So you want to know how to go crabbing? Going crabbing is one of my favourite things to do with the kids when we go to the coast. It’s lots of fun and gets the kids up close and personal with nature. And it’s also a kids’ seaside activity that can be done at any time of year and in any weather. Which can be useful on a British summer holiday…
If you’ve never been crabbing before, or have only gone crab fishing as a child, this guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to go crabbing. It’s really, really easy, and SO MUCH FUN!
Crabbing with kids
Never gone crabbing before? You’re not alone! On a recent camping trip with a big group of my friends and their families, I was astonished to find that none of them had ever gone crabbing as a child, and so had no idea how to go about it. Not knowing how easy and how much fun it is, none of them had therefore ever been tempted to try it with their own children either.
But don’t worry, while crab fishing is fascinating and fun, it also sets a low bar for required skills. It is suitable for any age, with proper supervision. My friends were all fishing expertly with their children within mere minutes of us starting. And they are all (including the vegans among them – the crabs are returned unharmed to the sea after being caught) now enthusiastic converts to this seaside tradition.
Crabbing Guide contents
This ultimate guide to crabbing covers a lot of stuff. It’s an ultimate guide after all! But if you are looking for any particular information, you can skip straight down to it using this contents list.
- Crabbing equipment
- Eco-friendly and plastic-free crabbing equipment options
- Crab net versus crab line – which is best?
- Where to go crabbing
- When to go crabbing
- The best bait for crabbing
- How to crab fish with kids – step by step
- How to hold a crab
- What kind of crab have we caught?
- Not a crab! What else you might catch while crab fishing
- What to do with your catch when you are done crabbing
- Can you eat the crabs you catch, crabbing with kids?
- Seaside wildlife spotter guides and apps
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What you need to go crabbing with kids
You don’t need much equipment to go crabbing, and there will usually be plenty of places selling it right by the best crabbing locations in most British seaside towns and villages (especially in the summer). You can buy it online too, though, which will save you a bit of money and time. This is particularly useful if you are going crabbing away from towns and villages or outside of summer.
Crabbing Equipment List
The essential kit that you will need to go crabbing with children is:
- a crabbing net or line
- fishing net on a pole – (optional)
- extra bait bags (optional)
- a waterproof bag to carry your equipment home.
Here’s a little bit more information on each piece of crabbing equipment:
Crabbing net or line
This is what you’ll catch your crabs with. They come in two basic forms – a line wrapped around a H-shaped handle, or a circular net. I look at the pros and cons of crab nets vs crab lines below, as well as eco-friendly and plastic-free crabbing equipment options.
When you catch your crabs, you’ll need a bucket full of sea water to put them in so that they stay safe (and don’t crawl straight back to the water) while you take a look. Clear plastic crab buckets are great for this. You can get ginormous ones or more manageable sizes that can double as sandcastle buckets. You can use any clean, waterproof container. But just bear in mind that crabs are quite good a climbing (and will pile up on top of each other), so if the container is too small or low-sided, it won’t hold them for long. If you are keen to avoid plastic, you can see some environmentally-friendly crab bucket options below.
Most seaside towns or villages will have somewhere selling bait. This is usually either out-of-date shellfish like mussels, cockles, whelks, winkles and even crab (yes, crabs can be cannibals!), or bits of old bacon or rancid meat. By its nature, it tends to be quite smelly, so you might not want to bring this with you ahead of time.
Instead, just check out the food outlets and vans nearest the sea. You are bound to find one selling little plastic bags of bait for around a pound a go. Most bigger fishing towns and villages often have an RNLI shop, which also usually sell packets of bait along with lines and nets. We like to support the RNLI as much as possible, so we’ll pop in there before trying other places.
Check out my tips below for the best bait for crabbing, to see some other options. These can be especially useful outside of the summer holiday season.
Fishing net (or butterfly net)
If you are using a crabbing line (also known as a hand line) rather than a crabbing net, it helps to have a fishing net on a pole. These are also known as butterfly nets. As you haul up the line during fishing, the crabs will be hanging on to the bait with their claws. You’ll use the net to scoop them up and put them in your bucket.
Traditionally these nets have long bamboo handles. But you can get them with telescopic handles, so they fold down for transport and storage. Fishing nets are also great for rock pooling, so we tend to always include some in our seaside kit.
However bear in mind that if you are using a crabbing net rather than the hand line, you won’t need a pole net as well.
Extra bait bags
Whether crabbing with a net or a line, these days most people use bait bags rather than hooks. The bait bags are either clipped or tied to the net or line. As they get the most attention from the crabs, it’s not uncommon for them to come loose or get damaged. Having a supply of spare bait bags can save you having to buy a whole new line or net.
