Fishing: Catching crabs is not for the faint-hearted

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TIME TO stop kidding myself. If I'm really middle-aged, I shall live to be more than 100. Though I haven't got as far as listening to Terry Wogan yet, the evidence is piling up. As if it's not bad enough being unable to touch my toes without bending my knees and watching my nose hair outpace the stuff on my head, this week provided further proof of my incipient old age. I bought a bucket of crabs.

It all started when my daughters demanded a day out this weekend. "How about the seaside?" I suggested. Wise to my ways, they replied: "You're taking us fishing, aren't you?" Suspicious little wretches. But they're right. This is a great time to catch flounders on Southend Pier.

Flounders are terrific fish for youngsters because they are greedy. They're good to eat, too, and I've seen them served as plaice (in The Guardian canteen, incidentally). Catching 20 or 30 is fairly easy if you have the right bait - and at this time of year, that means crabs. Not those nasty hard-backed things that rear up like a doberman when you lift their rocky home; bait crabs are those that are just about to moult, or whatever the crabby equivalent is.

At this stage, it is called a peeler (peel off its hard back, and there's a soft, perfectly formed new crab underneath), though fish gobble them up almost as much just after they have cast their shells. Almost everything with fins goes crabbing when the crustaceans move inshore to cast their shells. It's pointless taking any other bait for flounders, plaice, bass, smooth-hounds and eels. But the crabs are not entirely defenceless, for their own kind protect them.

It's amazing to imagine crabs having kind hearts, but that's precisely what happens. At this time of year, it's common to find a hard crab with a peeler or softie underneath. Some protect their helpless compatriots so well that they join carapaces. The top crab fights off predators, and will run away clutching its comrade beneath its body.

Traditionally, crab searchers look under rocks and seaweed. But at Southend, most crabs bury themselves in soft mud. The merest discolouration where they have dug themselves in gives a clue to their hiding places. To collect 50 crabs is far from easy, especially when others are looking too.

You can walk three miles to find enough for a day's fishing. It's not a matter of splashing through rock pools, either. Southend crabbing means wading through soft mud that has the consistency of treacle and is about as easy to trudge through.

Having gathered the bait, it's on to the world's longest pier and time to set up. Using crab is a gory process. It means killing the critter, then peeling off its shell, claws and legs. Don't ask me why, but kids seem to love that bit. They get quickly bored with the fishing, but they love pulling crabs' legs off. It's not my daughters' bloodthirstiness, either. I used to take parties from a local children's home fishing on the pier. They were very polite, but constantly asked: "Please, sir, can we pull some more legs off crabs?"

I've always collected my own bait. It's a pride thing, really, a bit like not clinging to the railing when you ride a roller-coaster. But now I have to wear glasses for driving, and I don't spot those tell-tale clues of concealed crabs like I used to. All that bending down takes its toll. It knackers your back and leaves thighs aching from hauling your feet through that mud. It's messy, too: that mud seems to get everywhere. And taking youngsters along is a disaster. They tread all over the places where crabs might be hiding, so you can't spot the hiding places.

All right, I'm making excuses. I have to confess that today, I rang up a bait collector and ordered 30 crabs for the weekend. ("Something for the weekend, sir?") That's not enough to supply a day's fishing for four people, but it will supplement those that I - I hope - gather. But I know that I'm on a slippery slope now. Will there come a time when I need help in pulling the legs off as well?