'Tis the Season

Sandy Claws Are Coming To Town.

Addicted to The Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch and its numerous spin-offs? Sure, it's a glamorous job to risk life and limb bringing in a boatload of Alaskan King that will end up piled high at Red Lobster's weekly crab fest, but that's not how we roll here in Florida. Instead of getting hypothermia in the frigid Alaskan waters or taking a crushing blow from gigantic, windblown cages winched above frost-rimmed decks, we Floridians can just strap on a snorkel and head out into the Gulf. All we have to fear are finger pinches from energetic claws or stray shell shards landing in our margaritas after an overly enthusiastic whack of the mallet.

Drag out the dinghy, stock the cooler and borrow a few traps. Florida stone crab season starts October 15.

You've got to have respect for our scrappy native crustaceans. Their bodies tend to be small, usually around 4 inches across for an adult, but their main claw is strong enough to crush an oyster shell to get at the tasty meat inside. If they run into trouble, stone crabs can jam that claw in the face of a predator as a sacrificial offering, leaving the beast with a tasty treat and allowing the crab to scuttle off to fight another day. In about a year, that big crusher will have grown back and be good as new.

Which is why stone crab harvesting may be the most renewable and ecologically sound type of fishing in our waters. By law, fishermen can only take claws that have grown to 2.75 inches or more; a quick twist, snap and the live crab goes back in the water to regenerate for next season. Overfishing? Not a big problem with stone crabs.

So thanks to an evolutionary trait crabs devised to escape predators, we get the meat without having to kill the animal. It's almost like shearing sheep. Even some vegetarians should be able to get behind that. Especially after they taste that incredibly rich, buttery flesh.

"The Gulf Coast has the best crabs," says longtime stone crab broker Dave Missigman of Ozona Crab Company in Pinellas County. According to Missigman, although the Keys are proud of their crystal-clear water, the crabs like it a little murkier. "We have darker waters and can crab closer to shore," he explains. "In the Keys, they have to go to the deep waters."

Missigman has about 35 independent family fishing boats providing him with crabs during season, each boat emptying between 600 and 1,000 traps a day, only during daylight hours. They're unloaded at Ozona's dock, immediately cooked and chilled, and shipped out the next morning, nearly all of them out of state.

Of course, Ozona isn't the only company snapping off claws — you'll be able to find stone crabs at roadside stands, supermarkets and restaurants everywhere on the Gulf Coast for the next six months, priced anywhere from $10-$35 per pound, depending on the size of the claw and the bounty of this year's harvest.

Considering the price, maybe it's time to get your hands wet and catch them yourself. It's easier than you think. Even Creative Loafing staffers can pull it off.

"The best place to find them are in tires and cinder blocks," says recreational fisherman and CL Sarasota employee Chris Duffy, who straps on a snorkel and hunts crabs by hand every season. The little guys like to hide, often near jetties and outcroppings, so sometimes he has to reach into the dark to pull them out. Just remember what I said about crushing an oyster shell; there have been some, but not many, claims of serious injuries — even amputations — caused by particularly energetic stone crabs. "When they grab you, man it hurts," Duffy says.

When diving or snorkeling, here's the simplest technique: Avoiding the claws, push down on the back of the crab, which will cause it to pull its claws close to the body. Grab the big one and twist firmly away from the crab. Just make sure the claws you pull are above regulation size.

Recreational trapping is also legal in Florida, as long as you have a fishing license. You can outfit yourself with five traps, buoys and ropes from a variety of online sites for under $100. Most people bait the traps with fish heads, pig's feet or chicken thighs and leave them for a few days to let the crabs move in. On Florida's Fish and Wildlife website (myfwc.com), you can find simple rules about where the traps can be placed and how many claws you can harvest. No matter how you get them, do not put the claws on ice. "The meat is not a solid," explains Alan Moore, whose family has owned and operated Moore's Stone Crab on Longboat Key for 40 years. The business processes more than 1,000 pounds of stone crab every day during season for their restaurant and shipping business.

"It's a viscous jelly; crack it open raw and it would run out on the table," says Moore. Chill raw stone crab and the meat turns to solid glue with a death grip on the side of the shell. Just drop your bounty in a bag or box and wait until you get home.

Moore recommends boiling for eight to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the crab. As soon as you pull the claws from the pot, dump them in an ice bath to chill them down and draw the meat away from the sides of the shell. Eat them immediately or refrigerate for later. Stone crab is often served cold with a traditional mustard sauce (see below for Moore's version), but you can also drop refrigerated claws into boiling water for a minute and serve with drawn butter.

These are "stone" crabs for a reason. Everyone has their favorite technique, but the best and safest way to get through the thick shells is to wrap the claw in a kitchen towel — to reduce shrapnel — and whack it with a hammer or a mallet.

Dip, eat and continue. At least until May 15.

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp dry or Dijon mustard (or more to taste)

2 tbsp heavy cream

1 tbsp lemon juice

Salt to taste

Mix mustard and mayonnaise together in mixing bowl for one minute. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix for one more minute. Chill covered until served.

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