How to

How to catch mud crabs

OUT of all the things I do on the water, I’d have to say that mud crabbing gives me the most fun and enjoyment. Whether it be with a few mates after work or with the kids on the weekend, crabbing is a relaxing way to spend time on the water.

Summer to autumn usually sees me mud crabbing far more than fishing as crabbing trips provide more consistent results when the muddies are on – and why not, who doesn’t love a fresh feed of muddies?

7 tips to catch more fish

The humble mud crab with its oversized nippers has a geographical range from the top parts of WA, NT,  QLD and in NSW has been found down as far as Newcastle.  Muddies can live in brackish water, so they often make their way a far way inland up rivers and out into open bays. This gives you a fair chance of catching one if you live in the top half of the country.


Evening versus day crabbing

A few years back I wrote an article for Fishing World on night crabbing and how our results were usually better at night. I think this theory may have been somewhat innacurate as we were working week days so night crabbing was the only option. We also timed the trips to be out of the summer sun as afternoons were cooler. Some trips this summer during the middle of the day made me change my mind bigtime. I had a few sessions in the middle of the day that were best described “fast and furious”! The crabs came on that quick that we didn’t have time to scratch ourselves until we were off the water two hours later. We were getting 2-3 crabs per dillie net per pull and it didn’t take very long to bag out and perform “upgrades” (release smaller legal live crabs and keep the larger ones).

Bait tips for beach fishing

The secret is getting on the water at exactly the right tide and the phrase ”no run, no fun” holds very true.  We found that we got a consistent stream of crabs when the tide was running the hardest. Mud crabs hitch a free ride with the tide, gathering food and moving in a swarm or large groups. Crabbing during slack tide times saw the muddies go dormant and as soon as the current ran they were on the move again. 

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Depth and placement of dillies/pots

This summer we’ve found that water depth doesn’t matter as much as tidal flow. We were catching crabs in 1-2ft of water in the middle of the day! It was very exciting to pull up in the boat and see the crabs in the dillie nets before getting them in the boat. 

We found the best method was to put 2-5 dillies together in a group about 30 metres apart then move a few hundred metres and set the next lot. If no crabs were caught after a few pull-ups then we moved the group up or down the river a few kilometres.

We found that starting on the top of a high tide and travelling about a third up the estuary provided the best location and time to crab. On a high tide the crabs are going to be pushed right up the river following the flow and catching a free ride. It was our tactic to crab the whole run-out tide and be on the water setting the pots on the ebb of the high waiting in position on the change.  

It does work in reverse too, so if crabbing on a low tide go up the estuary right on the bottom of the low and set the dilles back up into the estuary. This way crabs travelling back up the river with the new tide will encounter your pots/dillies.  

In periods of no rain, the saltwater will be pushed up high so head slightly further up river as mud crabs don’t mind the brackish water. The best ambush points are bends in the river where the flow will push the crabs towards that side. We tend to check the dillies every 20-30 minutes to ensure that the crabs don’t damage the nets too much. However, if checking them when the crabs are really on, you need to finish one run of checking and then go back to the start. Repeat the checking until you reach your bag limit (Note: bag limits and type of gear vary from state to state). Pots are best placed into deep holes on bends as you can add longer, heavier rope to them.


Crabbing with Kids

Having a competition with your kids and their friends is a good way to get them interested in going along on crabbing trips. You score points if you pull up a crab, fun rivalries are started and the kids jostle for the title of “best crabber”. Those with the most points (the most crabs pulled up) get a prize on the way home. My two girls hotly compete when crabbing and cheating is sometimes known to occur! Always ensure when crabbing with the kids that they have their lifejackets on as they are leaning over the water when pulling in the pots/dillies and ensure that adults handle and remove the all the crabs. Place crabs into eskies with a cold water slurry to slow them down, and don’t let the kids play with them.

Where – river selection

Estuaries are the best places to get mud crabs, along with mangrove bays with good tidal flow. Mud or sand bottoms will produce crabs so don’t be too concerned with what the bottom looks like, but get the right tide. 

