I take it that you’ve indulged in eating some soft shell crabs already this season.  But do you really understand how the crab got that way?  It never ceases to amaze me when customers, and other chefs, watch a blue crab molt for the first time.  Although they have all eaten their share of soft shell crabs it’s evident that they never really understood the process.  I admit to my own lack of understanding in the beginning.  When I first moved to Urbanna, Virginia, over twenty five years ago, I became totally and utterly fascinated with the entire crab shedding process, from capture to digestion.  The local crabbers were more than generous in sharing their knowledge with me.

Now I would like to share with you some of what I have been taught .

The molting, or shedding, process begins with a ‘peeler’.  Actually, it all begins with the blue crab, callinectes sapidus.  In order for it and all crustaceans to grow it needs to molt, or ‘shed’ its shell.  In the days before it is ready to actually shed, it develops a ‘sign’ on its backfins that indicates it is a peeler.  The color of the sign tells the crabbers just how close it is to shedding: a white line tells us that it is a ‘green’, a pink sign tells us that it is a ‘ripe’, and a dark red sign tells us that it is a ‘cherry ripe’ or ‘rank’ and shedding is imminent.  The discovery of the art of reading the fins was the key to making this a viable industry.

In order to catch the peelers, the watermen (and women) use several methods.  The very first peelers of the season are generally caught in ‘peeler pounds’ or ‘traps’.  These devices consist of a trap (a large wooden and screen box), a heart shaped ‘bay’, and a screen  runner, called ‘hedging’,  that goes from shore to the trap, which can be anywhere from 10-90 feet from shore.  This is the method we (my cook and great friend Dale Reitzer and I) used at Windows on Urbanna Creek to catch ours.

The principle of the trap is quite simple; the peelers walk the shoreline looking for a safe place, usually tall grass or some contained haven, in which to hang out until they shed.  They are extremely vulnerable from the time they leave their shell until they harden enough, some 24 hours later, to be able to defend themselves.  Unfortunately for them it seems that every critter on Earth likes to eat soft crabs:  Herons, crows, gulls, osprey, raccoons, fish, eel, other crabs, and, of course, our customers.

While walking the shoreline, the crab runs into the hedging.  It instinctively heads for deep water by following the hedging, which leads it into the trap.  In case it misses the funnel shaped opening on the trap, the heart-shaped bay leads it full circle for another chance.  Once inside the box it can’t get out.  The traps are emptied of their catch daily.

Later, when the big ‘run’ hits (the first full moon in May, so the story goes), the principle method for capturing peelers is in a ‘peeler pot’.  This is a wire mesh box with a special area in the center in which a jimmy, or mature male, is placed to lure the females.  Note: female crabs mate only once in their lifetime, and that is when they have shed for the last time.  Thus, the female peelers literally storm the place trying to get to the Jimmy.  In no time at all the pot is teeming with soon-to-shed females and one very frustrated male.

Once the big run is over, which usually lasts about 2 sleepless weeks, the crabbers resort to other methods for catching peelers, in addition to the pots.  One technique is to look for “doublers”, or two crabs together (explained in glossary),  which will generally be found on dock pylons or in tall grass. Another method, usually employed later in the Summer, it to ‘scrape’ for crabs by dragging a wide net-like device through the grass just off shore in shallow water.

Now that the peelers have been caught, the next step is to sort them.  They pick up each crab and in one smooth motion verify its stage of molting, ‘nick’ its claws (break the tips so they can’t damage the other crabs, or the crabber) and toss it into the appropriate basket or float.  The greens go in one float, the pinks into another, and the ripes into yet another.  Some crabbers also separate them by sex (the female peelers are almost completely docile) and by size.  Unlike for hard crabs, there is no minimum size for peelers.

Now for the hard part.  In order to make money at this the crabber has to “fish-up” every six hours or so.  That is, he or she must “cull” the floats and remove those soft shells (“shippers”) that have hardened enough to be packed into trays.  Failure to pull them out in time will result in ‘paper shells’ which have no real market value.  Once removed from the water the shell hardening process stops.  They are then graded by size, arranged in trays and covered with sea grass or wet newspaper for their journey to market.

A note on paper shells.  One day, many Summers ago, I went to pay a visit to my neighbor, Catherine Via at Payne’s Crabhouse, who, along with her sons Thomas Lee and Ricky, has taught me most of what I know.  She was in the process of deep frying some lunch (not our preferred method of cooking).  Curious about what she was about to eat, I inquired.

“Why Jimmy, haven’t you ever had crab nuggets?  They’re better than soft crabs” she said.  Just then her sister, Beatrice, walks in.  “Guess what Bea.  Jimmy has never had crab nuggets.”  “Is that true Jimmy?” Bea asked.  “Why, they’re better than soft crabs.”

Well, this I’ve got to taste.  What you have is an overlooked soft crab that got too hard and became a paper shell.  Rather than toss it back into the water they discovered how to make it edible.  Did I say edible?  I meant delicious.  First you remove the top skin/shell.  Then you clean out the “dead man’s fingers” and cut off the legs.  What remains are the two body halves that contain all of the meat of the backfin.  You dip these into batter and fry them until they are crispy.  The result is a crunch that is all crab!

