With countless natural and artificial offerings available to Florida anglers, and different baits and approaches effective for various species across a wide array of venues, we wanted to take a closer look at the options and share the benefits of each in a one-on-one competition. As Bait Wars progresses, readers may be surprised to learn there are scenarios when an artificial lure is favored over natural bait for its versatility and availability, while on other occasions nothing seals the deal like the real thing.
Average Size: 4-inches (carapace width)
AKA: Blue Claw Crab, Atlantic Blue Crab
Overall Rating: 8 / 10
Best Rigging Method
For inshore applications around bridges and fast moving currents, fish live quarter to silver dollar size blue crabs hooked from the bottom up. A 6/0 to 10/0 circle-hook on 40 to 80 lb. fluorocarbon leader is ideal when targeting permit and tarpon. Hook size should correspond with bait size and target species. When drifting for tarpon, a small float is often added a few feet from the crab to keep the bait in the strike zone. On the flats, a large blue crab can be peeled, trimmed and cut into quarters. From here it’s best to impale a 1/4 oz. jighead between one of the joints. Even in the darkest waters of the backcountry foraging drum will sniff out this incredible enticement. In the deep, a large blue crab can be split in half and soaked on the bottom using a simple fish-finder rig and ample amount of lead. With an 8/0 or 10/0 circle-hook and 60 lb. leader material, you’ve just created an irresistible temptation for hungry grouper and cobia.
Blue crabs are bottom dwelling scavengers native to the western Atlantic. They inhabit the entire Gulf of Mexico and thrive in mud and sand bottoms along shallow water regions ranging from 5- to 30-feet in depth. Blue crabs spend the coldest months of the year in deep water and migrate into the shallows as water temperatures climb. These migrations into shallow estuarine habitats, along with their insatiable appetite, present the perfect opportunity to catch them by the dozens.
Live blue crabs are easy to maintain in an adequately oxygenated baitwell. Once on scene a typical shrimp bucket tied off to a cleat will do just fine. Many anglers catch or purchase blue crabs a day or two before a big outing and store them in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator. As long as the crabs are kept moist and cool they will live for extended periods.
Blue crabs are five-star offerings rarely resisted by a long list of prized predators including tarpon, permit and bonefish on the flats, redfish and black drum in the backcountry, and grouper, snapper and cobia offshore. Surprisingly versatile, blue crabs can be presented in numerous fashions, both alive and dead, across a wide array of venues.
The easiest method to catch blue crabs involves hand lines baited with raw chicken parts. Allow the baited lines to rest on the bottom. When you feel a crab picking at the bait, slowly retrieve the line until the crab becomes visible. The unsuspecting critter is then snatched using a long handled dip net. Set a dozen baited lines adjacent to any marsh and within short order you should have all of the crabs you need. Blue crabs are also caught with baited traps deployed off docks and bridges and around bends in the river where there is ample tidal flow. A mullet cut in half is usually enough to draw them in. However, there are rules and regulations for harvesting blue crabs with traps. Traps can only be pulled during daylight hours and there are regional closures along the East Coast during even numbered years and along the Gulf Coast during odd numbered years. Visit myfwc.com for the latest regulations before heading out. An additional option for procuring blue crabs involves wading along seawalls and docks and snatching them off pilings. Juvenile blue crabs will scurry away as you approach, making them easy targets with a long-handled dip net.
Average Size: 3-inches (carapace width)
AKA: Iridescent Swimming Crab, Drift Crab
Overall Rating: 6 / 10
Best Rigging Method
When it comes to rolling tarpon, there is no better enticement than a live pass crab with the legs broken off of one side. Using 60 lb. leader material, impale a 10/0 circle-hook through the legless side of the crab and cast the wounded crustacean ahead of moving fish. Give the crab plenty of slack and get ready! The chances of a hooked tarpon ultimately spitting the hook or working its way through a chafed leader are high, but the initial strike and first 60 seconds of the fight are what it is all about! Additionally, quarter sized pass crabs are often impaled on 1/2 oz. jigheads tied with 40 lb. leader and drifted back over Florida Bay wrecks with the hopes of enticing cobia and permit.
While a number of crab species are often referred to as pass crabs, along Florida’s central Gulf Coast the iridescent swimming crab is the real deal. Similar to the blue crab, iridescent swimming crabs reside along the western Atlantic from Massachusetts to Texas. They commonly inhabit the upper reaches of shallow water bays on sandy or muddy bottoms and thrive with the presence of healthy grass.
Pass crabs can be kept alive for short term submerged in a bucket of seawater. For long-term storage or transportation you’ll want to add an aerator. Otherwise, only add enough water in the bottom of a bucket to cover the crabs. Another option, and likely the best solution, is to keep crabs cool and moist. Wet seaweed or wet newspaper lining the bottom of a plastic container will suffice. You can add ice periodically to keep them cool, but do not drown the crabs in freshwater.
As countless crabs funnel through area passes they ignite insane feeding frenzies among hungry pods of rolling tarpon. The bar at the south end of Anclote Key off Tarpon Springs is a great place to pitch crabs at passing fish, including permit and cobia. Black drum and redfish often feed in the same region where a cracked crab impaled on a jighead and cast up current is often the ticket to success.
Pass crabs drift through Gulf Coast thoroughfares by the thousands from late April through July during a phenomenon referred to as “the crab chew” or “the crab flush.” It only happens around a hill tide, peaking during new and full moon phases in May and June. Pass crabs are drawn to the surface by the moon’s magical forces and the excessively high hill tides flush the crabs out of the major estuaries in mass during exaggerated outgoing tides. Catching pass crabs from a boat during this time is simple and straightforward. Head to any pass during the early stages of an outgoing tide, look for a rip stacked up with grass and/or debris, and dip net the crabs as they swim by. The passes leading in and out of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are ground zero for all the action.
The Winner: Blue Crab
While pass crabs are easy to catch during hill tides and are arguably the number one tarpon bait along Florida’s west coast, blue crabs reach larger proportions and are more versatile. Blue crabs can be fished in numerous manners and venues for various species both inshore and off. It is for this reason the blue crab emerges victorious in this crustacean competition.