Peeler Crab

Peeler crab has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best sea angling baits. The most sought after fish in British waters such as bass, large cod, smooth hound and big rays can all be caught with peeler crab, while other species such as coalfish, flounder, eels and plaice will all also go for peeler crab baits when other baits prove ineffective. The scent trail that peeler crab emits attracts fish from a wide area, with even small amounts of peeler crab, such as legs or claws added to a worm bait, can be enough to give anglers using this bait an advantage. The effectiveness of peeler crab means that it can demand can often outstrip supply and tackle shops and online bait retailers often struggle to maintain a regular supply of peeler crab throughout the year. Peeler crabs can be found around shorelines across the UK, although anglers must know what to look for and the be prepared to spend time collecting this bait.

What is a Peeler Crab?

Peeler crabs are not a specific species of crab. Peeling is a process crabs go through when they cast off their old shell in order to grow a new larger once. For a short period between the loss of the old shell and the hardening of the new shell, the crab will be classed as a peeler and be useful as bait.

The three most common species of crab around the UK (from left to right): the common shore crab (Carcinus maenas), the brown crab (Cancer pagurus) and the velvet swimming crab (Necora puber). Any of these species can be peeler crabs when they are in the process of changing their shell.

Any of the species of crab with are found around the UK can be used as bait when they are in the peeler stage, although as the common shore crab is the most common this is the most likely to be used.

The Peeling Process

All species of crab have soft internal organs which are protected by a hard outer shell. As the crab grows it becomes too big for its existing shell and absorbs water, making its body expand and causing the shell to crack, split and eventually fall off to reveal a new, larger shell underneath. However, this shell is initially soft and weak and takes some time to harden. Knowing it is vulnerable during this time the crab will hide under rocks and in crevices until it is protected once again by a hard shell. Once this process is complete the crab will leave its hiding place and begin to hunt for food again.

Generally, the best bait is gained from crabs with the old hard shell still on their backs, but falling away (the fact this shell needs to be peeled away gives this bait its name). Crabs which have recently lost their shell and only have the new soft shell are known as softbacks or leatherbacks and, although not as good as a genuine peeler, they are still a useful bait if their shell is very soft. Crabs with a normal hard shell that are actively feeding (i.e. the ones sometimes reeled in when they are feeding on fishing baits) have a much more limited use as bait.

Collecting Peeler Crabs

Many anglers gather their own supply of peeler crabs by searching around rocky shorelines for crabs which are in the peeling process. Overturning rocks (always return them to their original position) can reveal hiding peeling or softback crabs, as can cracks and crevices between rocks, especially those covered with weed. The edges of rockpools can also be areas where peeler crabs hide.

When a crab is found a splitting shell or one which is falling away from the body will reveal a genuine peeler crab which is suitable for bait. An easy way of checking whether or not a crab is a peeler is to carry out the leg section test. This involves pulling gently at the end section of the crabs back leg. If this section comes away easily to reveal a soft section underneath the crab is a peeler and suitable for bait. If the section stays in place the crab is not at the right stage to use as bait and should be returned.

Leg link test
The leg section test, left, reveals if a crab is useful as bait, while a shell that lifts away easily shows that a crab is a peeler.

Generally, hardback crabs should be left alone, as they have very little use as bait but peeler crabs and softbacks can be retained. It is during the spring when the vast majority of crabs start to peel, and the warmer summer months can provide a decent supply of peeler crab bait. Once the cooler weather arrives in the autumn crabs stop peeling and anglers will have to wait for the following spring to gather more peeler crabs.

Anglers finding crabs which are berried (carrying eggs underneath their body) should leave them well alone as they will be on the verge of releasing eggs which will repopulate the area and ensure a supply of future peeler crabs for anglers and provide a source of food for fish and other marine life. Indeed, in some areas local by-laws and legislation make it an offence to collect a berried crab. The same applies if a small female crab is found sheltering under a larger male crab.

Berried and sheltering crabs
Crabs that are sheltering together (main picture), or berried crabs carrying eggs (inset) should be left well alone as they will re-populate the area and provide a new generation of crabs that can be used as bait. [Main picture © Ar Rouz, inset © Auguste Le Roux].

Many anglers create artificial havens for sheltering peeler crabs by placing tyres, tiles or paving slabs on riverbanks or in harbours between the high and low water mark. These can be checked regularly throughout the summer months and can produce a supply of peeler crabs. Peeler crab traps which have been set by other people should be left alone as professional bait collectors will not react well to seeing traps they have set being emptied by other people. In 2009 a man from Tyneside was taken to court for littering and fly tipping when he was seen setting down eleven car tyres as crab traps in the River Don (a tributary to the River Tyne). He was later found not guilty when his case was heard in court.

