The season has begun! Stone Crab season officially opens October 15th every year. By then, the recreational anglers out there have had their fair share of Spiny Lobster hunting and are up for a new challenge. Spiny Lobsters get a bunch of hype, but we can’t forget the other succulent crustacean that crawls our Florida Gulf Waters – the Stone Crab.
They make for a great adventure and a change in pace, and you can load up by the bucket full! But not so fast; see the rules and regulations to be sure you get the best out of the experience!
The annual Stone Crab season starts on October 15th and lasts through to May 15th.
The 2 Stone Crab Species of Florida
There are 2 distinct types of Stone Crab that scurry around the East and West Coast Florida waters. The M. mercenaria (Florida Stone Crab) and the M. adina (Gulf Stone Crab) are the two lucky species that we as Floridians love to catch and cook up. The Florida Stone Crab is the lighter of the two, with a pinkish-tan to light tan look with usually small uniformed black spotting. The Gulf Stone Crab has a darker tone, ranging from maroon to a deep chocolate brown, with some having light mottling across the body. Both species have deep brown to black claw tips.
The Gulf Crabs generally live in the northern parts of the states on either coast. The Florida Stone Crab can be found anywhere along the East Coast of Florida, from the big bend of the Panhandle to the Southernmost parts of the peninsula. In the regions between East Central Florida and South Carolina, these species have been known to mate, creating a hybridized version of the Stone Crab.
The Rules and Regulations
The Stone Crab season officially started on October 15th, 2018 and will last until May 15th, 2019. In this time, you are allowed to trap, catch and harvest the crabs in state waters. You must use legal gear, have a proper Florida Fishing License and must return any females bearing eggs back into the water, unharmed. For Stone Crabs, you are not permitted to harm the body or legs of the crabs. You are only able to harvest the claws, and the claws must be a certain length (as described below).
In both the Atlantic and Gulf state waters, the claws of the adult Stone Crab must be at least 2 7/8 inches. The daily bag limit is 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per vessel, whichever amount is less. The trick to recognizing original claws versus re-generated claws is to look for a fingerprint-like pattern on the inside of the claw. If it looks intact like a human fingerprint, it is original and if the pattern is more like a series of dashes or dots, then it is safe to say that that one has been re-generated.
You can harvest both claws; however, if you take both claws off, the crab will have a significantly reduced chance of survival and regeneration. The crab needs plenty of energy from food to re-grow its claws before the next season and needs to be able to protect itself from other prey. If it can’t get proper nutrition, it will either die or re-grow its claws at a much slower pace.
For those who don’t like to catch Stone Crabs by hand, dip net or landing net, you may use a legal crab trap. A single user can only have 5 traps in the water at any given time and the traps must follow these legal regulations:
- Your trap can be made of wood, plastic or wire.
- The max. trap size can only be 2 ft by 2 ft by 2 ft, or equal to a volume of 8 cubic ft.
- the entrance to the trap must be at least 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches.
- In Collier, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, the throat of the trap must be 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/8 inches.
- If the entrance is round, it cannot be larger than 5 inches in diameter.
- In Collier, Monroe and Miami-Dade Counties, round crab trap openings are prohibited.
- A legible and permanently affixed name and address label of the harvesters’ information must be easily locatable on the top of the trap.
- A degradable panel (made of cypress or untreated pine) placed on the side of the trap must be 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches and can be no thicker than 3/4 of an inch.
- The marker buoy can be no smaller than 6 inches round and must be marked with a Capital “R”. The “R” must be at least 2 inches tall.
- A buoy is not required to be attached to the crab trap if it is being fished from a dock.
- Recreational traps must be retrieved manually. Any ship equipped with a trap puller will need to have the appropriate commercial licensing.
- Traps can only be retrieved during daylight hours.
- Traps cannot be dropped in navigational channels within the intercostal waterways, or any other waterways marked and maintained by any county, state, federal or municipal agency.
Female Crab Regulations
You may be wondering how you can tell female and males apart. It’s simple! You just have to take a look at their bellies. Female Stone Crabs have a rather wide oval shaped abdomen, while males have a narrow and tower-like stomach. In other words, the males are tall, and the females are wide.
The most important thing to remember about females is that they are the ones to carry the eggs. It is illegal to harvest the claws of female Stone Crabs carrying a load of eggs. These “egg sacks” are known as sponges, and a single female can produce 4-6 sponges per spawning season. This spawning season normally takes place during the spring and summer months.
