Mark your calendars for the best crabs of the year

They say for everything there is a season, and when it comes to crabs, that couldn't be more true. Whether you're trying to figure out the best time to visit your favorite seafood restaurant or gearing up for a crabbing trip of your own, timing is important. Here's what you need to know about finding the meatiest and most abundant crabs of the year.

Prime time for crabs

Like all aquatic animals, temperature plays a big role in crab behavior. There really isn't a season when crabs can't be caught, but winter is tough. In places like the Chesapeake Bay, crabs bury themselves in deep-water mud to wait out the cold, forcing commercial crabbers to dredge the bottom in search of a catch.

Crabs head toward shallow water to feed and reproduce as the water warms, often making their way into crab traps and onto dinner tables in the process. The farther south you go, the earlier in the year you can expect a good catch. In Florida, the season essentially lasts year-round, while up in Oregon, some of the best crabbing of the year awaits in fall.

Crabbing conditions

Crabs thrive in water ranging from 70 to 75 degrees F, and prime crab season traditionally includes the period from late spring to early summer, and late summer into early fall – essentially when the water is warm, but not too warm. Of course, temperature isn't the only factor that determines when the best crabbing takes place. Tides are equally important. Even in prime crab season, it's easy to go home empty handed if you arrive at the water during the wrong time of day.

The best time to catch crabs is while the water is moving, especially when the tide is coming in. As high tide approaches, crabs are pulled toward shore as they actively feed on tiny aquatic creatures that are stirred up by the moving water; this makes them easier to find and catch. But once the water reaches high tide, the water becomes still again, and crabbing becomes more difficult.

Open seasons

Crabs live their lives without regard to dates on the calendar, but the same can't be said for humans. Every state has its own laws to determine when you can catch crabs, so it's important to know when the season is open in your home state. Seasons often change from one year to the next, as fishery scientists assess crab populations to determine how much fishing the local crab population can withstand.

In Florida, for example, different regions are closed to crabbing for a few weeks at a time throughout the year. On the Chesapeake Bay, fishing for blue crabs is typically open from April 1 to mid-December. In California, you can catch rock crabs year-round, but fishing for dungeness crabs is tightly regulated.

Rules and regulations

Just as seasons vary from state to state, so do crabbing rules and regulations. Before heading to the water, be sure to familiarize yourself with your state's regulations, including size and catch limits, what types of equipment are legal to use for crabbing and whether a fishing license is required.

There are other rules to consider, as well. In Oregon, for example, it is illegal to keep female dungeness crabs, and on the Chesapeake Bay, crabbing is not permitted from 5 p.m. until half an hour before sunrise.