There are so many fun things to do in the Outer Banks, but honestly, catching crabs (or crabbing) was one of my family’s favorite activities. You can scoop up ghost crabs from the sand or lure blue crabs with bait out of the water.
It’s challenging because, well, claws, but it’s also rewarding. We did a lot of hooting and hollering when we snagged a crab. And I don’t think we grinned or laughed more on the vacation than we did while crabbing.
Where to Find Crabs in the Outer Banks
The Outer Banks offers two kinds of crab-finding experiences. To the east are the beaches, where ghost crabs scurry sideways across the sand and dive into underground holes. Baby ones the size of a nickel shuffle along the beaches during the day and the big daddies zoom around at night.
On the other side of the Outer Banks is a body of water known as the sound. It’s the calmer water between the mainland and the islands and it’s where blue crabs live. These guys are the ones who shed their hard shells every May and end up on menus as deep-fried soft-shell crab alongside a pile of fries. But much to the chagrin of blue crabs, they’re still delicious after their shell hardens too. You just have to steam them with some Old Bay seasoning, crack the shell and dig in.
When to Go Crabbing in the Outer Banks
From May through September, crabs are easy to catch in the Outer Banks. And you definitely shouldn’t go home without trying it. You don’t need a license if you’re hand-lining (using your hands and a fishing line) rather than a basket-style trap.
You can spread your crabbing activities throughout your vacation or spend one crab-tastic day hunting these leggy guys. Here’s an itinerary loaded with crabby adventures and the very best eats along the way—choose one activity or do them all!
One Awesome Day of Crabbing, Mapped Out
NOTE: Every stop on this itinerary is 10 to 20 minutes from the next stop.
Eat melt-in-your-mouth donuts: Island-famous for a reason, the cake donuts at Duck Donuts (5000 South Croatan Highway Highway, Nags Head) are truly amazing. They’re unlike anything you’ve had before: tender, fall-apart, cakey pieces of heaven hot of the oven and slathered with icing. Get them made to order—you select among toppings like Oreo crumbs and chopped bacon—or choose from fan favorites. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
Discover what lurks under the water: Learn about the wildlife in the sound, wetlands and surrounding ocean at Roanoke Island Aquarium (374 Airport Rd, Manteo). Here you can pet a sting ray in the touch pool, watch the sharks be fed, and marvel at the gorgeous jellyfish and delicate seahorses.
Get a pizza and a slice of the sound: Drive back to Nags Head for lunch at a pizza joint with an unbeatable view. Nags Head Pizza Company (7531 S Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head) tosses delicious pies and fresh green salads. Eat them on the deck overlooking the sound.
Search for baby ghost crabs: Head toward Nag’s Head Fishing Pier (3335 South Virginia Dare Trail, Milepost 11.5, Nag’s Head). On the way, stop at Kitty Hawk Surf Company (3933 S Croatan Hwy, Nags Head) if you want to rent boogie or surf boards for the beach. Find a strip of sand near the pier and keep your eye out for what looks like pieces of moving sand. Those are baby ghost crabs, and they’re adorable! The best method for catching them is to scoop up the sand underneath them. Take a picture, squeal over their cuteness and then release them. At this stop, you can also fish off the pier—the bait and tackle shop offer everything you need, including rod and reel rentals.
Cool off with a cone: Tucked away in the quiet Colington neighborhood is Higher Grounds, a sound-side ice cream and coffee shop (2141 Colington Rd., Kill Devil Hills). Lick a scoop of their Hershey’s ice cream or slurp a milkshake (the coffee one is to die for!) from the top deck with a peaceful view of the water.
Pick up crabbing supplies: Nearby, you can get everything you need to go crabbing in the sound at Bill’s Marine (1648 Colington Rd., Kill Devil Hills). The good news: It doesn’t take much, just some fishing cord and bait. If you’re planning to eat the crabs you catch, buy a net too.
Hook blue crabs: Ready to nab some pretty, blue-clawed crabs? Head south over the Earl Murray Bridge to a small parking area on the right. Follow the path by the bushes down to the sound. Tie a piece of bait at the end of the fishing cord and immerse it in the water. Within minutes a crab should latch on and start munching away. Slowly pull the cord up so that the crab keeps his claws hooked in the bait. Put a net under the crab to catch him when he inevitably releases the bait and falls. You can keep up to 50 crabs as long as they’re at least five inches across.
Refuel at a tiki bar: A popular go-to for tourists and locals alike, Mama Kwan’s Tiki Bar and Grill (1701 S Croatan Hwy, Kill Devil Hills) usually has a wait to get in. But the Hawaiian pork plate—marinated for two days and served with rice and a sweet-vinegar cucumber salad—is worth it. You can also order fish tacos, burgers and tropical drinks.
Go on a nighttime crab hunt: For this adventure, you need a flashlight (or a light app on your phone). Pick a public beach near where you’re staying and after dark, hit the sand. Look down. Ghost crabs as big as four inches across will scatter across the sand. Take pictures when they freeze in the light, or get a workout running after them. If you’re fast enough and brave, you can try picking them up from behind or the sides to avoid their claws. But you’ll probably get pinched, at least once. Be gentle with them and be sure to let them go—they’re not for eating. The bonus? On a clear night the sky is full of stars.
Crabbing is cheap entertainment all ages enjoy. But more importantly, working together to catch the feisty creatures is a great way to bond and create lasting memories with your loved ones (and maybe score a free meal too!).