Catching giant Cameron Parish crabs

Chicken leg quarters and beef melt are a deadly combination

Bobbye Sonnier and Dede Isaac are what you might call crabbing connoisseurs — and they put a serious hurting on some monstrous select jumbo crustaceans recently at the Creole Nature Reserve in Cameron Parish.

The largest of their big blue crabs measured 7 ½ inches across the back, and stretched the tape to a whopping 18 ½ inches from claw tip to claw tip.

“That’s the biggest crabs we’ve seen, certainly this year,” said Sonnier, 57, of Westlake, who happens to be the wife of Grammy Award-winning Cajun musician Jo-El Sonnier. “We had about a dozen like that. They’re heavy, but you can’t ever tell if they’re full because sometimes they’re heavy and they’re just full of water.

“So when you boil them, sometimes the ones you thought were heavy are actually light.”

Sonnier was quick to credit Isaac, 61, of Sulphur — who’s been crabbing for more than 50 years — with showing her the ropes.

“She taught me everything I know,” Sonnier said, noting they try to make a crabbing trip down Highway 27 at least once or twice per week. “We’re actually the ones who eat the least amount of crabs. But everybody else — Jo-El especially — loves them and eats them.

“We just love doing it more than we do eating it.”

Their decision to head out bright and early last Thursday morning — after Wednesday’s torrential rains and heavy winds — was met with much skepticism.

“Everybody told us we were crazy,” Sonnier said with a chuckle. “They said the water was going to be too high and we weren’t going to catch anything. But you know what — we didn’t care. We figured it would be a pretty day, and we went down to see.”

Turns out they were right — by 7 a.m., they already had about 5 dozen crabs in their baskets caught along one of the public docks in the reserve.

And if you think they were out there just soaking a piece of chicken on a string, think again. Their vast crabbing experience was obvious in talking to them that afternoon.

“We never, ever use a drop net,” Sonnier said. “We do everything on a string, and we use a combination of chicken and beef melt. Beef melt is a bloody part of the cow, kind of like liver, that doesn’t tear as much. It’s much more durable. And we always use a weight on our line.

“We have short lines, medium lines and lines that go halfway across the water. We just have to look where the crabs are and adjust. They’re never in the same place. It depends how the water is flowing and how fast the current is moving. Sometimes they’re right where you just barely drop it down, and sometimes you’ve got to be 20 feet out in the water.”

Not adding weight to the line — Sonnier and Isaac use heavy nuts and bolts to make their bait sink — is a crucial error lots of weekend crabbers make.

“Some people throw chicken on a string and it’s just floating on the top of the water,” Sonnier said. “Well, unless you happen to catch a crab that’s floating by, that’s not going to do you any good.”

Pulling the line in way too fast is another rookie mistake.

“You’ve got to pull real slow to not jerk the crab loose, and as soon as you feel there’s a crab on, you’ve got to work with the crab at its pace as to how fast you can pull it in,” Sonnier explained. “On Thursday, sometimes we had six really large crabs on one piece of chicken. So after a while you know by the weight that you’ve got a lot on — so we always tag team. One of us pulls the line, and the other has the net.”

Another hint they shared was to be aware of your shadow on the water once the sun comes up.

“Once you get crabs up to a certain depth, they can see you and they’ll let go,” Sonnier said. “There’s just so many things you have to learn.”

But they’re not shy about sharing the successful techniques they’ve mastered over the years with others who might be struggling.

“There are people who drive three, four or five hours to come down here and try to catch crabs, and they’re sitting there watching us catch crab after crab and they’re not catching anything,” Sonnier said. “So sometimes they’ll come over and ask, or sometimes we’ll give them some crabs or Dede will show them how to tie it.”

One thing they don’t take for granted is being able to make a short drive to enjoy the scenery of the marsh on a pretty morning — and then returning home with an ice chest full of delicious blue crabs.

“I guess we get jaded to it living here and having access to it all the time. Maybe you don’t appreciate it like you really should, but we do,” Sonnier said. “We know it’s an important part of the culture, and being from Louisiana, to be able to do that and then come home, clean them, boil them and eat them — you’ve created your whole meal yourself.”

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Patrick Bonin is the former editor of Louisiana Sportsman magazine and