Today on Everything Outer Banks, Memory Monday finds it to be a special day on the Outer Banks. This past weekend marked the full moon in May, and with it brings another signal of the summer season approaching…the birth of Soft Shell Crab season on the Outer Banks!
The beginning of soft shell crab season is traditionally marked by the full moon in May. It is the time of the year when the blue crab begins its molting season to accommodate its summer growth. As crabs grow larger, their shells cannot expand, so they molt their exteriors and have a soft almost leathery feeling covering for a matter of hours when they are vulnerable and considered usable. Over the next two weeks crabbing activity will be at a race car like pace to catch these money makers for local fishermen. The actual shedding of the shell can take anywhere from one to three hours, after which the side crawler must be removed or the hardening process will continue, reducing the quality of the soft-shell crab.
Crabbers put the ones beginning to molt aside, until the molting process is complete in order to send them to market as soft-shells. Crabs should are kept alive until immediately before cooking. Crabbers tell us crabs must be eaten within four days of molting to be useful as soft-shell crabs. They begin to rebuild their shells after that, and when eaten, have a thin shell.
Young crabs before they shed exhibit an identifiable characteristic that tells the soft shell crabber when they are about to shed. Located on their back flippers is a stripe of color. If you look hard enough and know where to direct your attention you will find what all soft crabbers know. When it is time the stripe will turn from white to red.
Crabbers call them “Redliners.”
Soft-shells are harvested in their peeler stage in peeler pounds or pots and transferred to shedding operations where they are monitored around the clock. Female crabs will actually seek out male crabs in advance of their peeling for protection during the process. It isn’t surprising to actually see male crabs, or Jimmys, carrying the female crabs just before the molting process. This is one sure fire sign that the female is about to molt. Meanwhile when male crabs are set to shed they literally try to hide.
The local crabbers collect the crabs in area waters around the time of the May full moon. The harvest is surprisingly simple as crabbers will many times place a pot in the water with no bait other than a large “Jimmy” in the top of the pot and wait for the females to seek out their hulking protector. Once they have their quarry the crabbers will place the soon to be soft shells in wooden boxes that they have set up on the marshes near their boat landings. These boxes called shedders will have fresh water running through them and they will need to be checked constantly over the few weeks in May when shedding or molting occurs. It is exhausting work as the shedders have to be checked no less than once every four hours around the clock the these few weeks. Its not unusual to see a lot of activity around a crabbing operation at 10 PM, 2 AM, 4 AM, and of course throughout the day. It is usually an entire family responsibility to check the shedders.
The crabs must be picked from the shedder during the time they are shedding their shell, packed on ice and shipped live to gain the top dollar. Depending on the size of the crab the creatures can fetch a small fortune for the local crabber. They are marketed by size with, of course, the largest commanding premium prices. They are measure across the back of the crab from point to point. They are categorized as follows:
Mediums – 3 ½ to 4 inches
Hotels 4 to 4 ½ inches
Primes 4 ½ to 5 inches
Jumbos - 5 to 5 1/2 inches
Whales - over 5 1/2 inches
Although soft shells are available fresh from May through September it is generally agreed that the ones that molt now, in Mid-May, are the best of the bunch. Local crabbers expect to sell the delicacy for a minimum of $12 per dozen as they leave the shedder meanwhile their price will increase at least 6 times that by the time they make it to the market in New York City.
No matter the size, the taste has been described as “sweet,” “tender” and “succulent.” Whether you like them broiled, deep fried, with old bay, pan fried with lemon and butter, olive oil and ranch dressing, or just lightly breaded, and put on a sandwich there is no mistaking that they are a staple of Outer Banks life and today marks the time when the trucks start removing these 8 legged residents of the Outer Banks to their new home!