I walked away from the crabhouse a better man.  When I got to the restaurant Ricky Walton, Catherine’s son and my main peeler supplier (though we caught right many of our own), was there.  When I told him that I had just eaten my first nuggets he said “Good weren’t they.  ‘Em are better than soft crabs.”

Needless to add, they became a staple on our menu.  Instead of crab nuggets we decided to call them tempura of paper shells so that McDonald’s wouldn’t be tempted to sue.

As I mentioned we learned to shed our own soft crabs at the restaurant.  We built two crab “floats” on our parking lot and monitored them constantly in order to obtain the ‘velvets’ that we served in the restaurant.  This was the only way we could be sure of having velvet soft crabs on a regularly basis as well as the awesome experience of actually watching the crabs shed.  From the time the crab begins to ‘bust’ until it has left its old shell behind can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes.

So there it is.  Simple enough.  Once you learn to read the fin (very important) you are ready to built a trap and some pots, find a spot in a creek to stake a float and check it every six hours for soft crabs (don’t overlook any or they’ll harden and eat the others).  Now pack them in trays and refrigerate them, not too cold, until ready to ship or eat.

A bit of shedding trivia:  The scientific name for molting being “ecdysis”,  Ms. Sally Rand, a rather famous molter back in the day, billed herself as an “ecdysiast”.



SHED v. – the act of molting.  Also n.the empty shell left behind is called a shed.

PEELER – a crab that will shed in the next week or two.

      green – a peeler that is several days from shedding

      ripe-  a peeler that will probably shed within 1-5 days

      cherry – a peeler whose shedding is imminent.

      rank – same as cherry

TURN-  v. when a peeler reverts to a hard crab without shedding.

 FLOAT-  the holding pen for peelers.  Floats can be either in the          water or land based

 DOUBLER-  also called a “buck and rider”; a male carrying a female while waiting for her to shed so that they can mate.

 NICK – v. to break the tip of the claw so the crab can’t hurt the shell of the other crabs, or the crabber. Usually done only to the males.

 FISH – v. to pull up the crab pots as in ‘I’m going to fish my pots’

 FISH UP – v. to harvest the soft crabs from the floats.  They       usually fish-up every six hours, around the clock.

 SCRAPE –  to catch peelers and soft shells by dragging a large net-like device through the grass in shallow water.

 CULL – v. to check each crab in a float in order to move the riper ones to another float.  Also to remove the softshells from the floats.

 JIMMY – a mature male crab or amusing chef

 SOOK – a mature female crab who will not shed again.

 SALLY –  a female about to shed for the last time.

 EATER – a peeler that will eat soft shells

 BUSTER – a peeler whose shell has begun opening (busting).  Get        ready for a soft crab.

 VELVET – a just-shed crab (within the past half hour) whose skin is soft as velvet.

 SHIPPER – a crab that has shed and been left to ‘harden’ for 6-8 hours in order to survive the journey to market.

 PAPER SHELL – a crab that has shed and been left in the water over eight hours and whose shell has become the texture of a paper bag.

 BUCKRAM – a crab that shed a day ago and is almost a hard crab again.

 HUNG – a buster that can’t pull out of its hard shell because it is caught on something, often a crack in the shell.


SPIDER – a tiny soft crab.  Also called a ‘roach’.

MEDIUM – a small soft crab app. 3-3½ inches across

HOTEL PRIME – or ‘hotel’, 3½-4 inches across

PRIME – 4-4½ inches across

JUMBO – 4½-5 inches across

WHALE – over 5 inches across

 TRAP – A box used to catch peelers.  Also a peeler pound.

 PEELER POUND – See trap.

 BAY – The heart shaped fence that leads crabs back to the trap door.

 HEDGING – The screen or net that goes from shore to the peeler trap.

 RUN – The movement of the peelers into the river.

 DEAD MAN’S FINGERS – A crab’s lungs; remove before cooking softshells.

 BACKFIN – The meat found at the base of the largest fin.

LUMP – The backfin meat when it is properly picked in one piece.

JUMBO LUMP – The prime crabmeat picked in one piece from large crabs at the backfin. The best has no shell at all and is sweet and moist, not overcooked.

SPECIAL – The crabmeat left after the backfin has been removed. Small pieces or shredded meat.  Often has lots of shell.

CLAW – Darker crabmeat from the claw usually much stringier than    Backfin or specia


2 Responses to “Softshell Season in Full Swing”

  1. Ronald Amon writes:

    Jimmy, I hope you saw your grand tribute from writer Deveron Timberlake in this week’s STYLE WEEKLY (June 4th) on page 37, “Last Course–Rumblings on Change at the Richmond Table” third paragraph, “….more vital to the cause has been the love-him or hate-him chef Jimmy Sneed, whose Shockoe restaurant the Frog and the Redneck set a new standard here and brought Julia Child back more than once because the buzz was about flavor and a modern way of getting it. Talents sprang from that kitchen like polliwogs, still impressing guests at some of the city’s best restaurants and sending their sous chefs on to their own winning ventures.” Keep up the good work, Jimmy.

    June 10, 2014 at 7:04 am
  2. Jimmy writes:

    Devron’s great and quite supportive of the restaurant industry. Plus, she said nice things about me. But, “Love him or hate him?” Fair enough. Thanks for your comment.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:35 am