Crabbing at Midnight

A family ritual brings home the main ingredient for a favorite dinner.

crab_laura LucianoWear a bib. Every summer guarantees home-caught crabs in red sauce.

Midnight on Quantuck Bay. An early harvest moon shines brightly, bouncing off rippling waters reaching high tide: the perfect time to catch blue crabs as they rise to the surface and swim with the tide after dark. Late summer through early fall is the best time to crab for we Lucianos, and midnight crabbing is always a family affair.

A flashlight and net are the only tools we need, plus a cup of hot chocolate to ward away an evening chill. We drift quietly—and sometimes not so quietly—aboard my father’s boat along the Quogue canal as the coming tide pushes us along. Jellyfish and bioluminescent sea creatures glow under the boat’s pass. We split into three areas on the boat: the left and right side and the bow. As we shine our lights on the glistening moonstruck water, I see an olive-green-colored carapace with brilliant-blue claws swimming into the light to snack on baitfish. I swiftly scoop and behold a male. Known to most watermen as a Jimmy, he has a long, narrow, inverted T-shape apron and blue-tipped claws. Everyone enthusiastically yells, “Yeah!” However, a house light goes on and a shadow of a person looking out the window is most likely curious about the ruckus; we quiet down. A few minutes later my uncle, who is at the bow of the boat, shouts, “CRAB!” He plunges his net into the water and misses the clever crustacean. Everyone on the boat roars with laughter and starts singing a song my father made up to tease those with empty nets.

Another house light goes on as we approach Quantuck Bay.

The blue crab’s scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, translates to “savory beautiful swimmer,” and around our boat, crabs of all shapes and stages were darting, diving and treading. I scooped up a blue sponge crab, a pregnant female carrying fertilized eggs under her abdomen; from a distance these bright- to dark-orange eggs resemble a sponge. I release the female back into the water, because it’s illegal to keep them while pregnant. Female adolescent blue crabs are called “sallys” or “she-crabs” and are identified by an inverted “V” or a triangular-shape apron; a mature female is a “sook” and is identified by an inverted “U” or bell-shape apron. A quick way to spot a female crab is by her manicure-like red-orange-tipped color claws.

Another crab is scooped up, but this time it is a soft shell—bonus! Many people believe a full moon yields larger catches of soft shells, because the huge tides submerge shoreline grasses that provide a vast area of cover and protection for crabs to molt and feed. Some say this theory is crab folklore, but I think the lunar cycle has something to do with it. Soft shells have molted their hard shell—temporarily stripped of their armor—in order to grow. It takes approximately two to four days for the shell to fully harden and will only harden in water (the hardening process will stop if the crab is on dry land).

Soft-shell crabs are widely found in restaurants during May through August on the East End. All you need is a knife and fork or your hands to enjoy them sautéed in butter, lemon and capers, or dipped in buttermilk, dredged in a cornmeal crust, fried and placed in between a bun with coleslaw.

By 2 a.m. the bucket is brimming with crabs from 4.5 inches—the legal minimum—to 7 inches from tip to tip at the broadest part of the shell. This midnight effort means a Sunday feast of my father’s linguini with crabs in red sauce. He has been making this dish since I was a child, and it is the one time that we are all quiet around the table with sauce-splattered faces from sucking out the sweet meat.

Skimming from bulkhead edges or using traps and drop-lines baited with bunker or chicken legs and wings are other ways to catch blue crabs. Midnight crabbing is my technique of choice, especially during a harvest moon; you are sure to catch crabs and it’s loads of fun. On September 9 a supermoon will occur. This is when a full moon—in this circumstance—or new moon coincides with the closest approach the moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit and results in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth. Combine this with a high tide at 12:04 a.m.—just past midnight—and I guarantee there will be super crabs for the scooping.

COOK: For Laura’s dad’s recipe for crab red sauce, click here.