It might not be ideal stone crabbing weather, but the Meschelles are pulling their traps on Saturday no matter what.
“My son said, ‘We’re going out Saturday, darn it, even if it’s windy,’ ” said Sheila Meschelle, who has been stone crabbing with her son, Nathan, and husband, Todd, for the past four years.
Nathan Meschelle started crabbing in high school with a childhood friend’s dad and went straight into commercial fishing after he graduated. It’s a labor of love for the family, who take their 30-foot crabbing boat out each year to bring in the precious claws for diners across Florida.
Stone crab season starts on Saturday and runs through May 15. Last year’s season was anything but a disappointment for crabbers and restaurateurs. At one point, the Meschelles were required to take days off because they were bringing in such a haul.
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“It was so much the price went down, and you could only bring in 300 pounds per day,” Sheila Meschelle said. “And we couldn’t work Wednesdays or weekends.”
There’s no indication of what this season will bring, she said.
A little lemon with a bottle of good, dry champagne.
A.P. Bell and Star Fish Co. owner Karen Bell’s favorite way to enjoy stone crabs
“They’ve seen some crabs in traps,” said Karen Bell, owner of Star Fish Co. Market and Restaurant, 12306 46th Ave. W., and A.P. Bell Fish Co., 4600 124th St. W. “So I don’t know if it’s as good as they saw last year, but we have seen some.”
Bell estimates her crabbers have anywhere between 6,000 and 9,000 traps. Each trap is marked with a colored bobber and a tag with numbers specific to each crabber to prevent poaching.
And though the extra wind isn’t necessarily to the liking of crabbers, Blue Marlin Grill owner Adam Ellis said storms often bring out the best in stone crabs.
“It always helps when a storm comes through. It gets the crabs going and gets the water muddy,” Ellis said. “That’s what they like to move around in. Right now the water is pretty clear, and it’s slow to start until the cold fronts come through.”
The Meschelles risked traps getting swept away by strong storms like Hurricane Matthew, which missed the Gulf Coast, and placed their 900 traps in “secret spots” along the Manatee-Sarasota coast at midnight on Oct. 5. Come Saturday, the real fun begins.
Crabbers are only permitted to pull and pop off claws per regulations from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This year, claws must be at least 2 3/4 inches long. The commercial fishermen pulling traps are encouraged to take only one claw from the crustaceans so they can fight against predators and have a better chance of regenerating the taken claw.
Pulling claws off of stone crabs isn’t just a snap-and-pull motion.
It’s an art.
“There’s a technique to popping it properly where it just breaks right off — the outside shell’s called the carapace — and it cracks right outside the joint, right off,” Nathan Meschelle said. “Most people don’t know that, that are new to it, or people that are just here on vacation and what they do is they twist and jerk it and end up ripping the whole socket.”
Until the Meschelles and other crabbers who work their magic and bring in the boats on Saturday, price remains a mystery.
“We haven’t set prices yet; we’re just waiting to see,” Bell said. “It’s hard to know what to do, because last year we started way too high, which really had a negative impact on the market. The price started so, so high that restaurants shied away and didn’t put it on the menu.”
Star Fish Co. Restaurant will have stone crab on the menu Saturday, but not until the afternoon, and the supply will be limited.
The same goes for Blue Marlin Grill, 121 Bridge St., which will also see claws hit plates on Saturday.
“Get them while you can,” he said.