Tips for Using Crabs as Bait

Armed with nasty pinchers and a bad attitude, crabs are the bait that anglers love to hate.
Crabs on the flats
Crabs are a tasty temptation for a variety of game fish. Jason Stemple

Since I was a youngster, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the lowly crab. According to my parents, my first encounter with an angry crab resulted in a screaming kid and an airborne crustacean. Later, I learned to appreciate crabs as fishing bait, whether I’m targeting red drum, tautog, sheepshead or pompano. Even the mighty tarpon will fall to a perfectly presented crab.

Blue crab for redfish bait
Blue Crab: Redfish candy. Whole or halved, big reds can’t resist them, especially in deeper water. Steve Sanford

Blue Crabs: Red and Black Drum

Each spring, giant red and black drum arrive at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Capt. Kenny Louderback of Fish Freaks Guide Service meets them with a cooler full of blue crabs. 

Louderback targets red and black drum by anchoring around the shallow shoals and rock islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. He fishes a female blue crab on a fish-finder rig consisting of a 9/0 circle hook, 3 feet of 50-pound monofilament leader, and a 4- to 10-ounce sinker on a fish-finder slide. “I start with half a crab, but if the sharks and stingrays are bad, I’ll switch to a whole crab.”

Redfish caught using crab
Redfish eat a variety of baits, but their downward-facing mouths are designed to scoop up crabs. Paul Doughty

To prepare the bait, Louderback removes the crab’s claws, cuts off the horns, and runs the hook through the leg holes.

It’s possible to catch blue crabs with a wire trap or hand line, but Louderback purchases his from a local crabber. To ensure the freshest bait possible, he only buys specimens that smell sweet; old crabs take on a sour odor. Louderback stores them in a plastic bag covered with ice. “Keep the crabs cold, but don’t let them touch water.”

Invasive green crab for bait
Green Crab: Invasive punks. Consider using them as bait your patriotic duty. Steve Sanford

Green Crabs: Tautog

No crustacean is as revered and reviled as the green crab. Tautog anglers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic value the small green crab as a great bait that is easy to acquire and store. But scientists and conservationists warn that the green crab is an invasive species with a negative impact on its adopted environment.

Capt. Monty Hawkins, of Morning Star Fishing out of Ocean City, Maryland, is in the green crab’s fan club. He uses green crabs to target tautog on nearshore wrecks and reefs. 

Hawkins carries a variety of baits, including white, blue claw and green crabs. “If it says ‘crab’ on the label, tautog will eat it,” he says. 

To fool wary ’togs and keep the bait close to the structure, Hawkins rigs the crab on a two-hook slider rig with 5/0 octopus hooks. “I put both hooks in a whole green crab.” He inserts the hooks through the crab’s leg joints. When fish are finicky, Hawkins downsizes to a half-crab.

Green crabs are a favorite because they are easy to store in a plastic bucket. “Just don’t get them wet or let them overheat,” he says. 

As for concerns about using an invasive species for bait, Hawkins says, “Our native blue crabs keep the green crabs in check.” Research suggests that predation by native species is the best way to curb the spread of green crabs. “The green crab invasion has not moved south into Maryland,” Hawkins points out.

That is good because green crabs are a convenient and productive bait for winter ’togs. “A tog is a crab-eating machine, and green crabs are a favorite snack,” Hawkins says.

Fiddler crab for catching sheepshead
Fiddler Crab: Remove the menacing claw for your sake. It makes sheepshead happy too. Steve Sanford

Fiddler Crabs: Sheepshead

“Fiddler crabs work really well for sheepshead,” says Capt. Craig Paige, of Paige II Charters in Virginia Beach. He anchors on the wrecks, reefs, rocks and bridge pilings in the lower Chesapeake and drops a fiddler crab into the structure. 

To dangle the bait deep in the rubble, Paige uses a Carolina rig with a 1- to 4-ounce egg sinker, 18 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 5/0 J hook. 

Another option is a ’tog jig, a 1- to 3-ounce jig head with a short-shank hook.

To prepare the bait, Paige removes the large claw and runs the hook through the center of the fiddler crab’s shell. “Removing the claw keeps the crab from spinning in the current,” he explains. 

Sheepshead caught using crab
With teeth like dentures, crabs don’t stand a chance. Sheepshead require a strong hook-set. Jason Stemple

To catch fiddler crabs, you can rummage around a local tidal marsh with a bucket and a quick hand. Or keep your boots clean by purchasing fiddler crabs at a local tackle shop. 

Paige stores fiddlers in a small cooler with moist paper. “I can keep them for days if they don’t get too hot,” he says.

