‘mating’ crabs. The male crab can only mate with the female while she’s soft. The male crabs cradle the females until she’s ready and will often hold them for protection after that.
Most of the property along the shores of Mobile Bay is privately owned and cannot be accessed without permission. However, there are several public places where people can access the bay, in search of soft shell blue crabs. On the eastern side of the bay, you can walk out at Mullet Point, Fairhope Pier and Mayday Park. On the western side, you can access the water at Alabama Port, Cedar Point and at Dauphin Island.
Techniques have come a long way since the Indians used lighter knots to illuminate the bottom of Mobile Bay in search of soft shell blue crabs. Take advantage of modern equipment and pick up a few crabs this summer.
Cooking Soft shell blue crabs the Jimmy Matthews way!
Clean six soft shell blue crabs. Put crabs in milk and egg wash. Dredge crabs through seasoned flour. Return crabs to egg wash. Roll crabs in 50/50 mix of Panko breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, seasoned with your favorite Cajun spice. Drop crabs in 350- to 375-degree cooking oil. Fry crabs for two to three minutes per side or until golden brown. Serve on Reising’s French bread pistolette rolls with your favorite condiments.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.