Like tourist season, stone crab season opens this week
Many years ago I wrote that the start of stone crab season Oct. 15 should be a holiday.
Check that: Give it a few more days after the opening, maybe until Friday. There should, we hope, be more claws.
Stone crab claws are a luxury/necessity in Southwest Florida for seafood fiends. The season runs from Oct. 15 through May 15. Fall and winter are best times for the colossal.
“Colossal,” by the way, is the biggest of the big of the claws from the biggest of the big of crabs. It’s also the costliest: sometimes running up to $32 a pound, which reaps the customer about two. Sometimes less than two. Smaller grades have smaller prices, of course.
Stone crabs are big yellowish-brownish-black-spotted critters that haunt the bottom and, naturally, like to hide around rocks in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer as they grow. As winter comes and the cold fronts move down from the northwest, crabs start to prowl closer to shore and into the bays.
Only the claws are taken from the critters. Crab fishers love the claws because of the financial harvest they reap. Fish mongers love the claws because of the profit they reap. Seafood aficionados love the claws because of the taste.
But unusual in the green world is the fact that environmentalists love stone crabs too because they are a truly sustainable industry. Only claws are taken, and the crab is let loose to grow another pair for another season.
Crabs are mostly caught in traps baited with a variety of unsavory-to-human but delectable-to-stone crab stuff. Some fisher use cans of cat food with holes spiked in them. Some like stinky fish. Some like … well, maybe a secret recipe. Crabbers use whatever it takes to attract crabs into the traps.
Traps are pulled every few days, moved as needed, usually in long lines marked by buoys. There is an intricate numbering system on the buoys and an equally myriad set of regulations governing just who can dump what number of traps, and lo the sorry recreational fishing who “just wants to have a claw or two” from a commercial trap.
In a word: Stupid. Don’t do that.
The jury is out just what kind of season we’ll have for crab claws in 2009-10. Traps are out already, but it’s tough to know how good the season will be, what the cost will be, how available the claws will be or where they’ll be available.
Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on north Longboat Key, of course, will be a featured venue for claws. They’ve got their own boats, their own traps and a huge clientele for claws.
Most other restaurants that feature seafood will feature crab claws. Enjoy.
Most Cortezians agree that it takes a hard cold front to move crabs offshore toward the beaches or into the bays. We had something of a cold front a couple weeks ago. Puny. Probably not enough to cause any real movement of crabs. Maybe. Welcome to the world of fishing.
There is also the matter of timing.
Some Cortezians argue that every third year is a good year for stone crabs. We’ve had so-so years for a while. Predictions are we’ll have a warmer, wetter winter this year, with January being the coldest month of all.
You know how those forecasters are — the only job where you can be half wrong and still go to work the next day.
In the day …
To paraphrase Ben Green’s great book, “Finestkind,” “’Paul … gut up, get out of bed, time to go crabbing … you gonna sleep all day?’ That is how it has to start. That is how is always started — rough.”
Dad and this Little Roat weren’t commercial fishers. Heck, back in the day few commercial guys and gals were bothering with stone crabs, too busy with mullet and pompano and the big-ticket fishery items the Gulf and bays would yield.
But when the nor’westerners started to howl for a day or two, and the furnace had to be lit in our house in Bradenton Beach and the fireplace got fired up, we all knew for sure that stone crabs would be moving.
We knew there would be brutally low tides where all the seagrass flats would be exposed. Stone crabs lurked in them thar flats, we knew.
Jeez, it was cold at the barely post-dark back then, as Dad and I would hunker down in the little boat and putter toward Longboat Pass.
Did I mention that Dad and the Little Roat always used to challenge each other on just who would pull on the waders first?
We’d loaded up our tools. Long sticks we’d screwed hooks into back when that was legal, then longer metal rods with a 90-degree bend in them when regulations changed. And we had a couple buckets in the hope of having good luck.
We were hunting for stone crabs with sticks. And prepared to bring home game.
First stop was always along the Bradenton Beach side of the pass, along the rock jetties. Sometimes we were lucky and could snag a few crabs that were blown into the pass by the strong winds and tides in the days before.
We’d make another pass along the south side of the pass on Longboat Key. Australian pines always seemed to fall into the water there, and sometimes we’d get lucky and get a few more claws.
Then off to our honey hole: north Jewfish Key.
Just inside Longboat Pass at the north end of the little island was a wide expanse of turtle grass. Them thar flats.
The trick was to walk along the seagrass beds and look for a mound of muck. Take stick. Poke stick into area around the mound. Find hole. Stick stick into hole and wiggle until there was a “click,” and you knew you had a crab that was after you.
Gently, gently pull. Crab comes out, pissed. Grab crab — Dad and the Little Roat also eschewed nets — and snap off a claw, put it in bucket, drop crab, run away as it chased you, then go find another muck mound.
Rules were different back in the day for the taking of stone crab claws. I think.
We never took claws from female crabs.
We only took one claw, the “fighter,” or right claw, leaving the “feeder” claw in place.
Dunno if those were real regs or just what Dad said.
Today, both claws from both sexes may be taken except for “egg-bearing crabs.”
Limits of quantity then were limitless. Today, don’t expect to take your sticks out and get more than 2 gallons of claws per vessel or 1 gallon per person. Size of claws is still the same though: no less than 2 ¾ per claw.
We’d usually end up with a half-bucket-plus of claws. Shivering, off we’d go home.
The best way to eat stone crab claws is with friends.
We’d get back. Mom would have a big pot of water boiling, claws would go in, come out, go into the refrigerator, and phone calls would start.
Later that day we’d spread out newspaper on the dining room table — The Islander, of course, because it really is more than just a mullet wrapper — and folks would come over for dinner.
Most people used nutcrackers to get into the claws. As a Little Roat — Hey! I was like 12! — I liked a hammer. Crab meat was a bit mushier, but boy was it ever fun.
And cleanup was easy. We just wrapped up the bits and pieces in the newspaper and thunked it all in the trash.