Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Soft-Shell Crabs
Sharp Eyes and Soft Shells  

Rays of reddish pink magically prepare to illuminate the morning sky casting an eerie glow on the wheat stalks standing watch from the farm across the road. Two massive St. Bernard dogs lazily raise their heads in approval as their master quickly makes his way along the dark well worn path to the start of his work day. At an hour when even the roosters are still asleep, while most of the folks in Middlesex County have hours yet before their alarm clocks will rattle their slumber: Troy Hainley, is up, dressed and already at his days work. Troy Hainley is no ordinary man; he is the quintessential waterman doing the work of harvesting and “sheddin” blue crabs.

Troy is part of a tradition that had its start in Crisfield, Maryland about 1850 and rapidly spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. In the early days shedding crabs was a rather primitive process done at the shoreline in fenced off enclosures. Eventually watermen learned how to distinguish and separate peeler crabs from crabs not ready to molt. By the mid 1950s watermen started using shedding tank similar to the tank Troy and Ann use in their crab house.


When the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs start to shed their shells (molt) to enable them to grow larger, the season is called “first run.” It is a hectic time for Troy and his wife Ann because they must inspect the crabs in the tanks every four hours 24-7.

Troy and Ann Hailey are a husband and wife team that daily pursues the exhausting routine of the “sheddin” season. As I watched the two sorting I was amazed at their skill in quickly recognizing how soon each crab would “bust” out of their shell.

Ann told me she first met Troy when he came into the Tasty-Freeze in Mathews where she worked. Ann recalls that Troy was wearing his white waterman work boots. He had just come from his job as a waterman working for Frances McNamara near the Piankatank River Bridge. Ann says Troy later told here “he had come to Mathews on a hunt for a girl.” Troy wasted no time deciding Ann was the girl for him despite the fact that before she met him she had never even seen a soft shell crab. Her knowledge of “soft-shells” quickly changed when they were married in 1986. Ann and Troy have two daughters: Lesley, 22, now earning her post graduate degree in Psychology at the University of Maryland and a Kelsey, 17, who is in high school.

As a teenager Troy would spend summers with his grandfather at his home on Mitchum Creek not far from the Piankatank River Bridge and watermen Frances McNamara’s business. Troy started working for Frances McNamara in the summer of 1981 harvesting crabs while he was still a teenager at age 16. Troy told me that when he was a teenager he was consumed by the idea of working at any kind of job working on the water. When Troy graduated from high school he went to work for McNamara full time and stayed for ten years. Just before Frances McNamara died, he and Troy bought a boat together. Soon after Troy established his own watermen business. In 1998 Troy and Ann made a decision to specialize in soft shell crabs. They built their “Crab House” on land they owned in Middlesex County.

Getting soft shell crabs from the water to the table is a very involved and labor intensive process. It all starts with the watermen baiting and laying down a string of crab pots. The crab pots are then pulled up, emptied of crabs and whatever other fish enter the pot then baited and tossed back into the water. Troy is not interested in catching the kind of crabs you would steam and pick from the hard shell. He is after “peelers” crabs which are crabs that are close to “molting” or as the watermen say “sheddin” their shells. Five to ten days before for a crab molts it develops a thin white line on the thin margins between the last two swimming legs. A few days before shedding, the white line gives way to a pink line and fine white wrinkles appear on the blue skin between the wrist and the upper joint. When the line turns red, the crab could shed its shell at any moment. Watermen can tell when a crab will molt by the “Signs.” “Snots” or “Greens” are crabs displaying a white sign, a hard to spot white mark that appears about two weeks before molting.

A “Pink” sign appears on the new shell and shows through the old shell on the crab’s backfin to indicate the crab will molt in less than a week. A “Red” sign is more easily recognized on the edge of the swimming legs. A “Rank Peeler” is a hard crab which will molt in a matter of hours. There are some more obvious signs that a blue crab is about to shed.

When an immature female crab, known as a “Sally,” is about to perform her final pre-pubescent molt and become sexually mature, her condition is signaled by the color of her apron. A green “Sally” or “she crab” shows a mostly white apron with a few blue spots. A “Red-Sign Sally” or “she crab’s” apron is obviously blue. The mature female crab known as a “Sook” will have dark colored bell shaped abdomen when about to molt. “Jimmies” are male crabs with a much narrower apron.

What Troy and Ann are watching for, they call it “fishin up,” in the early morning, day time and late night shifts are “busters” or crabs that are about to discard their shells. They are also checking the buster tank for that moment when the soft crab “busters” out of the old shell. During this time the now 25% larger soft crab is most vulnerable to attack from other crabs and must be isolated and given enough time in the water for the shell to harden slightly but still remain soft and palatable. This period take about four hours. At just the precise moment the soft crab is removed from the tank placed in a dampened cardboard box and covered with wet newspaper or burlap and refrigerated.

Troy and Ann start their work with the first run in April then there is about a two- to three-week period where the pots are cleaned and repaired before the routine starts all over in late June and on through the summer. In the off season Troy harvests Conch for export. For recreation Troy enjoys bass fishing. Ann loves to shop and spend time with her family.

The Callincetes sapidus is the formal scientific name derived from Latin and Greek for the blue crab. Calli = beautiful, Nectes = swimmer and sapidus = savory. In English it means the beautiful savory swimmer. It takes about 12 to 18 months for a juvenile blue crab to become an adult at about 8 inches. Along the way it will shed its outer shell which is actually the crab’s skeleton.

Savory swimmer is an appropriate name based on the popularity of soft-shell crabs. Ironically soft shell crabs are better travelers than hard shells. They can be shipped thousand of miles in live condition and frozen. They can be stored frozen without suffering any loss of flavor. The soft crab industry in Virginia is a multi-million dollar commercial phenomenon and an important part of the economy of Virginia.

I asked Ann Hailey how she likes to cook soft-shells. Ann’s recipe is to clean the crabs in the traditional way by cutting off the eyes and front section of the crab then cutting out the apron and removing the lungs and intestines under each side flap. Rinse the crab thoroughly in cold running water. Next Ann dusts the moist crab with House Autry Seafood Breader then sautés the crabs in butter in a skillet. 10 minutes on the bottom apron side then 4 or 5 minutes on the back.

There are dozens and dozens of recipes for soft-shells. One of the most popular is to bread the soft-shell in a beer batter or first dip the crab in egg then bread crumbs then deep fry them for 2 or 3 minutes or until golden brown. Although this is a popular method, The Hainleys and I personally prefer the sauté in oil or butter method which is healthier and provides a more flavorful meal. Soft-shells come in a variety of sizes and are priced according to the size.

The smallest soft-shells are the MEDIUMS 3½–4 inches. The next size up are HOTELS 4–4½ inches, then PRIMES 4½–5 inches, JUMBOS 5–5½ and the largest called WHALES at 5½ inches and up. Most often I have seen soft shell crabs displayed as small, medium and large.

Generally the fish store will clean the crabs for you. Never serve a blue crab that has a strong ammonia smell. The best way to keep them fresh on the way home is on ice provided to you by the fish store. Keep them wet and refrigerated at 50 degrees. Keeping soft-shells at 36 degrees is acceptable but will eventually kill them. If you need to keep soft-shells longer than a day or two you might want to clean and freeze them.

If you have never tried a Virginia soft-shell crab you are missing one of the great seafood treats. If you are a soft-shell crab aficionado and reading this magazine, you are within easy reach of a great soft-shell crab dinner at any number of restaurants in this area or cook them yourself. Whichever is your pleasure, you’re going to love that Savory Swimmer (Callincetes sapidus) we call soft-shell crabs.

By Captain Bob Cerullo