Some Thoughts on Mud Crabs

John Mondora | Go Fishing | December 2009

Many years ago, aboard a mother ship anchored behind Number 5 Ribbon Reef, a pair of very vocal Yank anglers were espousing the eating qualities of their Stone crabs. One said "There's absolutely no doubt the American stone crab is the best eating crab in the world”.

Now I had turned up that morning loaded down with a dozen mighty fine mud crabs that I had cooked the night before. During the day the chef cleaned them and they were the entree for dinner that night.

The two Yanks chewed, sucked, and slurped away for about five minutes before one said to his mate "Yep! There's absolutely no doubt the American stone crab is the SECOND best eating crab in the world”, and that about says it all.

There could be a better eating seafood (I said seafood, not crab), but I haven’t found it yet. Fresh boiled mud crab, washed in the sea and eaten on a beach, and washed down with an icy bottle of Evans and Tate Margaret River Classic White is what I hope my last meal in this world will be.

Have you lot out there any idea how lucky we are to live where we can, and with very little effort, catch a couple of mud crabs?? If you live where they don't, you had better have deep pockets, old mate, as a muddie at the Sydney Fish Markets is almost a case of a margin loan from the bank.

Last year commercial crabbers in the Gulf of Carpentaria were getting $50 a kilo late in the year, and 30 bucks a kilo in late July this year. And that's what they were getting so just imagine what a crab is worth down south, or in a five star restaurant.

And bear in mind a gulf crab is 1 to 1½ kilos so you're looking at a 100 bucks PLUS down in old Sydney town. There's no frigging way in the whole damn world that I'd pay a 100 bucks for any mud crab.

But how does one catch and cook a mud crab?? Well back in the days when my hair was black and testosterone roared through my veins, I used to head deep into the mangroves with my trusty old crab hook over my shoulder and get them out of their holes.

I just loved this method, although I did get badly lost on two occasions. A crab hook was merely a length of 3/16th steel about 8 feet long with a short right a bend on one end and a wooden handle on the other.

Some of the crab holes are up to 3 metres deep and it was nothing to have to lie in mud with your whole arm in the hole as you reached with the hook for the old crab.

How did you know he was home? Easy – fresh digging around the hole, and if water in the hole was dirty he was there.

How did you know for sure? Well as soon as you touched him with the hook it was "clack clack" and the battle began. The idea was to get the short bend behind him to reef him out of his watery home, and sometimes that took quite while. Some of the cranky buggers would bite the hook and hang on and you could get them out quickly, most times when they bit the hook they threw the nipper which was a pain in blurter.

I have been badly bitten three times by crabs, and twice when I was in the mangroves by myself. On one occasion I had the crab almost out and he grabbed a mangrove root with one claw. Quick as a flash I reached down and grabbed him under the body and quick as a flash the other nipper grabbed my middle finger.

I pulled back in fright and that bloody nipper took my finger nail, plus a great lump meat, with it. That wasn't much fun at all. On the second occasion I had five crabs in the  old sugar bag and I got one more. It was a real animal of a thing but as I was running late I didn't tie the lad up like the others.

With the bag over my shoulder I was walking quickly (the sun was setting and I wanted out of the mangroves well before dark) when guess what??? You got it! The bastard of a thing bit me through the bag just below my shoulder blade.

I dropped the bag in fright and pain, but that only made him hang on tighter. I had to actually walk to the creek and lie in it (bugger the crocodiles I was in too much pain) so he felt the water before he would let go. That bruise took weeks to go away I can tell you.

I had some weird experiences deep in the dense mangroves all by myself. One was when I was doing a real deep hole and “lost" the crab. I was lying in the mud with my whole arm down the hole when I felt him walking up my arm. I nearly crapped myself because what would happen if he bit me while I had my arm in the hole, or worse still, bit me on the face.

I turned my face away, laid perfectly still, and let the bloody thing walk right out of the hole. Boy did I give it to him when I could get up in one piece!

The other time I found a big hole at the base of a large mangrove tree and I was trying to get a crab out of it when I 'felt' there was someone watching me. I spun around and looked everywhere with the hair starting to rise on my neck. I was about to try the crab again when I happened to look up and there he was.

About a metre above my head was a huge python all curled up in a fork. This thing was about five metres long with a head like a football and it was intently watching me at the crab hole.

Did I get the crab out? You're joking! I bolted and bloody nearly needed fresh undies. Jeez I got a fright as he could have easily bitten me.

But alas those days are long gone because some twit made crabbing with a hook illegal. What a load of frog poop. I was doing crab holes my father did before me, and those same holes are today EXACTLY as they were fifty years ago, so what was the problem? 

Just another nail in the coffin from some dingaling greenie who once saw a mud crab on TV. I must stress right here and now that there is a vast difference between a thinking conservationist and a rabid greenie. Ninety nine percent of recreational fishermen are conservationists, but a few would have us back living under a rock and eating grass like some of the so called "experts" you see or read about in the media.