To save buying these, you can use the little washing tablet net bags for the washing machine. These make great bait bags, but make sure they are well rinsed first, to get rid of any trace of detergent.
Spare bait bags are especially useful if you are planning on doing a lot of crabbing. And with this in mind, it can also be handy to have a bit of string with you, for emergency repairs or to reattach them if they come loose.
Waterproof carry-home bag
At the end of a long day crabbing, your equipment is going to be wet, and smell a little…fishy. To clean it, all you need to do is give everything a good rinse with tap water and then let it dry.
You are unlikely to be able to do this at the shore, however. So I recommend bringing along a waterproof bag big enough to take everything home in.
This doesn’t need to be fancy – a large plastic bag will do the job. I also use our bucket to store everything in, but putting the nets or lines in a bag as well helps keep the smells contained. Eau du Mer is definitely an acquired taste when it comes to car fresheners!
Eco-friendly, plastic-free crabbing with kids
We all know the downsides of plastic, and, like most of us, I want to reduce our family’s plastic use. So I was very excited to see non-plastic crabbing equipment alternatives starting to become more readily available.
Bear in mind that if you are using metal buckets, you’ll need to empty it regularly and keep it in the shade, as it will get hotter in there than in the average plastic bucket.
Equipment made from hemp, hessian, and bamboo will mean you can do this activity without any plastic at all. But even if you don’t go for natural materials, you can still make your crabbing more environmentally friendly by taking your equipment home with you at the end of the day. Clean it, and reuse it, or pass it on to others to use, rather than throwing it away or leaving it behind.
Crab drop net versus crab line – which is best?
Growing up, we always used a crab line (or hand line) for our fishing. A crab line is a long length of fishing line with a weight at the end and either hooks or net bags for bait. They are sold wrapped around a H-shaped reel.
Child of the eighties that I am, our lines had hooks to attach bait. But nowadays most lines come with bait bags instead. While I don’t recall us ever getting injured by the hooks, there’s no doubt the bags make things nice and easy, and are less likely to harm the crabs too.
A crabbing net is a collapsible round net, with a bait bag either pegged or tied to the bottom, alongside a weight. The crabbing net is attached to a length of cord that you use to lower it into the water, and which is wrapped around a handle. (yes, it’s basically a net tied to a crab line).
Crab lines – the pluses:
Crab lines are great fun, and are much easier to carry around than the nets. They are small enough to fit into your pocket. They are also cheap enough that the kids can have one each, and so simple that they are a doddle to repair.
Crab lines are more difficult to get a successful catch with (see negatives!), but this can make the whole activity more rewarding and a bigger challenge. You’ll know whether this would frustrate or excite your kids.
The downsides to crab lines
Hand lines work in much the same way as the crab nets. You lower them into the water with bait attached; a crab attacks the bait bag; and you haul them back up. But with the line, you have to be really careful to lift the line smoothly, and without knocking into anything. Because the slightest jostle and your crabs are likely to fall back into the water before you can scoop them up with the net.
This can be frustrating as the biggest crabs can be hard to catch this way. Some canny beasties seem to learn to drop off at just the right moment. You may find yourself with a repeat offender who becomes your very own Moby Dick. Call me Ishmael…
Crab nets – the positives
With a crab net, there is little chance of loosing your catch before it is landed. When you lower your net to the sea bed, it collapses flat, with the bait bag tied in the middle. Crabs (and other sea life) will approach the bait bag, drawn by the smell of a tasty feast. When you pull the line to bring the net back up, the sides rise around the bait bag. This traps any crabs, fish, or other would-be dinner guests, and holds them safely inside while you pull them up.
Crab nets can therefore catch a much bigger haul, much more easily. You will also find that you catch more than just crabs. Your net will scoop up shrimp and fish, too. This means your children will get a clearer idea of what life is like in the water below, as you are essentially pond dipping in the ocean. It’s not all crustaceans down there…
The downsides to crab nets
Crab nets are much bulkier than the hand lines, so although they are very light, they are more of a hassle to transport and store. They also cost a bit more.
Being nets, they also take a little more work to clean – though it’s still just a quick rinse and being left to dry. It’s also unlikely they’ll fit in your bucket to store.
But you’ll notice my negatives list is a lot shorter than the pros! That’s because when you come down to it, crab nets are just so much easier to use. Beginners and even very young kids alike will start catching creatures straight away, and nothing feeds enthusiasm like success.
