As children we often ask our friends pointless questions, “Would you rather have a million pounds or a Ferrari?” As an angler I regularly hear others asking variations of these kinds of questions. A popular one is, ‘Would you rather have good bait on a crap mark or crap bait on a good mark?’ For me, the answer is obvious – I would choose the bait.
With anglers pursuing different species of fish at different times of the year, the changing seasons also have a major influence on what bait is available. Personally I try to source and prepare the majority of my bait. I feel confident heading out with bait I know is top quality as opposed to something out of a packet; that’s not to say packaged baits can’t be great quality, I’m just picky. Coming from the north east of England, there’s one bait in particular I’ve found to cause a stir amongst my southern counterparts – cart. What is it? Where does it come from? How do you prepare it? You use edible crabs for bait? are you mad?!
Cart is essentially the insides of a female edible crab. Female crabs are used as they contain coral: the name given to eggs or roe in shellfish. This in turn means that cart is only available when the female crabs are containing high amounts of coral – in the North East this is typically from late autumn into early winter.
Throughout the following article I hope to enlighten you on how I prepare crab cart. As with many things, people have their own thoughts and ideas on how best to do it and there are a few variations to the ‘recipe’ shall we say. I’ll cover the fundamentals and leave you to conduct your own experiments.
To begin with you will need fresh, live, female edible crabs. If you are unsure of the difference between male and female crabs, the easiest way to tell them apart is by the apron located on the underside – a female crab has a much wider apron than a male. It’s most cost effective to purchase crabs direct from commercial boats per box as opposed to purchasing single crabs from your local fishmonger. A box will contain between 45 and 60 crabs depending on their size and how generous the boat is.
Disclaimer: the following process isn’t to be carried out in your partners immaculate kitchen, it’s messy and the smell of fermented crab juice is not to be taken lightly.
Set up a station prior to starting and get comfortable, working your way through a box of crab could take you upwards of an hour. If you intend to produce wings (the meaning of the term ‘wings’ will become apparent later), lay out a section of old carpet or mat to soak up the excess juices. Here the process can differ as some people prefer to salt the wings and others do not. Personally, I lightly salt the wings, pouring a dusting of salt over the carpet. If you only intend to make cart, you won’t need the carpet.
Take a crab and begin by removing the legs and placing the claws in a separate tub, these are perfectly edible and it would be a waste to throw them away. Now use force to remove the base of the crab; I find this easiest by hitting the back of the crab against a blunt object and then levering the base of the crab away from the carapace. You should be left with the open shell containing the crab’s innards. Stand the carapace on end, enabling the juices to drain. If you are doing this on your property, stack the carapaces into boxes that will collect the juice for later disposal.
By the time you’ve shelled the whole box, the first crabs should be ready for the next stage. Here is where the angler must decide if they wish to produce cart or wings. To produce cart, simply remove the contents of the carapace and pour them into small shallow tubs – takeaway tubs are ideal. I don’t recommend filling the tubs any deeper than 30 mm, any thicker than this and the cart is harder to cut once frozen. Place the tubs of cart into a deep freeze until completely frozen.
If the angler decides to produce wings the process is a little more time consuming and fiddly, although many anglers (myself included) think the added effort is worth it. Inside each crab there are two ‘wings’, located in either side of the carapace. The wings can be removed by one of two methods: either gently run your finger along the inner edge of the carapace, dislodging the wing from the outer shell or find the piece of membrane holding the wings in place (it looks like cling film) and pull it gently to tease the wing out of the carapace. Place the individual wings onto your salted or unsalted carpet. The process of making wings also produces small amounts of cart, enough to fill a couple of small containers. The image below shows both cart and wings, in this instance the wings are unsalted.
A small amount of salt can be applied to the tops of the wings if you want to dry the wings further; adding more salt also acts to toughen the wings – heavily salted wings have a putty-like consistency. Individual wings and cart must be wrapped to prevent freezer burn, with many anglers choosing to use cling film. Once the blocks of cart have frozen they need to be cut into bait-size pieces. Personally, I cut them to around the size of a fish finger as this gives a nice sized bait, although it’s a great idea to make a few different sizes to give you options when you’re fishing. After cutting, wrap the sticks in cling film and return them to the freezer. Some people freeze cart into sticks and wrap the cart in finger bandage, I don’t do this and I’ll explain why shortly. The wings will not need cutting, they can simply be wrapped as you would a peeler crab and then frozen.
Here, due to the different methods of production, the two baits behave in slightly different ways. Upon removing a wing from the carapace, you will notice that it is encompassed within a thin skin. In the water this thin membrane protects the bait, meaning a wing will last longer on the hook than cart. Both cart and wings should be stored in flasks to prevent defrosting throughout the session. Wings can be taken out of the flask for a time before baiting up, letting them slightly defrost and making them more malleable and easier to whip onto a hook.
Although both baits can be used on their own, they are typically used as cocktail baits – cart even more so. A wing or a piece of cart is best whipped onto a bait that will offer some substance, i.e. a squid or a section of bluey. Both baits should be removed from the cling film prior to being whipped onto the bait as cling film will only mask the bait and lock in the scent. This is the reason I don’t prepare cart in finger bandage: for me, cart should be viewed as a ground bait. As it begins to defrost, it releases a pungent scent trail concentrating around your bait. Good quality cart will last for a good length of time on the hook, even in rough seas, whereas poor quality cart with high water content won’t last nearly as long. If the cart has been prepared in finger bandages it won’t have this ground baiting effect, instead releasing much less scent as it defrosts. This isn’t to say that this method won’t catch cod, it does, I just don’t regard it as the best approach. Wings, once removed from the cling film, can either be used whole or in halves.
Neither of the two baits is going to last an hour in a bouncing sea so be prepared to change your baits after a certain amount of time, usually around the 15-20 minute mark. Whichever way you choose to prepare the crabs, the baits they provide are lethal and you will struggle to find an angler on the north east coast without some form of cart in their arsenal.