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These pheromone-rich baits will become more readily available around the time of the next full moon on July 19 and are ideal for tipping a bucktail for weakfish, fluke, stripers and whatever else may be on your target list.
By Dave Rinear
Tags: inshore

Sexually immature female crabs shed numerous times. Like all exoskeleton crustaceans, they grow inside of their existing shell until, when the shell no longer fits them, they shed. The shell splits at the back and the crab backs out of it with its new, larger, exoskeleton in a soft state. This soft state lasts for less than one tide, starting to harden as soon as the crab has backed out of its former shell.

During the very brief time in which the new exoskeleton is soft, the crab is, not surprisingly, a soft-shelled crab, favored delicacy of seafood lovers, and equally favored delicacy of many a predatory gamefish. I know of no desirable gamefish species in the back bays that don't love soft-crabs as much as most folk down for the weekend do.

Something curious happens to the sexually immature female in preparation for the last shed of her life. She goes through a kind of blue claw puberty while her final exoskeleton is forming underneath her immature hard shell. She begins to release pheromones, which she hopes will attract a male hard-shelled blue claw. This process begins a week or so before they shed.

The male blue claw, attracted by the pheromones, wraps his feeler legs around the back of the immature female, carrying her underneath of him, protecting her from predators, like stripers, bluefish, weakfish, dogfish, fluke, and other species that detect the pheromones. This produces the "doublers" that have delighted small kids with crab nets and recreational crabbers since time immemorial. When the female finally sheds, the male protects her and then, in her softened state, he wraps his swimmer legs around her once again, but this time she is upside down. For a tide they are belly to belly in the act of mating. Once the impregnated female is hard, the male releases her, the eggs grow in her, and she goes her own way to grow her egg sack and propagate the species. Females mate only once in their lives immediately following the pubertal, or so-called terminal molt.

While this process occurs sporadically throughout the season, when crabs are up out of the mud and active, a virtual crab orgy occurs just prior to the full-moon in June - the annual big shed - and to a somewhat lesser extent during the full moon of July, occurring this month on July 19. These are the two months of the year during which vast numbers of females shed and are impregnated.

The problem for the crabs is that this is the very time of year that large numbers of weakfish, blues, school sized stripers, fluke, eels, and dogfish are being attracted by the released pheromones. Not surprisingly then, pheromone releasing female crabs are absolutely terrific bait from late spring, just prior to the first full moon in June, until the early fall.

The about-to-shed females are known as peelers, or more commonly, shedders. The proximity to their final shed can be determined in several ways. The belly of the immature female contains a white, triangular piece of shell over the immature sex organ. The sexually mature females belly contains a half moon piece of horizontally striped gray and white shell with a point at the top.

As the new mature exoskeleton grows underneath the immature shell, that triangular piece beings to turn color - from off white, to white with a few gray-blue streaky horizontal lines, to a vividly colored triangle of alternating horizontal pumpkin and blue. Crabs in this state are called "comers" - meaning that they are going to shed within a week or so. Some fishermen, when catching these, put them in small live boxes at the dock and check them daily as the time for the shed gets closer. Commercial crabbers and experienced fishermen can tell how long before the crab will shed by the intensifying color of the triangular piece of belly shell.

The best time to use the crab for bait is just before the back of the shell starts to separate and the new softer shell is visible underneath - crabs in this state are called busters.
There are other ways to tell. Look on the underside of the points of the shell and look for a hairline crack developing from the body out along to the point of the shell. This means shedding is imminent. While holding the crab by its back swimmer fin so that she can't pinch you, gently grasp the tip of the shell between the thumb and forefinger and press it together to see if it is flexible.

You want to use the crab before they shed, as they are still pheromone rich and will attract fish. Once the crab sheds and is soft, the pheromones are all released, and they will not be as attractive to predatory fish. Besides, at this point you might as well have soft-crabs for dinner instead of fish.

It’s pretty much as simple as peeling the crab by hand, and putting pieces on a simple three-way rig, although they’re especially deadly on bucktails. The crab must be close to shedding - within a tide or two - or they do not peel well. They live a surprisingly long time if kept in a paper bag out of the sun and will stay alive throughout a long day's fishing.

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