Crab nets, then, are ultimately what I would recommend you use, at least at first. But don’t be afraid to give the humble crab line a go. The challenge they pose can be just as much fun.
Where to go crabbing
You can go crabbing anywhere around the coast of Britain, as crabs are found everywhere. While you might see the odd one or two on the beach, the best place to go crabbing is a quay, harbour, jetty, or pier (all variations on a theme!). Most British coastal villages and towns will have somewhere that’s just right.
What you want ideally is a place you can drop your line or net straight down, and where there will be a bit of rock cover or seaweed (and therefore food sources) on the seabed. So not in the middle of a sandy beach!
Fishing harbours are where you’ll find the biggest crabs, as they’ll be living on a diet of rich pickings from the fishing boat detritus and have plenty of hiding places from predators.
Another good place for crabbing is along tidal inlets, where there are docks or piers to fish from. These are usually less intimidating than harbour walls (which can have hair-raisingly steep drops), so can be a good place to get the hang of things.
If you are going crabbing in the summer here in the UK, you’ll have no problem finding a good spot. Just look for the hoards of children with overflowing crab buckets – there will always be a gaggle who get there before you.
Where NOT to crab fish
While quays, harbours and jetties are great for crab fishing, they are also workplaces, and can be dangerous. Keep a lookout for any signs which say fishing is prohibited, and avoid fishing around any boats. Dropped nets and lines can tangle around boat propellers, causing considerable damage.
Also, check the length of your fishing line before you start. Crabs will be on the bottom of the sea, so if your line or net can’t reach that far, you won’t catch any. Some harbours can be very deep in places, so you may need to find a shallower spot.
As with any seaside activity, you may also need to be aware of changing tides. This is not usually an issue within towns, but if you are fishing somewhere that could get cut off at high tide, make sure you know when that will be.
When to go crabbing
You can go crabbing any time of year, and in any weather, so it’s a perfect seaside activity for grey or rainy days. The best time of day is a few hours before high tide (when the tide is coming in). This is the natural dinner time for crabs, so they will be at their most active and your bait most tempting.
Don’t bother to crab at low tide. Even if there is still a little water, the crabs tend to bury themselves in the sand or mud to avoid predators, so will be in hiding when the tide is out. Low tide is a good time to go rock pooling though, so if you’re out of luck with crabbing, try that instead.
You can check ahead online to see when the tide due to be at its highest. Or you can usually pick up a tide table with the exact times on from local tourist information centres and the harbour master.
The best bait for crabbing
Most crabs are omnivores, eating both plants and meat. They will eat anything they can scavenge. This can be seaweed, algae, sea snails, shrimps, shellfish, and even smaller crabs. And they are just as happy to eat it rotten as fresh.
So given their undiscriminating diet, what makes the best bait?
Crabs have an amazing sense of smell, so the stinkier your bait, the more crabs you are likely to attract. Old bacon rind (better than the meat itself) or butcher offcuts are great, but fish heads are even better.
You can ask at local shops, and it’s more than likely that in popular crabbing locations they’ll already be bagging those bits up to sell as bait anyway.
A good bait to bring with you from home (that isn’t too smell to transport) is a tin of sardines. Turns out that crabs are just as fond of these as the Famous Five were. Sealed in a tin, sardines are a great option when summer cafes and shops are likely to be closed, or where you are going crabbing off the beaten track.
How to crab fish with kids – step by step
Once you’ve found a great location, arrived at the right time, with all your gear, what do you do next?
Never fear, this step by step crabbing guide will show you.
How to use a crabbing net
- Firstly, fill up your bucket with seawater. Get this from as close to your fishing location as possible. To keep the crabs happy, you may want to add a little seaweed or rocks. Stand your bucket in a shady place as the crabs won’t like direct sunlight. This is especially important if you are using a metal bucket, as there would be a real danger of them overheating.
- Put your bait into your bait bags, and make sure they are closed and securely attached
- Gently swing your net out into the water, and let it drop down until it hits the seabed. You’ll know when this happens as the line will start to slack off.
- Wait for a bit. Those crabs need to get a whiff of dinner and make their way over to your bait bag, so don’t rush it. Give it a good five minutes the first time, though after that you’ll find that you get bites a little bit quicker.
- After a few minutes, gently raise your net. It should feel heavier (you might also feel a little tug). Pull it carefully to the surface to see what you have caught.
- Gently tip the contents into your crab bucket. Alongside crabs, you may have caught shrimps, fish, or other sea creatures.
