There are a hundred ways to have fun on the South Carolina coast as a family, but only one of them can get you a free and fresh dinner: crabbing and shrimping in the beautiful tidal creeks of the Grand Strand, Hammock Coast and Lowcountry.
Catching your dinner isn't hard at all, and crabs and shrimp more plentiful than you might realize as you swing you feet off the dock in the water below. In fact, the waters of the tidal creeks are absolutely swimming with creatures. And, there are no limits on the number of crabs and shrimp you may catch using the methods we outline below. However, crabs must be 5 inches from point to point; if they're smaller, throw them back. Also, if you catch a female crab with an egg sacks, throw her back.
These are activities that even preschoolers can do, and yet they remain fun and challenging for even avid and experienced fishermen. It really is fun for the whole family. There's nothing quite so magical as spending the day in the sunshine with your kids in the pluff mud, staring at the beauty around you and working together to bring in your haul.
So the next time you gaze out on the creeks, marshes and mounds of pluff mud along the tidal estuaries of the South Carolina shore, don't just think about how very mesmerizing the swaying green marsh grasses are, or how piercing the blue of the sky and water. No, think: Dinner!
Here's a quick guide to get started.
Where and when: The best place to go crabbing is off a dock into a tidal creek. You can also crab from the creek bank, which is more challenging when it's time to net the crab. (You probably won't have much success in the ocean-the crashing waves make it almost impossible to pull the crabs in.) Any time will work, but you'll have most success if you go when the tide is either coming in or out (so not high tide or low tide).
What you'll need: There's one thing that crabs love more than anything else in this world: frozen chicken necks. This is your secret weapon. You'll also need 3 or 4 lengths of thin rope or strong string, a fishing net on a longish pole, and a cooler.
What to do: Tie a chicken neck onto one end of a string, and either throw the bait out into the creek, or let it drop off the side of the dock to the bottom of the creek. And now wait. When you feel a slight tug, very, very, very slowly start to pull in the line. You need to do this carefully, for if the crab gets a sense that you are trying to catch it, it will let go of that delicious frozen chicken neck. Once you get the crab close enough, have a friend or family member scoop the net under it so it will fall into the net when it tries to escape. Then measure it, and if it's up to size, put it in the cooler for dinner. Throw your chicken neck out there and do it again. If you use the "chicken necking" method and have three or fewer handlines in the water, you don't need to obtain a South Carolina Saltwater Recreational Fishing License.
How to cook: The easiest and most delicious way to cook crabs is to boil them in a big pot of water with lots of Old Bay seasoning. You'll have to clean the crabs before eating, but that cleaning can be done either before or after the boiling. People have strong opinions on when is the better time to clean the "devil" (or gills) out of the crabs.
Where and when: On the shore of a tidal creek, up to your ankles in the soft mud, from a boat or a dock. Low tide is your best bet.
What you'll need: A cast net and a bucket. A cast net is a round net with weights along the edges and a pull line in the middle that cinches the circle together when pulled. You will also need a South Carolina Saltwater Recreational Fishing License. You can buy one online at www.dnr.sc.gov/purchase.
What to do: Throw your cast net out like a lasso into the water. If you've ever seen a seasoned shrimper do this, it looks easy, but you'll find it actually will take some practice. But what fun practice it is, flinging the net into the warm water, trying to make the scrunched up ball of mesh spread out into a perfect circle in the air before it lands flat on the water and sinks peacefully. Then pull it in using the line. If you've found a good spot, you might have a dozen shrimp in your net. Dump them into your water-filled bucket.
How to cook them: First you'll have to de-head the shrimp. Just pop off the head and legs in one fell swoop with your thumb and index finger. Then throw them into boiling water seasoned with salt and pepper until they turn pink. They usually cook fast-less than a minute.
The SC Department of Natural Resources website contains a wealth of information about fishing in the state.