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May 2, 2004

Soft-shells a hard find for Memorial Day
By DAVID BENSON Staff Writer, 272-7206

Ten days out of the year, Phil Andersen puts sleep aside and tends to the critters he keeps at his crab house at Leeds Point. Every two hours, he or his wife will get up and have a look at nearly 8,000 shedders - or peelers, as they're known farther south - waiting for them to pop.

***

Memorial Day weekend is a time when people are looking for local crabs, hard- or soft-shelled. But because crab season is just beginning, and the shed has either just begun - or is still a week off - local crabs are nearly impossible to find.

"A week or so before the shed starts, there are no males to be had," said Dave Showell, of Absecon Bay Sportsmen Center in Absecon. "Crabbers start saving their big males for bait, and there's no local crabs for eating on Memorial Day."

There are still plenty of crabs for the holiday weekend, although most have been shipped in from Maryland, Delaware or Virginia. The shedding season moves up the coast as the weather changes, and New Jersey's season is typically some time between the last week of May and the first week of June. The shed lasts for 10 to 14 days.

This year, because of a full moon, Showell thinks the season will begin about June 3. Andersen agrees with the general timing, but plans to be busy - real busy - for the two weeks prior to the shed.

Andersen is a professional crabber, heading out into the bays in good weather or bad, maintaining 16 floats and about 400 crab pots. He lands and sells crabs nearly year-round, but for about a month each year, the focus of Andersen's crabbing changes dramatically.

Around the middle of May, Andersen starts keeping big males - called jimmies - in specially made tanks. Prior to the females shedding their shells in June, Andersen will tend to the big jimmies, feeding them, making sure they have clean, fresh water. "It's almost like having little pets," he said.

Female crabs mate only once in their lifetimes, when they reach sexual maturity after their last shed. Any crab sheds 15 to 25 times in its 21/2-year life, but it's the last one that really counts for the females.

"The smaller a crab is," Andersen said, "the more often it sheds. Tiny ones might shed every other day, big ones maybe once in a year."

While crabs can shed their shells anytime during the summer, Showell said, there's one big shed in late spring when nearly an entire generation of crabs pops out at one time. Male crabs - other than the big jimmies, which may not shed at all - will shed a few days earlier than the females.

Knowing that the shedding female is looking for a male is why crabbers start keeping big jimmies a couple of weeks ahead of the soft-shell season. Just before the shed, Andersen and other crabbers will ply the back bays with what's known as a jimmie pot.

Inside each pot is a big, hard-shelled male. Only soft-shelled females can mate, but a jimmie will grab hold of a female ahead of the shed, and hold onto her for as long as two weeks, waiting for his chance.

Shedder females flock to the jimmie pot, and Andersen sorts them. Any shedders that are close enough go into tanks back at his crab house, where the 10-day watch begins.

"When you do crab shedding," said Gef Flimlin, a marine extension agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension, "a crab will give physical signals that it's ready to shed. When the crabber gets a 'buster,' he puts it in a tank, and then has to check on it every two hours until it sheds."

Buster is another word for a crab that's just about to pop out of its shell. Andersen said a crescent moon-shaped marking on one leg will change color from white to pink to red.

"When it's red," Andersen said, "it's about 48 hours 'til it pops."

That's when the sleepless days and nights begin. Andersen said he and his wife check the crabs every two hours, looking for the ones that have popped out of their shells. As much as 25 percent of a crabber's yearly income is generated by soft-shelled crabs, Andersen said, so 240 hours of catnaps and frenzy are worth every moment.

"You have to take them out as soon as they pop," Flimlin said. "The new shell begins to toughen up right away." And a tough soft-shelled crab just ain't what folks are looking for.

***

Eating the crabs - guts and all. Getting squeamish? Gef Flimlin pointed out that eating soft-shelled crabs reminds him of the story of the young man who told an old farmer he wouldn't eat a tongue sandwich because it came out of an animal's mouth.

"Do you eat eggs?" the farmer asked.

You don't take much off a soft-shelled crab, and you don't clean it the way you would a fish. People tend to agree that the gills have to come off, and most will remove the apron. The latter is on the underside of the crab and it protects the genitals. On a male soft-shell, the apron is pointy, like a rocket. On a female, it looks like the Capitol dome. A few folks will remove the eyes.

Gef Flimlin's recipe

Dredge the crab in seasoned flour, and cook over medium heat in peanut or canola oil in a cast iron skillet. Flip once, and cook till golden brown.

Dave Showell's recipe

Chop into pieces and fry over medium heat in a butter and garlic sauce. Makes a good scampi for spaghetti.

Phil Andersen's recipe

Heat a dash of olive oil and a few tablespoons of butter and some fresh crushed garlic over medium heat.

Add a pinch or two of Old Bay seasoning.

Roll the crab in flour, and cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

Remove to cool, and sprinkle with fresh parsley.

To e-mail David Benson at The Press:

[email protected]
 
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