By Jack Sparacino
Hello seafood fans, and that’s practically everyone, isn’t it? The Florida stone crab, menippe mercenaria, is actually fairly plentiful in Lowcountry waters — welcome information for newcomers. For those who have been thinking about trying their hand at recreational crabbing, this clunky critter is one of the absolutely tastiest things you can harvest from our tidal creeks and rivers. It is also one of the potentially most dangerous to handle.
Let’s start on the bright side. Though you may very occasionally catch a stone crab while fishing (I do this roughly once every two years) or shrimping, stone crabs are commonly mixed in with the blue crabs one catches in conventional traps. They are attracted to the same protein-based bait and aren’t terribly picky (the remains from cleaned fish work great, but chicken necks or backs are a reasonable substitute and if you can get them, whole menhaden, mullet or other small bait fish are also quite effective).
My experience has been that stone crabs are more readily trapped when the water temperature is 75-85 degrees. That’s right, if you are taking a break from fishing because of intense summer heat, you can always keep a trap or two in the water and hope the stone crabs find you. On many occasions, I’ve found nothing BUT stone crabs in my traps in the dead of summer, some of them rather large.
Now for the warning. While handling blue crabs with a long handled pair of tongs is a good way to avoid getting bitten, they don’t usually do any lasting damage if they do get hold of you. We’re talking about an annoying pinch. Stone crabs, on the other hand, generate tremendous crushing power, enough to overcome oysters, for example. So taking off one of your fingers would not be unthinkable.
Fortunately, stone crabs aren’t as aggressive as blue crabs or nearly as fast. (Nor do they swim or look as pretty.) I prefer to use tongs to get them on their backs, then quickly and firmly grab each claw by hand (heavy gloves are a good idea). One must be sure to leave the crab with one remaining claw, the smaller of the two, and if you achieve a nice clean break (garden shears do this nicely), the crab will regrow the lost claw and live to fight another day. Which is the idea, in the name of sustainable fishing. Speaking of which, be sure to check DNR size and other regulations.
Now the fun part, deciding what to do with your catch. First, steam the claws as you would a batch of blue crabs. Many restaurants then simply chill them, crack off most of the shell, and serve them with melted butter or cocktail sauce. They can also be made into crab cakes, or added to sautéed minced onions and celery and served over pasta. Or substituted in any of your favorite recipes for blue crabs. If you REALLY want to impress your family and friends, you might try serving whole cracked claws (or just the meat) with mango ceviche.
If stone crabs were human, it would be easy to come up with appropriately colorful nicknames. Crusher. Crabzilla. Rocky. Smasher. Once in your kitchen, you can think of friendlier terms and you are absolutely certain to serve up a real local treat. A “killer” appetizer or main course, as it were.