Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com will focus on tarpon, providing a series of articles and features detailing the annual run of the silver kings in our Tarpon Trek.
Growing up in the South, fly swatters were a common fixture in my home and those of just about everyone else in my area. You knew you'd see the winged intruders sooner or later, so keeping the right tool handy just made sense.
Same logic applies for tarpon fishermen, only instead of swatting pesky insects; they need to stand ready to capture valuable crustaceans. We're talking crabs, some blues, but mostly the calico variety known in the sport as "pass crab." The nickname comes from the twice monthly occurrence that thrills tarpon and tarpon anglers alike the crab flush.
Crustaceans and baitfish ride the tides daily, but the hastened flows of new and full moons create fierce outgoing movement that gathers thousands of crabs and drags them through coastal inlets. When these hard falling tides pile a bunch of water through constricted portals, they concentrate the crabs into a narrow zone and tarpon take full advantage of these food funnels.
The crab flush craziness occurs for a few days before and after a new or full moon. If the fleet of boats in prime spots isn't clue enough, just watch for big silver shapes rising to slurp crabs from the surface.
Crab flushes occur in varying volumes anywhere passes drain fertile backwaters, but Boca Grande Pass and Tampa Bay's Egmont Channel see tremendous flows during the moon tides. You'll often hear crab flushes called "Hill Tides" a reference to moon tides dragging crabs over the top section of BGP, known as The Hill.
Wherever crabs flow, dipping them with a long-handled net provides free bait that's immediately ready to fish. Tower boats enable skippers to spot crabs and call out directions to scoopers on the bow, but even without the elevated view, you'll spot plenty.
A drifting crab often tucks one claw across its body and holds the other extended as a rudder, so if you see something that looks like a brown lollipop, scoop it. Pay close attention to drifting grass mats, as crabs hitch rides whenever they can.
Because most bait wells are positioned aft, you'll need to work out a system of shuttling freshly caught crabs from bow to stern. If crew size does not allow a "runner," keep a 5-gallon bucket half filled with water at the bow and when you amass a good number of crabs, take a break and dump the bait load.
The ideal tarpon crab has a carapace about the size of a silver dollar. Too small, and they're hard to hook too large and tarpon may decline. Female crabs with eggs (visible under the rear of the shell) are off limits, so leave those in the water.
A pass crab's pinchers aren't the worst in the crustacean world, but they will get you so be careful. And know this, a crab can reach over its shell and put the pinch on fingers holding it from behind. The pinch feels like needle nose pliers and it takes a good bit of negotiating to get a pass crab to let go.
Minimize the handling risk by disarming your crab. Each pincher comprises a rigid section extending from the crab's arm, and a flexible piece that opens and closes the claw. Break off the latter and you'll effectively disarm the crab without diminishing its bait value. Tip: Crabs almost always pinch the net when you try to remove them, so use the net mesh to immobilize one side of the crab at a time while you operate on the opposite claw.
Hook crabs in the outermost corner of the shell and work the hook through gently to minimize stress and maximize your bait's usefulness. That being said, don't be stingy with your crabs. Tarpon like 'em lively, so if your crustacean gets washed out, just scoop a new one and get back to fishing.