by Justin Wilmer •
Last year I wrote about chasing crabs and crayfish from the kayak. There’s no doubt that the kayak is an ideal vessel for chasing crustaceans. You can launch anywhere, travel across shallow areas to get to deeper sections of creeks, even portaging if necessary. You can get up in amongst the structure that often houses these tasty critters, including weed beds, standing timber and mangroves. After a couple of recent experiences with ‘share cropping’ – people checking my crab pots for me – I decided it was time to go kamikaze!
The first time I punched the nose of a kayak through the mangroves and slid under mangrove forest canopy, it was like entering another world. There were some negatives including bugs, a maze of roots and branches to navigate, and everything attached to the kayak getting caught on the mass of structure.
I entered the home of crabs – an environment rich with wildlife, peaceful and calm as the trees diffused the wind and wave action from the main body of water I’d left behind. Best of all, my crab pots would be out of sight of the share croppers, maximising my chances of catching a feed.
It’s a good feeling to locate a crab hole in the shallow water, or key structure such as a drain or complex mangrove root system. You set your pot and return on the next high tide to find a big crab has taken the bait. Before you enter the mangrove world though, there’s a couple key things to consider, including local rules and regulations relating to legal apparatus, size and bag limits, along with the tides, ensuring you have enough water to access where you want to set your traps and also enough water on the following tide to check them.
When crabbing from the kayak, I tend to strip it back to the bare minimum and keep the decks of the kayak clear to minimise snagging on tree branches and roots. With the manoeuvring between branches that required, I leave the larger kayak and pedal kayak at home, opting for a 10-11ft kayak that is light and easy to handle. A sit in allows you to keep everything inside the hull, out of the way, and protects you from the environment. Many also prefer the simplicity of a sit on top.
Whether crabbing the salt or chasing crays in the fresh, your traps can be stored on the front of the kayak or in the well behind you when travelling. I secure them with an octopus strap to ensure they don’t slide off the kayak when paddling faster, especially in choppy conditions. I generally opt to carry them on the front of the kayak where I can keep an eye on them and see to navigate through the mangroves with minimal fouling.
Manoeuvring the kayak through the mangrove forest, the standard kayak paddle can be cumbersome and I’ll often stow it and pull out the Backwater Paddle Company Assault Hand Paddle. This paddle can be operated one handed, floats and features teeth on the tip of the front edge for pushing off objects, and a hook on the back for pulling the kayak from branch to branch. You can hold the kayak in place or hook a crab pot rope that’s hard to reach.
A grab anchor is another handy item to hold you in place while you set your pots, rebait, or handle a crab you’ve caught. A grab anchor can consist of a basic builder’s clamp with a length of venetian blind cord fixed to the clamp at one end and kayak at the other. This allows you to quickly and easily clamp onto a branch, preventing the kayak from drifting with the wind or water movement, especially when dealing with a cranky crab.
Have your baits ready to go on bait clips. I store these ready-to-go baits in a plastic container with a clip on lid. This keeps everything neat and tidy, minimises the blood and guts through the kayak and allows you to quickly locate, access and attach a bait as required. Popular crab baits include whole or half mullet and fish frames from a previous catch. When baiting your pots, clip the bait into the bottom centre of the pot, as I have seen many pots in shallow water with crabs sitting on top having a good old feed through the top of the crab pot.
Other accessories worth carrying include a crab measure designed to measure your target species, a rag that you can wet and throw over a crab to settle them, and a basic first aid kit in a dry bag just in case. You’ll also need somewhere to store your catch, such as a bucket with lid, hessian bag or icebox in your rear well.
Handling sand crabs (blue swimmer crabs), other smaller crabs and crayfish can be relatively safe, however when it comes to a big, powerful mud crab, it’s safety first. Some paddlers prefer to paddle to the closest shore to handle crabs, however it’s important to remember to shake any undersize or female crabs (in some states) out of the kayak before transporting the pot anywhere.
After years of handling crabs, I use a wet rag and a timber fish donger to restrain the crab so that I can get a secure grip on it. Positioning your thumb at the base of one flipper where it joins the body and your pointer or middle finger at the base of the other flipper allows you to firmly grip and control the crab ready to stow.
It’s worth watching a few videos and learning to tie your mud crabs, as it makes them easier and safer to handle, even if it’s just prior to putting them in the freezer to put them to sleep, and then handling them in and out of the cooking pot.
In terms of where to place your pots, it’s worth exploring a little to find drains. Drains are the number one structure that I crab and now instead of dropping my pots in the mouths of these drains, I paddle into these drains and deeper into the mangroves. In fact, the tail end of these drains and smaller channels that run off the main drain often produce the best crabs and this structure is well out of the reach of boat anglers.
These drains act as highways that crabs will use to travel along, especially throughout lower stages of the tide. When crabbing drains, toadfish and other bait fish can destroy your baits and if you find this occurring, switch from bait clips to mesh bait bags, with the bait clip used to close them and clip them in.
If there’s a lack of drains running into the mangroves, look for crab holes, complex root systems, lay down timber and depressions or deeper sections amongst the mangroves. Often the water is not much deeper than the pot that you’re dropping, allowing you to keep an eye out for crab holes as you move through the mangroves.
These often look like oval shaped, crab-sized holes that extend into the bottom or bank. If there are signs of activity around the entry to the hole, such as crushed shell grit, claw and leg marks, or freshly dug out mud, there’s a good chance you’re on a winner.
Remember your bug spray and a mesh head net to protect yourself from sand flies and mosquitoes. I also wear a long sleeve shirt, long quick dry pants and dive booties. I’ve found the prime times to crab are the warmer months of the year, especially around the full and new moon. Aim to leave your pots in on the overnight high tide, as this tide is definitely the most productive.
I throw my crab floats up into the mangrove trees a little when setting my pots, firstly so it’s easier to see the float and rope when looking for my pots, and secondly so that when the tide drops my float doesn’t drift under the branches and roots, or become lodged and make it difficult to locate on return.
It’s also important to keep track of where you are. Don’t venture too far into the mangrove forest if you feel you could become disorientated and lost. A GPS can be a handy accessory, especially exploring a large expanse of mangroves – track your position and mark where you set your pots.
Next time you’re out on the water chasing a crab or dropping a couple pots on a multi-day fishing adventure, point the nose of that kayak at the mangroves and get your kamikaze on. Punch through the edge of the mangrove mass and take a look inside the hidden world that the mud crab calls home. See you on the water.