So now we have to use pots, and crab pots come in all shapes and sizes. There's the old dilly pot (I never did like these), and various other 'safety' pots on the market. I first used big pots made of wire netting, and they were good, except they scratched everything, including me, and to get scratched when working pots with rotten bait in them is a recipe for wonderful things like tetanus and gangrene.

Almost every pot is now made of string mesh in China, of course, but isn't every thing? About the only thing I have that isn't made in China is Jennifer.

Which crab pot you choose is up to you and your budget. The cheap rectangular pots are as good as any, but you must check and repair them constantly, as the old crab will either walk out, or chew his way out.

I now use full on commercial pots (not cheap) and four are made by "Crabmaster" down around Brisbane I think, and the other four are "Bully" pots made in Karumba by an ex-commercial fisherman. Both are excellent, as where these pots shine, is the crabs do not get out of them and they come with a large bait-bag built into the floor of the pot.

The most crabs I have heard of in one of the e pots was 13. Try lifting that little lot!

Now what do we use for bait? Everyone, repeat EVERYONE, knows crabs will walk a mile to eat a smelly old rotten bait. If you're 'everyone' you have a serious case of 'head up bum syndrome. Crabs like fresh bait, and a serious crabber will change bait twice a day.

But what is the best bait? Well fresh fish or frames and heads are excellent. Roo meat and bones are also good but the secret is: it has to be FRESH. I really think the main thing is where you set the pot.

So where you put the pot is the most important part of the mud crab hunt. Look it's no different from where you fish. You don't anchor where the fish aren't, do you? If you do my advice is take up bowls or golf, as you'll have far more success than fishing where the fishes ain't, and it's the same when chasing mud crabs.

You must drop your pots as close to mud crab city as possible. During heavy rain, or the wet as we call it in the tropics, the rivers are high and fresh and crabs, like most other fish, can not survive in fresh-water, so they move out along the shallow coastal flats. Guess where you put your pots at that time of the year?

But during the dry as the salt water intrudes way up the rivers and creeks you follow this salt water intrusion. Does all that make sense? It should because that's how it works.

Also drop your pots in very small creeks and deep gutters as crabs use these as highways into the mangroves, and didn't I just tell you how easy it was for me to catch crabs in the mangroves?

In fact I know of one guy up here who will actually carry his pots into the mangroves and set them near the crab holes. The following day on the low tide he wanders in, collects the crabs, re-baits the pots and wanders out. You need the big tides for this though, and it's certainly not for the faint hearted.

But the one thing you must know are the Fisheries rules and regulations regarding mud crabs. Queensland law states you are allowed four pots per person, and 10 male crabs PER PERSON IN POSSESSION. It is NOT 10 crabs per day.

You must have your name and address on both the pot and float. I refuse to use floats (except in remote areas) as the Ned Kelly’s of this world don't just steal the crabs they take the whole frigging pot as well, so I use an anchor and six metres of light rope and find them with a grappling hook.

Here's a little trick you should know. When working your pots on the flats (even with a float) it's very easy to get confused about EXACTLY where you put them. So just mark each pot on your GPS and the job's right. Oh you haven't got a GPS? Well just put a mark on the side of the boat. Joke! Place the pots in a straight line with a landmark so it is easy to run along and pick them up. If you are new to this then number your floats.

Okay you've caught four big male mud crabs (it's illegal to take female crabs in Queensland) in your four pots. What now? Well first tie the bloody things up as they are real dangerous otherwise.

To boil a mud crab you should kill it first, unless you are a true blue sadist. Mud crabs will throw off all of their legs and nippers if not killed before cooking, which ruins the presentation. You can kill them with a skewer, or thin bladed knife, by driving it under the flap and down between the eyes. You can put them in the freezer to go to "sleep", or drown them as I do.

In the freezer the legs freeze before the crab dies and that's not good. I use freshwater and a lot of ice and just put them in it for half an hour. They just go to sleep as we do when we are in icy water. This is how a lot of pros kill their crabs by the way.

I then drop them into boiling salty water 20 minutes (15 to 17 minutes if they are real giants). While they are cooking I drop heap of salt into the icy water to make brine and after the allotted cooking time they straight into this brine to cool. I prefer seawater to cook them in by the way.

Here's how to freeze a mud crab. Take the out of the brine and put them head down drain for about half an hour. Now bag the in heavy plastic bags and put them into the freezer ON THEIR BACK.

When thawing, place them out on the back, preferably in the fridge for a couple days.
They're not as good as fresh crab of course but jeez they ain't bad!

Chilli mud crab is one of the most famous recipes on this planet and if you wish to it, go on the internet and check out recipes. There are dozens, so just pick one and give it a shot.

Jennifer and I love going fishing up the Gulf with a couple of big crabs all cooked nice for lunch. As we clean them and everything goes over the side - the fish bite, as crab one of the best burleys on this planet.

Yep fresh mud crab must surely be the food of the Gods.

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