Fishing Lines: Crabs and a shellacking

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The Independent Online
THOMAS RONALD, a tackle dealer, was pounds 900 poorer last week after being found guilty of a heinous crime. Judging by other court cases in the past month, he would have been treated less harshly if he had molested children, mugged an old lady, driven at 125mph, robbed a garage or swindled a pensioner out of his life savings. But down in Colwyn Bay, magistrates take the possession of undersized crabs very seriously.

Ronald, who probably only escaped hanging by the skin of his teeth, will surely have to leave the neighbourhood and change his name after a search of his shop freezer uncovered 74 edible crabs and 14 velvet swimming crabs under the legal size limit of 125mm across the back.

A raid by fisheries officers, the marine equivalent of the drugs squad, uncovered bag upon bag of cryogenic crabs in 'saleable portions'. The despicable Ronald, not content with stealing these underage nippers from their doting parents, tried to claim that the crabs were for his own use. Small wonder that those sturdy Welsh custodians of the legal system punished this rapscallion with a pounds 500 fine and topped it up with pounds 400 costs. Who dared to suggest that British justice was a grey animal with large ears?

Actually, I can understand why Ronald had filled his freezer with a crustacean cornucopia. At this time of the year, when crabs come scuttling inshore to shed their shells and their inhibitions, everything with fins acquires a taste for them. In many places, it's impossible to catch fish on anything else.

As they slip out of their old shells and wait for a new one to grow hard, crabs are very vulnerable. So they hide in the mud, under rocks and seaweed, or pretend to be a tin of tuna that's gone off. They are even occasionally protected by their own kind. If you pick up a crab and find another directly underneath, the lower one will be a 'peeler' (the stage just before it sheds its shell) if it is facing in the same direction, or a 'softie' (as it waits for the new shell to harden) if it is upside-down.

Crabs will stay alive for several days if you give them a daily drink of seawater. Fail to do this, and they display a climbing ability that the most agile rock-climber can only dream about. Many years ago, I was planning to fish a big sea competition and stayed with friends who lived at a railway station. I had collected about 100 crabs a few days in advance, but had merely left them in a bucket and covered them with damp seaweed. I spent all that day fishing, assuming my prime bait was talking about the meaning of life and listening to the trains.

My first inkling that something was wrong came on the way home when I saw a billboard bearing the legend 'Crabs invade local station'. An awful prescience overcame me. I bought the paper, and read with horror a front-page story about dozens of crabs running amok at a station and terrorising commuters. Bit of an exaggeration, I felt. They were only trying to find their way back to the sea. But the stationmaster was less than amused.

This seashore shelling lasts only a few months around most of our coastline. So smart fishermen collect crabs when they're plentiful and freeze them. I discovered to my cost the wrong way to do this. Dumping a mess of crabs into a cardboard box and switching to fast-freeze is a surefire way to be banned from using family storage facilities.

In my case, the tough critters clambered out of their prison and set about scaling the icy walls, only to be beaten at various heights by the polar temperatures. Though they made a charming ice sculpture, my wife failed to appreciate their beauty when she went to retrieve a packet of frozen peas.

To those of a sensitive disposition, I suggest you skip the rest of this paragraph. If you're determined to store bait crabs in a freezer, take off their legs, shell, back and remove the 'dead man's fingers'. Wash what's left under running water to remove any bacteria, and wrap them separately in cling-film before storing in the freezer, preferably somewhere well hidden so your wife will not defrost them, thinking they are chicken nuggets. A vacuum flask is ideal for taking them to your fishing spot, but wash it out afterwards if the family uses the same flask for tea and coffee.

And if you're going to risk keeping undersize ones and you get raided, set fire to the house as they hammer down the door. It will destroy the evidence, and the fine won't be as stiff.