The smaller rivers can hold more concentrated populations and it can be easier to locate where the crabs are. The bigger rivers are much longer with greater tidal flow, so it can be much harder to pinpoint where they are at any given time and sometimes it takes a series of trips over a few weeks to determine where they are holding. Water temperature is also very important. Crabs will be more active in water over 25C. In Northern NSW we have been able to chase mud crabs from about September to May, with the peak months being December to February. This sees water temperature of 28-30C on hot days.

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Baits and gear

Fresh bait is always best and mullet or chicken legs are the two best baits that are easy to obtain. Chicken legs are easier to obtain from you local butcher or supermarket and are the perfect size for dillie nets. Cable tie them onto the centre string will secure the bait firmly. Old fish frames and frozen baits will work too but can get tangled in the net. I like to keep fish heads (trag, snapper, mackerel) from offshore trips as frozen baits.

Mud crabs are omnivorous and will eat rotting vegetation along with fleshy baits; it is a matter of having the bait in the water at the right time. I have found that we get more crabs in the dillie nets. The nets work on the principle that the crab gets tangled trying to get to the bait. The fun part is untangling a live and angry crab from a dillie net, especially when it’s in with another crab! Dille nets and rings cost about five to eight dollars each and replacement nets cost around two dollars each. I fix mine with builders string and they usually last a few more trips when repaired.

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The pots are good for deeper holes or if you want to leave them overnight. They require less checking as the nets are thicker and being heavier are less prone to floating away. I always like to zip-tie my pots shut to ensure that no tampering takes place as crab poaching does happen. Good pots cost around $25-30 each and come round or square – it doesn’t matter which you prefer.

With any crabbing pots/dillies your name needs to be clearly identified along with your residential address and phone number.  Some states require extra items like a tag on the pot or a identification on the float, such as “CT” for crab trap.  It surprises me that amateurs have to do this as the commercial’s floats are tiny and have no markings.

For floats I like to use hollow pool noodle or white round foam floats as they work the best and last more seasons than plastic milk bottles.

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Caring for your catch

Mud crabs can survive out of water for a few days and if keeping them alive place them in a large esky with a few inches of salt water and throw some mangrove leaves over the top of them so they can hide. Also if keeping them live, it’s a good idea to tie them up because the large clawed males will fight with others. Look on Youtube for footage on how to tie them up – it is relatively easy to work out.

Usually once detangled from the net I throw them immediately into my livewell with a few frozen milk bottles, the cold water slows them down and makes them easier to handle. When at home I place them into a bucket in the fridge or freezer for a few hours to euthanise them. Fresh mud crab does freeze ok, so you can freeze them for a few weeks whole or clean them green and freeze the pieces for later. For whole frozen crab just thaw out in some water in the sink or a bucket for a few hours, then cook.



New crabbing regulations have been suggested for NSW that will see crabbing banned at night and the use of dillies prohibited. Long time crabbers like myself and friends will be at a disadvantage and these proposals hopefully will not be implemented. Let’s hope NSW Fisheries come to their senses and overwhelming recent survey responses will be against this. Make sure you check your current regulations relating to crab sizes and bag limits before you head out on the water by visiting your state’s fisheries website.

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Recipes to try

Having a fridge/freezer full of mud crab can see you tire of eating it very quickly – it’s hard to believe I know! Below are some suggested recipes that will change the taste slightly and have family and friends wanting more: 

  • Crab cakes – from Taste website –
    good for non crab eaters
  • Singapore Chilli Mudcrab – SBS Recipe –
  • Crab linguine – Pete Evans Fish Cookbook

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    Crabcakes. Yum!

    Chilli Oil BBQ Crab – (Author’s recipe)

    1. Chop up a few red chillis, mix with olive oil.
    2. Clean crabs, break into four pieces, crush claws and legs slightly.
    3. Brush oil on cleaned crab pieces or mix pieces in a bowl with oil/chilli.
    4. Grill on a hot BBQ, turning to cook evenly until shell is red and no liquid is bubbling from crabs (approx 15 minutes).
    5. Continue to brush oil onto cooking pieces to add more flavour.

TIP – When boiling mud crabs use a gas burner outside to cook crabs or risk stinking out the house…


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