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.
During the crab’s early life moulting takes place frequently during the summer months, when the water is warm, but the process occurs less frequently in winter and as the crab matures. At the half-grown stage it sheds its shell two or even three times a year, whereas the adult changes its shell very infrequently—probably every second year.
When a peeler crab steps backwards out of its eyes, legs and skin, it represents a soft, vulnerable victim to gulls, cod, bass—and the angler out early enough to reap a day’s bait Crabs have their skeleton 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’.
Common shore crab
Of the many varieties of crab found around our coasts, the best, and most widely used, for bait is the common shore crab (Carcinus maenas). The young crab starts life from an egg which hatches in the upper layers of the sea. At this stage away. After a few hours the shell is like parchment but the crab is still not at its best as a bait.
The colour of the common inshore crab varies greatly according to its locality, but it is most often a greenish-brown, sometimes with distinctive markings on the top of the shell or carapace. The crab approaching maturity adopts a much redder hue, so earning the nickname ‘red belly’.
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 strong tides and from natural enemies.
Professional peeler crab gatherers often place broken roof tiles on the mud flats in estuaries or half bury tins in mud or sand to provide artificial sanctuaries—and thus traps —for the crabs. Gathering becomes much easier as these shelters are laid in straight lines, so decreasing the amount of walking needed.
It should be remembered that ‘laid’ pots belong to someone: removing crabs from them is stealing. If you have a need for a regular supply of crabs, find a quiet spot and set up a peeler crab farm of your own. The best places to establish them is near a heavy concentration of rock covered by thick weed and surrounded by very soft mud. Trees overhanging the area are a distinct advantage, as the crabs prefer gloomy conditions before and after the moulting process.
Much the best type of pot is a 2ft length of half round drain pipe, which is pushed down into the mud, curved side upward, until only 9in remain above the surface. Once it is in position the soft mud is scooped out by hand. Tidal action will introduce mud into it again, but not to the same degree and a small hollow often remains at the bottom. Twenty five pots set in an area of about 10 square yards will, on average, pro- duce enough soft-back and peeler crabs for two fishing sessions a week during the spring, summer and early autumn. In the winter the crab can hold back the moulting process, and obtaining a supply is extremely difficult. The answer is to freeze a quantity when they are plentiful. Half a dozen, which is enough for a days sport, should be stored in a polythene bag and placed in the fast-freeze compartment, while they are still alive. Taking out more than you need is wasteful as, once thawed, crabs cannot be refrozen with any degree of success.
Of course, not every crab gathered in this way will be at the peeler stage. The only way to tell if it is suitable for bait is to carefully remove the end joint from a leg and see whether the segment has not been removed at all because the new skin is completely formed. If this is the case, the crab can go into the gatherer’s bucket. It pays to collect more than will be needed for a day’s fishing for they will be at different stages of moult and some can be kept for use when ready.
Having returned home, the angler should examine the bait carefully, selecting for use first those whose carapace has started to crack from the underside of the shell or those with a shell which has started to lift. The rest should be placed in a bucket of wet seaweed—bladder wrack is best—and kept in a cool place. These crabs will live up to two weeks, con- tinuing the shedding process, but at a much slower rate than in their natural state. It is advisable to in-spect them daily, removing any dead and renewing the weed after a week.
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.