Key West Stone Crabbing: the rules, labor, process, rewards, and costs.

I’m departing from our normal “blog in chronological order” and instead will cover our Key West winter by individual subjects.  We are here for two and a half months, so it would probably get a bit tedious to simply repeat the things we are doing each week while here.  Frankly, this is sort of how we did it two years ago, so we are not really breaking new ground.

Any excuse to get out on the water!

Despite having grown up in Florida in a pretty outdoorsy family, I had never fished in the ocean until last year during our forth winter stay in Key West.  To our mild surprise, Rose and I both discovered we absolutely love going out on a boat and catching fish (down here, it’s more catching than fishing.)  Last year we had the good fortune to hook up with Dennis and Ginger, who brought their small, flat bottom boat down from North Carolina, and after a season of successful near shore boating we, along with our friends Steve and Deb, talked about expanding our activities to stone crab trapping. 

It’s pretty common to get some things in the trap other than crab.  We have pulled a fair number of small spiny lobsters out, and expect that we might get a blue crab or two some time as well.  If the blues are big enough we can take them, but we can’t keep these lobsters: too small and recreational lobster has to be caught by hand with scuba or snorkel.

A standard Florida salt water fishing license includes the right to stone crabbing, with each license holder permitted five recreational traps.  Honestly, our talk last year about crabbing this year had, in my mind, been less than conclusive and more exploratory in nature, i.e., “perhaps we will try some crabbing.”  But in Dennis’ recollection it was a firm commitment, and days after our arrival he had me in his Jeep headed 22 miles north to Cudjoe Key to get three flat pack kits of five traps each. Despite a rough start, I am ever thankful for his insistence. 

This is a bit more unusual: a 2 foot nurse shark managed to wiggle in and couldn’t get out.  Still very much alive and full of our pigs feet bate.

The kits come with nearly everything you need to get started: molded plastic traps, hinges, screws for assembly, entry hole, chew out block, marine line, and buoys.  The only thing you have to get separately is concrete (the traps are basically five sides of a cube, with 25 pounds of cement serving as both the floor and the anchor) and bait, plus paint if you want to distinctively decorate the buoys.  The trap assembly was a piece of cake, far easier than most Ikea products; Ginger and I “assembly lined it” while Dennis went to get cement.  The cement, however, was just plain hard work since we had limited tools and facilities: essentially we had to mix up 15 separate batches of it, one for each trap.


Trap construction: the sides and top snap together, then you use the stainless steel screws to attach the hinges, latches, entry hole, and wood chew out block.  The last is in case you lose a trap completely, the wood block can eventually be eaten through so a lost trap does not end up catching crab after crab and starving them.

Then there is the bait.  Having consulted with a handful of experienced trappers, we went with the initially expensive option of pigs feet.  Yes, pigs feet.  While you can certainly attract crabs with a big helping of fish heads and entrails (frequently available for free at the marina fish cleaning station) they simply won’t last long enough for our needs.  After a few days in the trap, pin fish and other small creatures will likely have picked every last piece of meat from the bones.  We don’t have the option of going out every three days to check every trap and replace the fish, so we needed something that the pin fish and their ilk could not so easily decimate, and the tough pig skin is what the experts use. 

60 pound big box of still mostly frozen pigs feet.

We supplement the pig feet with a can of wet cat food in each trap, drilling a few holes in the can before placement.  Cat food is one of those somewhat controversial choices among the recreational crabbing community; some people swear by it, others think it is a useless ingredient supported no more than an old wive’s tale.  Having done this crabbing thing for more than a month now, our current bait theory is thus: Do not skimp, put in lots of food, and cover all olfactory bases.

Steve: Hooker

The pig feet, while costing us $40 for a big 60 pound box, lasts a full month in our 20 (yes, we bought more) traps.  But the pig feet take a couple of days to really break down, rot, emit aromas, and therefor attract the crabs.  So we include a can of cat food to start things off faster.  And since we are putting the boat in at the marina, we might as well toss in a couple of fish heads in each trap as well.  It may be overkill, but we want our crabs to be happy, well fed, and not eating each other should we have a long delay between trap retrieval days.

Jack: Hauler

A word about the self sustaining nature of stone crabbing: unlike lobstering, blue crabbing, dungeness crabbing, snow crabbing, or king crabbing, with stone crabs you are only taking a claw, and only if it is big enough, and never from egg bearing females.  The crab goes back in the water to live and regrow said claw.  I am informed that there is a greater than 90% survival rate for crabs that have had one claw cleanly removed.  This “clean removal” process is a bit of an art in and of itself, and as our group’s designated claw remover, I am still perfecting the process.  In one unfortunate incident, I broke the entire crab in half.  I suspect he had a less than 90% survival likelihood.

