Crabs have their skeletons on the outside of their body and their muscles and organs inside. Growth is only possible by changing shells, and this is done by growing a new, larger shell, which has at first to be soft in order to fit beneath the existing hard shell. When the new, soft shell is fully formed, just before the old one is discarded, the crab is known as a ‘peeler’.
A short time before shedding takes place the new shell beneath has so cramped the crab’s muscles that much of the power leaves its legs and claws. This is when the angler will find the vulnerable creature hiding under seaweed, around rock ledges, in soft sand and mud around rocks, harbour walls and breakwaters—anywhere which provides protection from tide and enemy. Of the many varieties of crab found around our coasts, the best, and most widely used, for bait is the common shore crab. The young crab starts life from an egg which hatches in the upper layers of the sea. At this stage the larva bears no resemblance to the adult, but in a few weeks it undergoes five moults, after which it sinks to the seabed and takes on the characteristic form of a crab.
Immediately after casting off its shell the crab becomes what is known as a softback or soft crab. It is defenceless and so hides itself, but a new shell begins to form straight away. After a few hours the shell is like parchment but the crab is still not at its best as a bait.
A deadly bait
Peeler crabs are highly attractive to all sea fish but are especially deadly with bass and cod. Inshore boat fishing and beachcasting will both produce good results with this irresistible bait. The cod is greedy and is relatively easy to hook, but the bass will often suck the bait from the hook and so demands the angler’s full attention.
Many anglers hold that the peeler crab is the supreme sea fishing bait, while others criticize it because of the preparation needed. With care, however, several fine pieces of bait can be obtained from one crab. First remove the eight legs and two claws from the body and then, using the thumbnail, remove the carapace. With the aid of the thumbnail, or a knife, remove as much of the shell from the underside as possible.
The crab can be used whole, depending on the size but, more often, the body is cut crossways in two or quartered to provide four small baits. Anglers often discard the legs and claws but these, hooked in a bunch like worms, can prove a deadly bait. By carefully removing the four segments one at a time from the legs with a gentle twist and a pull they can be peeled off. The claws can be dealt with in the same way.
When starting a day’s fishing it is advisable to leave the peeler crabs in a bucket of sea water for a while as this makes them softer and easier to peel. Beachcasting crab puts considerable strain on this soft bait and so the whole body or segments should be tied to the hook with elastic thread or wool.