Sand flea for surf fishing
Sand Flea: Sometimes called a mole crab, use a rake to catch them at your best surf-fishing spots. Steve Sanford

Sand Fleas: Pompano

Ryan White, owner of Hatteras Jack Bait and Tackle in Rodanthe, North Carolina, says, “People are crazy about surf-fishing for pompano.” Pompano will eat other crustaceans, but White says sand fleas are their favorite.

“Soft-shell sand fleas are the most coveted,” White says. During the full moon, sand fleas molt their shells. White laughs and claims, “If you cast out a soft-shell sand flea, fish will materialize from nowhere.” After soft shells, White likes sand fleas carrying a bright-orange egg sack. 

To reach pompano feeding beyond the outer bar, White uses a 10- to 13-foot medium-heavy conventional rod with a 12- to 15-size reel and 20-pound braided line. 

To target pompano feeding in the shore break, White switches to an 8-foot medium-action spinning rod spooled with 20-pound braided line. 

White ties a multihook dropper rig out of 30-pound fluorocarbon, with a dropper loop for each hook and a surgeon’s loop for the 4- to 8-ounce sinker. “Small floats ahead of each hook attract pompano and keep the bait off the bottom.

“I use a No. 2 to 2/0 Owner Light Mutu circle hook,” he says. White doesn’t race to hook a pompano; the circle hook lets the fish hook itself. When the pompano takes the bait, the rod tip gives enough to drive the hook into the pompano’s small mouth. 

Another tip: White hooks the sand flea in through the shell and out the belly. “This keeps the pompano from stealing your bait,” he says.  With the long rod, White casts the bait to the outside of the outer sandbar or along the edge of a deep channel through the bar. “Anywhere I see water churned up by the waves or current, I expect to find pompano.” With the light spinning rod, he targets pompano in the shore break. “If you’re standing in knee-deep water, you’re out too far,” he says.

Best of all, sand fleas are easy to catch. “Look for little ripples as a wave recedes,” White suggests. These ripples are caused by the sand flea’s antenna sticking out of the sand. 

White digs up the sand fleas with a special basket rake. He picks out the biggest and best, and stores them in a cooler on a perforated bait tray. “Keep them cool and moist, and don’t let them sit in water,” he says. With proper care, sand fleas will live several days in a cooler.

Read Next: Top 10 Shrimp and Crab Flies

Pass crab for tarpon fishing
Pass Crab: Tarpon anglers know there’s no better bait when fishing the inlet. Steve Sanford

Pass Crabs: Tarpon

“When tarpon are zeroed in on crabs, there’s nothing else they will eat,” says Capt. Daniel Andrews, president of Captains for Conservation, a grassroots environmental advocacy group focused on water quality.

Before Andrews took the helm of Captains for Conversation, he was a pro guide out of Fort Myers, Florida. “It’s the crab capital of the world,” he jokes. 

Each spring during the full and new moons, crabs stream out of the bays on the outgoing current. Andrews describes the migration as “hundreds of thousands of crabs and tens of thousands of tarpon.”

To catch bait, Andrews hunts the passes. “I idle the boat into the current and use a dip net to scoop up crabs floating on clumps of grass.” Andrews releases crabs carrying eggs. 

“Clip their claws off to keep the crabs from killing each other,” Andrews suggests. He stores the crabs in a 5-gallon bucket of water with an aerator.

Andrews’ favorite tactic is casting a crab to feeding tarpon. He chooses an 8-foot rod with a soft tip and some backbone matched to an 8000-size spinning reel spooled with 50-pound braided line. “I start with 8 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon, but if the tarpon are finicky, I’ll make the leader longer and drop to 40-pound-test with a short section of 60-pound fluoro ahead of the hook.” 

He attaches the crab to a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook. “The trick is to insert the hook through the underside of the crab’s horn.” Then he uses the hook to drill a hole through the shell. 

“There’s nothing like it when tarpon feed on crabs,” he says. The best conditions occur within two hours of dark. “I get excited when I get to the pass and the sun starts going down, and I see thousands of tarpon blowing up on crabs.” 

One Bad Crab

Green crabs are one of the best baits for tautog and one of the 100 worst invasive species. According to Paul Fofonoff, researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, green crabs are native to northern Europe, but they’ve spread to cool-water climates around the world. “Experiments in local crab eradication have had mostly mixed and short-term impacts,” Fofonoff says. Using green crabs for bait is permitted throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. They are already established in New England and can’t spread south of New Jersey. Fofonoff says, “The best prevention is public education about the potential harm of releasing nonnative animals and plants in our waters.”

Allergies and Bacteria

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, contact with shellfish is one of the most common causes of Vibrio vulnificus infection. Vibrio can cause infection and blood poisoning, resulting in tissue damage and death. The bacteria occurs naturally in seawater and can infect any open wound. To prevent infection, regularly wash and sanitize hands and open wounds. If a wound gets infected, feels warm to the touch, or loses feeling and is accompanied by nausea, fever or chills, seek immediate medical attention.