Restrictions of Collecting Peeler Crabs

Be aware that there can be restrictions on taking edible (brown) crabs for use as bait. In some parts of the UK by-laws restrict the collection of edible crabs by imposing a minimum size limit, or ban their collection altogether. As mentioned there are also laws restricting the collection of berried crabs. Anglers should find out what the regulations are in force in the area where the crab collecting will be carried out and follow them, as they are there to protect crab populations and ensure that numbers remain sustainable.

Buying Peeler Crabs

Peeler crabs can be bought from most fishing tackle shops throughout the spring and into the summer, although demand often outstrips supply and many tackle shops sell out. Peeler crabs are not cheap and usually cost more than £1 each. However, weather conditions, seasonal variations and the ability of bait gatherers to get out can all interrupt supply, and if a low number of crabs is available to the bait shops the price of peeler crabs can be pushed up and they can often sell out altogether. In winter live peeler is not available, but frozen peeler crab may still be sold although this can prove difficult to get hold of in the winter months. Online bait suppliers can send frozen peeler crab through the post with British crab costing more (and being a better bait) than foreign varieties they also offer. Again, frozen peeler crab is often out of stock from online suppliers during times when demand is high.

Storing and Freezing Peeler Crab

Peeler crab can be stored live in plastic trays in the fridge, but this is difficult, complicated and time-consuming, as it requires aerating the water with equipment which is usually used in fish tanks. Furthermore, if a number of crabs have been gathered then they will all be at different stages of peeling, meaning some may revert to hardbacks before they can be used as bait. For this reason it is best to use live peeler crabs soon after they have been collected or purchased. Luckily for anglers peeler crabs can be frozen, and lose very little of their effectiveness during the freezing process. Once peeler crabs have been prepared (see below) the peeler crab bodies, legs and claws should be placed in the freezer on a plate or chopping board for around fifteen minutes. After this time they will be partially frozen and should be removed from the freezer and wrapped in clingfilm – peeler crab bodies can be wrapped individually, while legs and claws can be wrapped in bunches of four or five. When frozen in this way peeler crab will keep for several years in a domestic freezer.

Preparing Peeler Crab

Peeler Crab Bait
The body, legs and claws of a peeler crab can all be used as bait.

Whether a peeler crab is being prepared to use as bait or freeze for future the same process is followed. First, it should be killed humanely by piercing it between the eyes with a narrow-bladed knife. Remove the legs and claws by twisting them away from the body. Do not throw them away as they are also usable as bait in their own right. Next, peel the crab by removing the main shell from the back of the crab and work the way around removing the shell from the rest of the body one section at a time until the shell comes off completely.

Dead Man's Fingers
‘Dead man’s fingers’

The gills of the crab are located on either side of the body. They are sometimes referred to as ‘dead man’s fingers’ and are usually removed by anglers and discarded. Other smaller sections of shell can be pulled away from the underside of the crab to complete the peeling process. The crab body is now ready to be mounted onto the hook if it is being used fresh, or frozen if it is being kept for future use. Crab legs and claws can be peeled by pulling away each segment of shell off the claw or leg (it should come away easily if the crabs are at the peeler stage). After this is complete the legs or claws are then also ready to use as bait or be frozen.

Bait Presentation

When targeting big cod, bass and rays it is best to use a single large peeler crab body (or two smaller ones) in order to provide a bait large enough to attract these species. When fishing for smaller species a large peeler crab can be cut in half to produce two baits. Whichever is used it is best to push the point of a hook through a leg socket of the crab, through the body, and then back out through another leg socket as this is the most secure way of hooking this bait.

Peeler crab bait presentation
Half a peeler crab body mounted on a hook.

Alternatively, the hook can be pushed through the back of a crab and out through a leg socket. Hooks with a wide gape are the best for presenting crab baits with several manufacturers producing specialist crab hooks designed for presenting this bait with Kamasan’s B900cpattern being one of the most popular with UK anglers. Since peeler crab is a soft bait and it is essential to use bait elastic – such as standard or extra fine Koike Bait Elastic – to attach it securely to the hook. No angler wants valuable peeler crab parting ways with the hook before it hits the water.

Legs and claws can be hooked in threes and fours and secured with bait elastic to produce baits for flatfish and smaller species. It is often a good idea to protect crab baits by incorporating a Breakaway Impact Shield into the rig as this helps ensure that the bait is in the best condition once it is at the seabed. Sections of large crab or whole small peelers can be combined with any other sea fishing bait to produce a cocktail. Peeler crab and ragworm, lugworm, mussel, mackerel or razorfish would all make excellent sea fishing baits. Legs and claws can be also be used to tip off worm baits.