These egg sacks can be easily identified when the crab is picked up or turned over. The sponges tend to be either bright orange or dark brown. Every crab collected should be inspected to make sure it is not an egg carrying female. If your crab turns out to have an egg sponge, you must immediately return it back to the water, unharmed. A damaged or stressed female will drop the eggs and they will no longer be viable to become adult Stone Crabs.
Where to find Stone Crabs around Florida
For the locals, Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands are said to be home to a plentiful harvest of Stone Crabs. Being the second largest harbor in the state, it is safe to assume that placing your traps off any of the harbor shores or various docks or piers will likely bring you plenty of fresh Stone Crab claws, ready for steaming! Gasparilla and Little Gasparilla Islands, Placida, and Boca Grande are all pleasant spots too. Make sure to test out any sandy spots or rocky bottoms during this Crab Season. Maybe you’ll find your new favorite Stone Crab Spot!
Willing to make a trip this Stone Crab season? Tampa Bay, the Everglades, Naples, and Marco Island are among the most popular regions of Florida to catch your own Stone Crab claws. Dropping your baited traps off any beach lining the Gulf of Mexico and within estuaries close to shore, almost guarantees that your trap will catch crabs for you throughout the season. Additionally, the ledges near John’s Pass and the areas between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach are a few additional popular crab trap spots.
Whether you are dropping your crab traps off shore, in shore or out in the deeper water, you are almost bound to catch a few crabs anywhere you decide to let ‘em fall. Stone Crabs can also be caught along the walls of residential canals and other inlets. Docks can also offer a nice collection of crabs if you are patient enough.
What Bait to use for your Crab Traps
One of the most popular baits to attract your crab catch is Grouper heads. If you want the bait to really last, take the extra time to place them in a mesh bag, making it harder for the crabs to get a piece of it. Some may think that that bait is a bit prestigious, so you can simply use mullet or ladyfish. Make sure to cut up the bait a bit to “chum” the waters, which will make it easier for the crabs to eat.
If you really want to make the best use of all your fish by-products, using the carcass left over from your dinner the other night will work just as well. When you are done filleting your fish, put the excess in a sealable plastic bag and place it in the fridge until you go re-bait and empty your Stone Crab traps.
How to Harvest Stone Crab Claws
When catching Florida Stone Crabs, first-and-foremost, BE CAREFUL! One pinch from a Stone Crab can crush your fingers. You DO NOT want a crab to get hold of one of your appendages. To make sure this doesn’t happen, pick the crab up from behind and by the claws so they can’t see you ahead of time and reach out to grab ya! To be extra careful, be sure to wear thick waterproof gloves. If you do happen to get pinched, the extra padding will cushion the grip and alleviate some of the damage to the skin.
Remember, it is best practice to not be greedy and to take only 1 claw, leaving the Stone Crab with 1 claw to be able to feed and defend itself. First, be sure to measure the claw from the elbow bent to the tip of the lower pincher. If that length is greater than 2 ¾ inches, the claw is available for the taking. When removing the claw, you want to do it gently and at the right spot.
When pulling the claw off, be sure not to tear the muscle out of the shell. The motion to remove a single claw is simple; you want to hold the crab firmly by both claws, fold the claw you will be leaving attached inward towards the crab’s body to make holding the crab easier, then pull the claw you wish to remove straight down. The arm should crack right off, leaving the “arm” socket in-tact. Too much twisting, yanking and torque will pull the interior muscles right out of the socket. If you pull the muscle out of the shell, that crab will likely bleed out or at the very least, not be able to regenerate the claw.
Cooking Up your Crab Claw Catch
First and foremost, your immediate instinct may be to put the harvested claws on ice; we urge you to NOT do this, but instead put them in a bucket or a livewell. Once you get to shore and back home, for optimal taste, be sure to cook up your claws the same night. While boiling the claws you may see that some of the claws float. These claws are rightfully named “floaters”, a.k.a recently molted claws. They tend to have less meat but are undeniably still just as tasty.
If you don’t want to boil your catch, Steaming Stone Crab Claws is just as effective and may be even more tasty. Steaming makes it easier for the novice chef to not overcook the tender claw meat. This method only takes about 5 minutes to fully cook the claws to perfection.
In Florida, those who enjoy Stone Crab Claws know that our southern Tangy Mustard Sauce is among the best contenders for a seafood dipping sauce. If you enjoy the simpler choice or maybe you like to play on the safer side, we also recommend our simple Melted Clarified Butter recipe.