It’s Florida’s most iconic native food.
Scores of restaurants have achieved legendary status by serving succulent stone crab claws. Sweet and tender, the meat resembles lobster in appearance and flavor, only with a richer taste. Eagerly anticipated, the annual harvest occurs from October 15 through May 15.
Stone crabs differ from blue crabs in that only the oversized claws are harvested. When a stone crab is caught, just a single claw may be removed. When returned to the water, the crab is still able defend itself from predators while a new claw is grown. To be harvested, stone crab claws must be at least 2¾ inches in length when measured from the elbow to the tip. Often only a minor twist toward the center of the crab will release the claw. Over its lifespan they can regenerate the claw three to four times.
Stone crabs can be found in holes along oyster reefs, rock jetties and shorelines lined with riprap, but the best spots are usually around bridges where the current is swift, and the bottom filled with rocks and broken concrete. Adult stone crabs feed on oysters, mussels, clams, other crustaceans and worms.
Some recreational fishers collect crabs by hand, using scuba or snorkel gear. In the commercial stone crab fishery, baited traps are put out in long lines of up to 100 in number where individuals traps are buoyed. They are generally checked every few days, and the bounty delivered directly to local markets and restaurants. Many fishermen even cook the claws on the boats to ensure optimal freshness.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bill Tiedge, aka “Crab E Bill,” spent much of his childhood in Long Island on Lake Ronkonkoma. A fishmonger for over 45 years, Tiedge has owned his seafood market and restaurant off the Indian River in Sebastian, Fla. for the past eight years.
His stone crabs come from near the Sebastian Inlet and down in the Keys. Tiedge works with five private fishermen to supply an array of seafood. Between Christmas and New Year’s, he sold more than 700 pounds of stone crab claws.
“My suppliers have been pretty consistent over the past couple of years, but it’s always up to Mother Nature,” Tiedge said. “Stone crabs speak to Florida and having a party. Over the years I’ve supplied a lot of celebrities. A stone crab party is like having a Springsteen concert down south.”
The claws are typically served chilled and cracked. The sweet-tasting meat is delicious unseasoned, with melted butter or a special champagne mustard sauce. Use a claw cracker, mallet or hard spoon to crack the shells.
But, here’s the rub. That delicious taste comes with a substantial price tag, often priced according to harvest conditions and varying in different locales and restaurants. In mid-January at Crab E Bill’s medium sized claws ran $25 per pound, large claws $36, jumbo claws $40 and colossal were $49 per pound. Still, well worth it.
Snook prized by anglers
Set on the Atlantic, Sebastian Inlet State Park is the premier fishing spot in Central Florida. Fish can reach the open sea by swimming just a few hundred yards up the compact and shallow inlet from the Indian River Lagoon. Jutting out into the ocean, the inlet’s north jetty catwalk provides a wide variety of game fish and near-shore saltwater catch.
There are no homes in the state park. But, there is a Florida celebrity. Snook is prized by anglers for their go-for-broke fighting style. One of Florida’s most popular fish, it’s also one of the most regulated.
In the fall and spring snook travel the trough that forms between the shore break and the first sandbar that runs along the beach, sort of a fish superhighway. Snook and other species swim along the trough searching for food in small fish and crustaceans like shrimp. If you watch closely they swim up near the beach to quickly feed with the wave, then scurry back to the trough when the water recedes. They are ambush predators and make a distinctive “thump” when they hit a lure or bait. Once hooked, they put up a spirited fight with lots of gill-rattling jumps and aggressive runs, and wonderful table fare, too.
“In the fall at the Inlet when the mullet are running, snook really go after them,” said Alain Mayerhoffer, an ex-pat Frenchman who has been fishing the Inlet since 1978. “During the mullet run they are actually more willing to bite in the daytime than the rest of the year. I like to target them at night. They bite very subtly, but once you set the hook they can take a 20-pound tackle out 100 yards on one run. When they feel a storm coming snook need to feed. I caught 35 the week around Hurricane Matthew. When the barometric pressure is steady, they’re not feeding so much.”
In Florida there may not be a better eating fish. Our pals Alain and Carola had us over one evening for our first taste. White with medium firmness, the texture of the meat is not as delicate as trout but not as dense as swordfish. The fillets were brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with a dash of salt and pepper. Grilled perfectly, seven minutes each side at a temperature of 400. Bon appetit!
You won’t find snook on a restaurant menu. It’s illegal to buy or sell. If you want to eat one, legally, you have to go out and reel in one. It’s an easy fish to clean, not bony like redfish. Snook is a lean, healthy protein that makes a great centerpiece for a low-fat seafood meal.
Snook almost exclusively inhabit the coastal ecosystems of the southern half of the Florida peninsula and is considered a true conservation success story. Roughly 90 percent of all snook caught are let go, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC). Marine biologists state that 98 percent— a much higher number than spotted sea trout and red drum— survive after they’re released. It ensures a long-term, robust snook fishery.
Over the years an increasing number of anglers have embraced catch-and-release fishing for snook, even when the season is open to harvest. Open season runs from February 1 until June 1 and September 1 through December 15. During these time spans anglers possessing a Florida saltwater fishing license and snook stamp may keep one fish per day, as long as it is between 28 and 32 inches in length, measured in total length from the chin to the tip of the tail. Only hook-and-line gear is allowed when targeting or harvesting snook.
The closed seasons are critically important. A subtropical species, snook is one hardy fish, except when it comes to cold temperatures. FFWCC managers give the species a break during the coldest months of winter, when they are most vulnerable to potentially lethal water temperatures brought on by cold snaps. In January 201 a series of cold fronts killed tens of thousands of snook on both coasts.
Along the Atlantic Coast, the fish are protected from Dec. 15 until Feb. 1 and during June, July and August— the peak spawning months. Protecting fish while they’re reproducing is a scientifically sound and a common sense approach for the preservation of future snook stocks and their long-term protection, ensuring great fishing year-in and year-out.