Collecting and using the unbeatable peeler

Peelers are an angling enigma – their versatility in catching anything that swims, along with an ability to be species and specimen selective, has delighted and confused sea anglers for years. If you understand the intricacies of their collection and use, the rewards are great, but many trying peelers for the first time, frozen, from the tackle shop, abandon them as an expensive and useless black mush.

Without doubt, one of the peeler crab’s main assets as a bait is its tremendous scent — it simply oozes bright yellow, pungent juices that fish can’t resist. It has a seemingly magical power to attract fish to your rod while anglers using other baits around you are Ashless – the ultimate angling experience!

It’s a crab’s life

All hard-skinned animals — insects, lice, shrimps and crabs, among others — must shed their skins in order to grow. With crabs, the old skin gradually splits over a couple of weeks and the soft creature eventually crawls out to wait for its new armour to harden. After the appearance of the first split in the old skin, and before the new one is fully toughened, the animal is extremely vulnerable and must hide. Once the crab has emerged from its old shell, it quickly hardens and is useless as bait for most species, except wrasse and smooth hound which are not particularly fussy.

This process of peeling begins when water temperatures rise in spring and early summer, though it varies around Britain. In the south west, the Gulf Stream keeps water temperatures fairly high and peeling occurs all year round in some estu- aries. In other areas, a warm spell can have the crabs rushing to peel in one hectic period.

Cock crabs are bigger and juicier than hens and therefore more popular with anglers. In most areas they peel first. The hens follow and cling to the underside of the newly hardened male – back to belly – while they wait to peel. Mating takes place imme- diately after peeling, while the female is soft. Two crabs belly to belly have usually mated, with the hen hard once more.

Getting your peeler

Peeler crabs can be bought directly from bait dealers or tackle shops. Many dealers send them by train or post all over the UK, and a few tackle shops stock them on a weekly basis. In some areas, crabs peel in deeper water. They are caught in trawl nets and can be bought from the skipper.

The alternative is to collect peeler crabs yourself, though this can be a tedious and messy business. To avoid predators the crabs hide in weed, mud and rocks, travelling well up the shore, sometimes reaching the neap tide, high water mark. Deep, thick estuary mud is a favourite hiding place as it is warm and supports the soft crab’s body.

Once collected, you can keep peelers alive under damp newspaper or weed for up to three weeks, providing a constant supply of bait when you need it. Wet hes-sian sacking is also ideal for retaining moisture – essential for keeping crabs in peak condition.

If you inspect your peelers you can see that they are in various stages of peeling.

Some have already shed their shell and are completely soft – use these at once. Others are just about to peel, and some have only started to take on the peeling characteristics. Each stage needs to be treated differently to promote or delay the peeling process enough to produce plenty of baits when you need them. This requires the use of an ordinary fridge.

Crabs about to moult are ready for use — they have a hairline crack at the back of the shell. Store them nearest the ice box to slow the shedding process. Cover the crabs with wet sack or weed but do not immerse them in water. Crabs showing signs of peeling can be farther away from the ice box, depending on their peeling condition. Those just starting to show can be encouraged to peel by storing them outside the fridge. For rapid promotion of the peeling process, completely immerse your crabs in fresh seawater, but remember to aerate it if you are keeping lots of crabs in little water.

The big freeze

Many anglers freeze crabs for winter use. This is only effective if the crabs are frozen fresh and in the perfect state. Peelers are often frozen when dead, or not ready to peel. These are useless as bait.

Put a metal tray in your freezer before you start. This helps freeze the peeler quickly, which prevents deterioration. Kill each crab by stabbing it in the head. Remove the legs, shell and lungs, wash the crab under the tap and then wrap it in tin foil or cling film. Freezing crabs singly like this allows small numbers to be removed for use. Take your frozen crabs to the beach in a food vacuum flask. Frozen peelers tend to be softer than fresh ones and are particularly effective for shoaling species like coalfish which are attracted as the frozen crab juices melt.

Using your peeler

With fresh peeler, kill the crab and remove all the shell before putting it on the hook.

Remember to kill it only minutes before you need it – warm sunshine soon renders the flesh useless.

To get the best out of your crabs, use them just before they peel – when at their softest and juiciest. A cycle of collection, storage and use of crab baits maintains a steady supply for the hook. Crabs that are not in this state are internally hard and less juicy, and therefore not so attractive to the fish.

A large crab provides up to three small baits or one large one. For the best results change it after every cast. Baits can be secured with the addition of a peeled leg or claw. Peeler crab is often an ideal scent medium to attract fish to another bait and, in cocktail form, can work as a scent addition to other baits.