One of our larger crabs.

So how has it gone?  It started really bad, but has picked up enormously.  A few days after our first 14 traps were placed (there was a boat propeller-to-styrofoam buoy incident which precluded full trap placement) we went out and excitedly gathered a grand total of three legal sized crab legs on our first haul.  This was a bit crushing since our already high expectations had been raised even higher by some experienced crabbing acquaintances that, as we left the marina, predicted we would come back with 25 on our first trip.

Measuring is definitely a two person job.

It felt a bit like that scene in Forrest Gump when he came back from shrimping with not even enough for a shrimp cocktail appetizer.  OK, our trap placement was not perfect, and they had only been in the water a few days, but it was pretty disappointing, and we discussed many options for improving our lot.  Regardless, rather than freeze such a minuscule amount, we elected to cook and symbolically eat them, however little meat there was, as our first official self-caught stone crab meal. 

The second time we went to pull traps was better in every way.  Dennis and Ginger had five traps each, and Steve and I realized that two of us splitting the take from just five joint traps would likely never provide us and our wives more than a small appetizer with each catch.  So he went and purchased five more traps, which we rapidly prepped to drop on our second trap retrieval trip, along with the last of Dennis’ traps with a replacement buoy.  Said catch was more to our liking: we had 15 legal claws to take home.  Steve steamed and froze them in anticipation of a future crab fest. 

Our second haul was better: 15 claws.

Each time we go out we get better at it.  We have moved non-producing traps to better producing locations.  Dennis gets better and better at boat handling around the traps.  Steve and I have figured out a division of labor at the front of the boat as we snag and reel in each trap by hand, and then pull the individual crabs out, measure the claws, and take what is legal.  Rose records each trap’s result so we can assess if we need to move it.  I have gotten more comfortable grabbing the crabs (the crabs are deceptively fast and their claws are shockingly strong; a wrong move and despite work gloves there will be blood if not a broken finger.)

There is method to this data collection madness.  Rose kept track of how many crabs of any size were in the trap, how many claws we took, and what other things were in the trap (lobster, shark).  This allows us to make informed decisions about moving unproductive traps to more productive areas.

Our most recent trip out was the most productive by far.  Granted, it was nearly two weeks since our last pull as we waited for a calm day, but when those smooth seas finally came we pulled out 39 legal crab legs from 18 of our traps!  Things got a bit windy and we had to leave one of our three areas with two traps unaccounted for.  This crab haul was cause for celebration, and so we had a dinner-party-cum-crab-fest with the six of us earlier this week.  We had eleven pounds of crab from the 54 claws, and with our side dishes it was simply too much.  We ended up each taking home 7 uneaten claws for various culinary uses in the following days.  Rose and I just gorged on stone crab white cheddar mac and cheese to finish off our share.

About 11 pounds of steamed stone crab claws.

Lets talk money.  Getting into recreational stone crabbing is surprisingly affordable by Key West standards, but it still requires an initial investment.  A flat pack of five trap kits costs $118 and change after taxes.  Once you add in two 60 pound bags of cement, and a share of the pigs feet and cat food, I calculate each holder of five traps is into it for $150.  That is $600 for our 20 traps.  We have pulled in a bit over 11 pounds, which by standard grocery prices goes for around $30 a pound (it varies by claw size.)  So by my reckoning we have paid for about half of our initial investment, and there is still a month to go this season along with future years. 

This is how we want our traps to look: lots of crabs, with several claws big enough to keep, and no other intruders.

All of that fancy math ignores one big thing: you have to have a boat, and only Dennis is providing that.  You could maybe haul in crab traps in a stand up paddle board or kayak if they were close to shore, but really, you need a boat.  Steve and I try to compensate for our lack of boat contribution.  Need ice? we buy it.  Cat food? we got it.  Truck to put the boat in? Steve has it.  But really, we are indebted to and dependent on Dennis for this generous part of the venture.  In a future post I hope to address the informal customs and economics of private recreational boat owners versus their fishing/crabbing/ lobstering passengers. 

Rose was barely able to catch this pic as i snatched and tossed the nurse shark back.

One thought on “Key West Stone Crabbing: the rules, labor, process, rewards, and costs.

  1. Pingback: Key West: Our Winter on the Water | Shell On Wheels

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