- After you have had a good look, you can take your bucket back to the sea and release your catch, ready to start again
How to use a crab line
Using a crab line is exactly the same, except that your bait bag is tied on to a weighted line rather than at the bottom of a net. So, when you pull up your line, have your pole net ready to scoop up your catch before it falls back into the water.
You will need to be even more gentle pulling up the line, but you’ll be able to feel when you’ve got a bite much more easily.
How to hold a crab
You should be able to transfer your crab between net and bucket without touching it, but if you do need to pick one up, hold it from the back or sides (away from the pincers!) between your finger and thumb. They can give a sharp nip so stay away from the claws and both you and the crab will be fine.
To transfer from net to bucket without touching the crab, gently bunch the net underneath the crab (from the outside), and use it to push/tip the crab into the bucket. Be careful that it is not caught in the net as you do so. You should use the same technique for any other creatures you catch, and make sure the kids do the same – you don’t want them to be tipping the net upside down and shaking it!
What kind of crab have we caught?
It doesn’t matter where you go crabbing in the British Isles, chances are that you’ll catch the same kind of crab. The Common Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas), also known as the Green or European crab.
It’s not always green – it can be orange, red, or brown (the green colour is a sign it’s still growing), and young ones can even have black and white patterns on their shells. So to identify it look between the eyes and you should see three bumps in the shell. A shore crab also has five spikes on either side. Flip the crab over (gently!) and if you see a triangular flap on the underside, then the crab is female.
You may be lucky enough to catch a female carrying eggs. This will look like a spongy orange mass on her belly. Make sure to look after egg-carrying females especially well, and let them go as soon as possible.
The Green or European Common Shore Crab
There are several reasons why the shore crab is one of the most common in the British Isles. There’s no doubt it is an efficient predator and scavenger, but one of the key things it has going for it is its extreme hardiness. The shore crab is the only European crab who can tolerate drastic changes in the amount of salt in the water. While it can’t survive in freshwater, it only needs a tiny bit of salinity and does best in shallow waters.
This means it can venture further inland in estuaries and inlets than any other crab, extending its habitat range and making it less susceptible to environmental changes.
Hard case crabs
If you catch a crab that has one claw smaller than the other, then it’s likely that it lost a claw at some point. When a shore crab grows a new shell, they can also regrow lost limbs – a handy trick (mum joke alert!). But the new limbs will be smaller than the original.
Shore crabs grow a new shell twice a year. The new shell grows inside the old one, and is soft until after the old one is shed and the new shell hardens. During this vulnerable time when their shell is soft, they are known as peelers.
So if you find what looks like a dead crab on the beach, check the eyes. If there are holes where the eyes should be, then what you’ve found is actually a discarded carapace.
The shore crab is found all over its native range of the British Isles and Europe. But in many other places it is an invasive species, carried to distant ports in the ballast water of ships. Because of the damage it can do in non-native species, it is classed as one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world.
Not a crab! What else you might catch while crab fishing
If you are using a net, rather than a line, you are likely to catch other sea creatures alongside the crabs. Probably the most common companion catch are shrimp, prawns, and the odd fish. Dab (small flatfish) are frequent catches as they are very common fish that like fairly shallow water, so are found close to shore. You might also catch the Common or European Brown shrimp, which we always seem to catch with our crabs.
Of course what you catch does depend on where you are. This is both in terms of around the country and more specifically in the nature of the site you are fishing at. There are lots of online resources that can help you identify your catch, but it’s worth bringing along a guide book too. I’ve listed my favourite guide books for different age groups below, along with the best app for identifying living things using your phone camera.
What to do with your catch when you are done crabbing
Take care of your catch by making sure your bucket isn’t in full sun. The creatures you have caught will be used to dark and dim places, and can overheat in the sunshine.
Crabs (especially male ones) can be quite aggressive towards one another. So don’t let your bucket get too full, and if you notice any misbehaving, then it’s time to let them go. Crabs often also try to eat their smaller fellow guests (you did lure them in with the promise of lunch), so it is best to separate out the shrimps and fish if you can.
Once you are ready to say goodbye, take your bucket to the water’s edge. Ideally you would submerge the bucket to let them go, but you can also pour them gently. Just don’t drop them from a great height or throw them back from the top of the quay!
Once your bucket is empty, you can refill it with more seawater and carry on fishing.
Can you eat the crabs you catch crabbing with kids?
For most people, crabbing is a catch-and-release activity. The crabs are not hurt by being caught with either a net or line, and are returned unharmed to the sea afterwards. These crabs are not for eating!
