“Crabbing Lingo”: A 20th Century Guide to Soft Shell Crabs

by Owen James Burke


Image: Public Domain.

(This article in the Charleston paper, Dec 24, 1919, is about Maryland crabbing, and was published in hopes that Charleston could establish an equally successful industry. -OJB)

Crabbing Lingo

Many dealers catch “peelers,” that is, crabs that will shed shortly, and let them finish peeling in floats constructed for the purpose. These vary all the way from “rank peelers” and “busters” to “sweet, fat, and green” crabs, and “buckrams.” When a crab is getting ready to shed, a line appears on the next to the last joint of the back fins. If the line is white, the crab is thrown back, for it will die before shedding; if the line is pink, the crab is a peeler. It will shed in a few days. ‘A rank peeler’ will shed within a day. A crab of which the back shell has cracked loose from the apron is called “a buster,’ and will usually shed within an hour or two. The large male crabs are called “Jimmies” by the fishermen. A buckram is a soft crab become leathery and too hard to ship.

Peelers are placed within the shedding floats and culled out as they shed. They are left to harden a little for the crab would die if shipped when too soft. These soft crabs are packed on end in boxes with ice between and are covered with sea moss and special paper. Sea moss is also laid under them.

jamestowncrab (1)

Photo: Public Domain.

A crabber fishing with a trot line, the bait attached to snoods at intervals, will take from three to four barrels (sugar barrels) of crabs daily, if the boat is propelled by hand; and about ten barrels, sometimes much more, if the boat is propelled by sail or steam.
In winter, crabs are dredged up from the bottom. These are hard crabs, of course, for the crab does not moult except in spring, summer and early fall.
Boats gather up the catch from crabbers at distant points, where the catch is by dip-net. When the boat is owned by a dealer and the captain is working on commission, it is referred to as a “run boat.” When the captain is buying crabs and selling them for himself, the boat is known as a “buy-boat.”
Many factories cook crabs, very much as oysters are cooked, by placing the crabs in an iron car and running them into the steaming vat, where the crabs are instantly killed and cooked, coming out with red shells. The meat is then picked out and the shells cleaned for shipping. A good picker can get out seventy pounds of crab meat in a day and earn $15 a week. Boys are paid ten cents a hundred to clean the shells. A fair average price for crab meat is $2 a gallon, about twenty pounds.
Soft-shelled crabs sell from 30 cents to $4 a dozen, according to size and season.


Photo: Public Domain.

The scrap, of which there is a big supply, is sold to fertilizer factories, just as shrimp head and shells are sold at Brunswick, GA., and Fernandina, Florida, for the same purpose…
Why can not South Carolina use these things?

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