Hand fishing for crabs, or crabbing, has been a favorite shoreline pastime of mine ever since my grandfather first took me when I was three or four years old. It remains one of my earliest memories and one that I retell every chance I get. So when I recently spent a week vacationing on the tiny island of Caye Caulker off the mainland of Belize, I was inclined to give it a shot. Hand fishing for crabs on Caye Caulker was only one of many fun things we did during our memorable seven-day adventure.
Equipment for Hand Fishing for Crabs on Caye Caulker
Hand fishing for crabs requires very little in the way of equipment and bait. You’ll need:
- String – I use cotton string about the same weight as a butcher would use to tie up a package of meat. Cotton absorbs the water and I just like the feel better than artificial products. Plus, it’s more environmentally-friendly. If you somehow manage to get tangled up (which rarely happens while crabbing) and break the line, it will eventually decompose, unlike plastic products.
- Sinkers – I use commercial sinkers about the equivalent of the size of a quarter, but you can use anything that will effectively keep your bait on the bottom. My grandfather used old sparkplugs and they worked quite well.
- Handle, or “Reel” – You’ll need something to tie your string onto that you can use as a reel when you’re winding in your line. I have used many different things, but find that plastic tent stakes work perfectly. They have a little hook at the top which makes it easy to attach the string, and the bottom is pointed, making it easy to anchor your line in between deck boards or wedge them in crevices. But you can also use short sticks, soda bottles, or whatever else is handy.
- Bait – Anything meaty and stinky will work as bait, but I have found chicken necks to be the best. The meat is so difficult to get off that it will keep a crab working at your line for a long time. Hunks of meat don’t work well because a crab can easily snip off enough to get the entire piece free.
- Dip Net – You’ll need a large dip net with a handle that is at least three feet long to scoop your crabs up and out of the water. This will be your most expensive piece of equipment, but you really can’t hand fish for crabs without one.
- Bucket – You’ll need some sort of a deep vessel to keep your catch in. A lidded cooler will also work.
Where to Buy Your Supplies for Hand Fishing for Crabs on Caye Caulker
- For rig materials and a dip net, try El Capitan Marine Hardware, 501-226-0215. They are on a street perpendicular to Back Street, on the opposite side from the gas station. If you’re coming from Back Street traveling towards the gas station, they are in a small alcove on the right just after the hotel. It’s difficult to see from the street … you’ll need to turn into the lot on the right and then you’ll see it on your left.
- For chicken necks, try any of the Chinese grocery stores.
How to Set Up Your Rigs for Hand Fishing for Crabs on Caye Caulker
- Cut a length of string about 12 feet long. (The longer you cut it, the farther you can “cast” out. Just remember, that also means the time it takes to reel them in is longer, increasing your chance that the crab will get spooked and let go.)
- Tie your string to your handle very securely, using several knots.
- Tie your sinker to the opposite end of the string, also using several knots. Unlike a regular fishing line, this doesn’t have to be clean and neat. Crabs don’t seem to care how gnarly your rigs look.
- Starting up about 18” or so from your sinker, tie on your bait. Follow a wrap/knot, wrap/knot pattern. This is perhaps the most important part of assembling your rig. Crabs are crafty little creatures and are excellent at getting a piece of bait off a line. You’ll need to use this same bait over and over and over again, so make sure it is attached securely.
- Repeat this process for however many lines you want to fish. One person can easily handle a half dozen lines.
The Art of Hand Fishing for Crabs on Caye Caulker
Now that you have your rigs all ready to go you’ll need to find a good spot. Off a fishing dock is a good choice as long as there’s not more than two or three feet between the water and the dock. The less space, the better, because you need to be able to get the net under the crab to land it. You can also hand fish for crabs on a shoreline, but that introduces other difficulties. Here’s the basic process:
- Securely attach your handle to something stationary. You can hold it in your non-throwing hand if you’re confident you won’t toss it in the water with the bait, but trust me – that’s harder than it sounds.
- Find a spot where you don’t cast a shadow over the water and toss the bait out as far as your line will allow. It will automatically fall to the bottom.
- Repeat this process with all your other rigs, placing them at least three or four feet apart.
- After your first line has been in the water for ten minutes or so, VERY SLOWLY begin to reel it in by wrapping the string around the handle as you go. If it feels like there may have been something on the line but it suddenly let go, stop and let it sit for another 30 seconds or so and start again. If it was a crab, it will grab the bait again.
- Continue reeling it in until you get to the point where you can tell if there is a crab on the line or not. (Once you get some practice under your belt you will be able to tell by the feel, but in the beginning it will be trickier.)
- If there is NOT a crab on the line, finish reeling it in (you can go faster now) and toss it back out again. Then go and check the next line the same way.
- If there IS a crab on your line do not bring him all the way up to the water surface or he will let go. Leave him hanging about six inches or so underwater and call to a fishing buddy to get the dip net. If you’re by yourself, you’ll have to do both jobs. It can be done, but it requires a little more skill.
- To net the crab, insert the net into the water a couple feet away from the crab. Lower it to a depth deeper than where the crab is hanging. Slowly move your net toward the crab until you’re close enough to quickly scoop him up from underneath. Don’t go at him from the side … you need to be under him so that when he gets spooked and lets go, he’ll fall right into the net.
Unfortunately we didn’t catch any crabs the evening we went hand fishing for crabs on Caye Caulker. I’m not sure of the reason why, but suspect that all the construction going on in the water may have temporarily sent the crabs elsewhere. We were there about five weeks after Hurricane Earl, and the pier we were fishing off of was being rebuilt at the time.
Have you ever hand fished for crabs? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
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