Peering beneath a small limestone ledge in the Intracoastal Waterway, I spotted a slight movement — a flash of white in the darkness — and thrust a whole dead ballyhoo into the opening. Feeling something clamp onto the bait, I held on as tightly as I could and pulled steadily. Out to the edge it came: a feisty stone crab clamped down on the fish morsel with a very large black-rimmed claw.
I kept pulling, but the spirited crustacean refused to venture any further out of its small cavern. It was close enough for me to just reach in and grab it, but I held back out of fear that 19,000 pounds per square inch of pressure would be exerted on my thinly gloved hand. I pulled a little harder on the ballyhoo but lost the tug of war when the crab pinched it in half and backed inside the ledge to eat it.
Fortunately, my dive buddy, Mike Russo — owner of Coastal Marine Diving Supplies in Dania Beach — had witnessed the tail end of the struggle and wasn’t as hesitant as I had been. He thrust his arm into the hole up to the elbow and pulled out the struggling crab.
There was no question its large crusher claw was well over the minimum legal size of 2 3/4 inches, but Russo measured it anyway with a metal gauge. He snapped it off, stashed it in a mesh bag and returned the one-armed crab to its shelter. At least the animal would be able to feed itself during the year or so it would take to regenerate the missing claw.
“I do it for the biggest claw, and I don’t worry about the other one because there’s a lot of effort into generating another claw,” Russo, 52, explained later.
Spending over an hour and burning one scuba tank apiece, we scored maybe a half-gallon of legal claws on a shallow flat adjacent to a 37-foot drop-off near North Miami Beach. The catch was well short of the daily boat limit of two gallons of claws, but enough for appetizers for the crew working at the dive shop and captain Bill Prescott, who skippered the 34-foot Blue Runner on our half-day excursion.
No one can remember a time of higher retail stone crab prices than the 2013-14 season, which concludes May 16. Prices grazing the $90 mark for a pound of “colossals” — the largest claws — have prompted some divers and snorkelers to harvest their own. Recreational trappers also have reported some success within their maximum allotment of five traps per person.
But harvesting this seafood delicacy by hand is not for the casual diver. Stone crabs spend their days holed up in caves, undercut seawalls and beneath bridges, piers and docks — not walking around out in the open. While lobsters reveal themselves with long antennae sticking out from beneath coral heads, stone crabs tuck themselves as far back from the entrance as possible. Hunters must look closely to detect them.
Then, like Russo, the hunter must gather his or her courage and commit to besting the adversary.
“If you don’t want to get your hands in there, put the ballyhoo in there and you just kind of wiggle it out,” Russo advised.
But if that doesn’t work (as it didn’t for me), “put your hand on top of his back, reach to the back side of the crab and your thumbs close down on both of his claws,” Russo said. “If he has the ballyhoo, you only have to clamp down on one claw.”
The strategy worked the day that Russo and I hunted. None of the crabs managed to escape and neither of us got pinched. Russo took one legal claw off each crab he caught, except for one egg-bearing female that he released.
With three weeks left in the harvest season, the pickings are likely to be slim. But with lobster season closed until late July, stalking stone crabs gives you something to hunt for and adds zest to your shallow-water dives. You probably even have your own mustard sauce recipe already mixed up.