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A Summer Day: Crabbing at the Shore

By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record

The traffic-free parkway on a sunny, summery morning can be a thing of beauty. Open the sun roof, add the right traveling music and a great day trip is off to a perfect start.

Honestly, though, I was having trouble staying in the moment. Instead, I found myself thinking about the night ahead, when a bushel of steaming, bright red, Old Bay-covered crabs would be dumped onto a table covered in newspaper (try doing that with your iPad) and the cracking, hammering and eating would begin.

They would be the best crabs I ever had, because I will be the one who caught them.

New Jersey crabbing rules

* You don't need a license to crab with hand lines, manually operated collapsible traps or scoop nets.

* The limit per day is one bushel.

* Female crabs must be thrown back. How to tell: The blue claw male has blue claws and the females have red claws. If you turn the crab upside down and look at the body, the male crab has an inverted "T" while the female has a triangular shape.

* Blue crabs must be 4.5 inches from point to point (body not including claws) to keep.

* Bait can vary, including chicken necks, razor clams, bunker fish, bull lips.

Going crabbing seemed like a good idea for a day trip. It meant going to the Shore on a nice day, a fun and novel (for me) activity, then a fantastic feast in celebration of my success.

Hot spots

Some crabbing spots along the Shore, whether day-tripping from North Jersey or a Shore house:

With boat rentals:

* Red Bank Marina

261 Front St., Red Bank

Boat rentals and supplies. No crabbing off docks

Boat rentals are first come, first served and cash only, and price varies. My boat was $100.

For more info: redbankmarina.org, 732-741-3320, RedBankMarina@gmail.com

* Causeway Boat Rentals & Marina

Route 72, Long Beach Island Causeway, Manahawkin

Prices vary depending on the boat rented and amount of time it's rented for; boats can be reserved.

Causewayboatrentals.com, 609-494-1371

* Ray Scott's Dock

9211 Amherst Ave., Margate City

Rayscottsdock.com, 609-822-6819

From bridge or pier:

* Keansburg Fishing Pier

275 Beachway, Keansburg

* Mantoloking Fishing Pier County Park

30 Mantoloking Road, Mantoloking

For more possibilities: scottsbt.com/misc/crabbing/crabbingspots.htm

After a little research, it seemed clear that Red Bank Marina was the perfect spot. It is only an hour away, and the website said it catered to families — although, in the end, my daughter refused to go with me, so I set off alone with nothing but some cash and a craving.

That was OK. Who couldn't use a solitary ride and some time on the water alone with your thoughts while hauling in crab after crab?

People crab off piers and bridges, but this day was supposed to be particularly special, so I was going to rent a boat and be out on the water, not simply standing on the sidelines. I was all-in. The man at The Crab Shack looked skeptical, to say the least.

"You don't have anything?"

"No."

That's the point, I thought. I came with no cooler, no bait and, as it would turn out, not much of a clue. The marina was supposed to have it all. And they did provide all the supplies. I could have used a few more tips.

Quickly I was set up — two lines, two traps, an empty bushel basket, a bag of bunker fish for bait, a net, life jacket and a boat rented (with motor, yes please, I don't need to row). Grand total: $124.

"Give her some napkins," the man told a woman working with him. "She won't want to touch it."

He was referring to the bunker, but he should know I was quickly elbow-deep in the bag of bloody bunker once I was on the water. It was a decision I'd regret while having a Lady Macbeth moment in a public restroom a few hours later.

But I digress. Back out on the Navesink River … Although I said no to the boat with the canopy, I was given it anyway and soon appreciated that. The sun on the water is always hotter than you think. I set out determined to bring in my bushel of crabs. I would show that doubter. He gave me two traps but said bringing them in with the net was the fun part, so lines and nets it would be.

I queued up some music (Shore-appropriate Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes), baited the two lines and dropped them over the side of the boat, now anchored not far, I admit, from the marina docks.

A slight tug on the line was either the current on this breezy day or a crab. When I pulled it up, there he was, and a big guy at that. I will measure him, I thought, but there is no doubt he exceeds the 4 1/2-inch body needed to be a keeper. I dipped the net under him and brought him into the boat and over the bushel. It was here where my day turned.

The crab had gripped its claw onto the net and was not letting go. I turned the net over and shook. I am not an idiot, I did not try to pry his pincers off the net with my fingers, but I also did not anticipate his ability to swing his body around and get me with his opposite claw. The blood in the boat no longer belonged only to the bunker. Thankfully I hadn't used those napkins to protect myself from the bait. I now needed them to stanch the bleeding.

As I thought "How dare he?" my conscience quickly reminded me that my plan was to boil him alive later. Fair is fair. Well played, crab.

Bloody but unbowed, I switched to some girl-power anthems on iTunes and rebaited the line. He could stay in the net. I would just scoop up his friends around him. But the others came and left quickly. "The one that got away" became two, three, four.

It turns out solo crabbing is not the easiest endeavor. One person should be there to gently lift the line without shaking the crab off while another scoops him up before he is lifted out of the water.

I turned to the traps and caught my anchor. Twice.

It was time to alert the family they needed to make alternate dinner plans. It was time to admit failure.

The lone crab caught.

"How many did you expect to get?" my sister texted.

"More than one," I wrote back, putting more bits of bunker and blood on my phone screen.

At that point, I chose to stop focusing on the crab total. My story would simply be more comic cautionary tale than culinary delight. Big deal. It was a beautiful day. I was bobbing alone on a boat in the river. Nobody needed anything from me. No urgent deadline was looming. My finger wasn't bleeding anymore, and the throbbing had subsided a bit.

"What could be better?" I asked aloud of my solo crab friend who still sat tightly gripping the net, in the otherwise empty bushel.

Eventually I motored in to find a friend who lives nearby waiting to say hello. He shook my crab out of the net and back into the water. The little guy (the crab, not my friend) had won the day. He deserved his freedom. My friend directed me to an area on the dock to hose myself off, then waited while I tried unsuccessfully to scrub the dried blood and bunker bits off my hands and arms in a bathroom. We went to Wawa for a Band-Aid, then I got back into my car.

Instead of heading home, however, I went east. There was still plenty of day to be had. I drove down Rumson Road among pretty trees and beautiful homes until I hit Ocean Avenue and Sea Bright. I pulled into one of my favorite places — McLoone's The Rum Runner, which has just reopened after being taken out by Sandy.

I smelled like bait, but nobody mentioned it. I sat outside watching dark clouds roll in off the ocean, enjoying the breeze off the water, and ordered a crab cocktail. Now this was a good way to spend a day.

Crabbing would be a great day trip for the right people and fun for families, too — as long as everyone is careful with those claws. It's a good idea not only from North Jersey but as a fun change of pace while down the Shore. There are plenty of spots up and down the Jersey coast to catch some blue crabs, either in a boat or off a bridge or pier. It's something to do with a friend or family member. And, ideally, the day ends with a big dinner that night.

A few tips, though: Bring Band-Aids, keep expectations low, and have the address of a nearby seafood store handy — there's no reason to skip the feast if the critters don't cooperate.

Success isn't counted in the number of crabs but the enjoyment of the day, I decided. Once I had showered off the stench, the feeling of failure left, too. I had made the best of it, and, next time, maybe I'll catch two.