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dolphins in Virginia BeachCrabbing in Virginia Beach Virginia

From late spring until early winter, the succulent blue crab abounds in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. All along Rudee Inlet and Linkhorn Bay, you will see clusters of people standing on the banks, dangling strings in the water. Although this method of catching crabs may seem primitive, it is highly effective.

A mature blue crab is usually between five and seven inches wide, across the back from “point to point”. The back of the blue crab is olive green, but their undersides and legs are white. Their claws have a blue-ish color, hence their name. One way you can tell a male blue crab from a female is by the tips of their claws. A female looks as if she has just returned from having a manicure- her claws are tipped in red. Many people assume that crabs are always red, but actually they become bright red-orange only when they are cooked.

A male crab is called a “Jimmy”. In addition to his plainer claws, you will notice that he has a small “apron” on this underside. A “Sally”, or she-crab, has a larger apron. If her apron is rounded and covered with an orange, spongy substance, she is known as a “sookie”, or egg carrying female. If you catch a sookie, you must return her to the water.

Crabbing is a major industry for the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore. Commercial crabbers usually trap their crabs in “crab pots”, although some set long baited lines along rivers. In winter, when crabs are dormant, boats dredge the bay. In the late spring, Watermen traditionally bait their pots by using a Jimmy as a male siren to attract the innocent Sallies.

Although crabbing for a living is a hard life, catching enough crabs for dinner is fun and easy. Crabs will eat almost anything. Watermen say they prefer eel, but weekenders usually save chicken necks or hunks of “trash fish” for them. Tie the meat to a piece of twine, and throw it into the water. (You may need to weight it down with a spare key or fishing weight.) Wait about 5 minutes, then slowly put it in. Crabs are greedy and this is often their downfall. A crab will usually hold onto the line as you gently lift it up. Bringing them in is not difficult, but don’t try to grab the crab or remove it from the line! Crabs will protect themselves! Carefully retrieve the crab with a net and then flip it into a cool container. Do not kill the crabs you catch. They must be alive when you begin cooking them. Just keep them cool until you are ready to begin dinner.

Crabbing is permitted in Virginia Beach without a license, but there are certain regulations. Crabs must be a minimum of five inches wide from point to point, and all egg-carrying females must be thrown back. You may catch only one bushel a day.

Most crabs you catch will probably have hard shells, but you may come across a soft-shelled crab, either in a restaurant, or while crabbing. When a crab has grown too large for its shell, it will molt or discard the shell. The remaining skin hardens in a short number of days to form another hard shell. But in the meantime, it is very vulnerable and is referred to as a “soft-shelled” crab.

Watermen and crabbers can tell when a crab is going to shed its shell. Some companies sort out the crabs and hold the shedders until the day they molt. On that day, the tender soft-shelled crabs are sent, still alive, to the market. But because soft-shelled crabs can remain soft for such a short time, many are now frozen and then distributed. Soft-shelled crabs are prized as delicacies. They are best when small, lightly floured and sautéed in butter. However, most local restaurants serve large ones, battered and fried. You eat the whole crab-claws, skin and all-sometimes in a sandwich.

Many watermen augment their incomes by selling fresh crabmeat. Commercial firms also cook and pick the meat and then pack it in cans, often pasteurizing it. Undoubtedly it keeps longer, but the process also tampers with texture and flavor.
Really fresh crabmeat is unbelievably sweet and delicate, and it needs very little cooking because crabs must be cooked before the meat can be removed from the shell. Just saute’ the crabmeat in butter with a little pepper and lemon.

Another favorite is a spicy, steamed crab dish. Add some seafood seasoning to a couple of inches of water in a large steamer or pot. Pour in a beer or two and some vinegar. Bring to a boil and dump in live crabs. Cover and steam the crabs until they are bright red-orange. Pick and dip in fresh, melted butter.