This is something my Mauritian father found very hard to come to terms with. For him, when growing up in 1940s Mauritius, it was necessary to forage for food to supplement your diet. Everything that could be eaten, was. So throwing bucketfuls of crab back to sea seemed an almost an almost criminal waste of food to him. Plus he really loves seafood. One holiday, he finally broke. He went around paying all the children in the harbour for their catch, intending to take them home and cook them for dinner.
Outraged by the prospect of this mass crabicide, my sister and I rebelled. Following in his wake, we tipped all the buckets back into the water when he wasn’t looking. Hypocritical, I know, since I actually do really like crabmeat. Our dad was left with only a small handful of prawns. And we learned some new words in French that day.
And yes, he did cook the prawns, and we still refused to eat them. Ah, the joys of a British family holiday!
But are British shore crabs edible?
Well, yes, they are, and some people claim they have a great flavour. But there are many good reasons for not eating the crabs you catch. Even if, yes, technically you can eat them (especially if you are Rick Stein), and in some parts of Europe they certainly do.
For starters, the biggest they grow is about nine or ten centimetres wide. This means there’s not going to be a whole lot of meat on the crabs. They would work for a soup or a bisque, but it’ll be a lot of work for not much reward. The smaller ones wouldn’t be worth bothering with. Plus, it’s a big no-no to eat smaller crabs who may not have had a chance to reproduce.
For me, perhaps the best reason for not eating them though, is that crabs are scavengers. Think about what those crabs are likely to be eating at the bottom of a British seaside harbour, and how many pollutants and toxins are in the water. Now ask yourself if you want that in your stomach… Catch those same crabs in pristine waters away from human activity, and I might be interested. Eating harbour crabs? No, thank you.
Crabbing Guide books and apps
I love a good guide book, and it’s great practice for kids to use them for identification and research when doing an activity like crabbing. Unfortunately there are none (that I know of!) that directly cover the creatures you might catch when crab fishing. But there are plenty that cover the seaside and activities like rock pooling, where you would encounter similar wildlife. Here are a few of my favourites.
Best app for identifying nature
I’ve tried a whole host of apps for identifying nature, and my favourite by far is the free app Seek by iNaturalist. With this app, you use your phone’s camera to focus on the living thing you want to identify, and the app will identify it for you. Alternatively, you can upload an existing photo into the app to do the same thing. As the app covers millions of plants, animals, insects, fungi, birds, and amphibians found worldwide, it should be the only id app you ever need.
Seashore guide books for preschool and nursery
I’m a big fan of publisher Nosy Crow, and their (partially) rhyming picture book for the National Trust Look What I Found at the Seaside is a great example. This is a lovely introduction to seaside wildlife for the very young, with things to spot both on the pages and when you are out and about on the shore.
I absolutely LOVE the RSPB’s First Book of… nature series. I have quite a few of these to use in my forest school sessions, and My First Book Of The Seashore is just as good as the rest. The books are beautifully – and clearly – illustrated, and the text pitched at just the right level for primary school. This is very much a first ‘proper’ guide book.
Seashore guide books for older children
The Usborne Spotter Guides series is a bit of a classic that’s been around in one form or other since at least the ’70s. The Seashore in that series (the updated new edition) is a good guide to bridge the gap between the books aimed at younger children, and adult guide books. Covering a wide range of different shoreline wildlife, it is very much a spotter guide in that it focuses on identification by providing detailed illustrations (not photos) and descriptions, rather than in-depth information.
Another great RSPB series for kids is the RSPB Nature Guides. A Seashore title for this series is coming out in March 2023 (you can already pre-order it), and looks like it will be just as good as the others. This series are also illustrated (rather than photo) spotter guides. They have a much more modern-looking design than the Usborne guide, include interesting titbits of information and are rather pretty. They don’t cover as many creatures as the Usborne guide though, so if you want a wide range of creatures, the Usborne Seashore guide may be a better bet.
Seashore guide books for families and adults
The Essential Guide to Rockpooling pretty much lives up to its name. This is one of the most comprehensive and engaging seashore guides around. Though it’s written clearly and concisely enough for kids, it’s also suitable for adults, with lots of fascinating information and clear descriptions to aid identification. This book also uses photos rather than illustrations, which I personally prefer.
The RSPB Handbook of the Seashore is very much a serious guide book, organised by taxonomy. Don’t let that put you off, however, as it’s written in a very engaging style with interesting snippets of information rather than just dry facts. This also uses photos rather than illustrations, and it covers a huge range of creatures.
So now you have everything you need to know about crabbing, plus quite a bit more. Remember that this really is a very simple and easy activity, and go have some fun!
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