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The Hilton Head Crab Crew and Softies

Photos by Andrew Branning
Photo by Andrew Branning

Soft shell crabs—the South Carolina Lowcountry is obsessed. There are only a few more days to enjoy these elusive delicacies, which occur when the female crabs molt their shells in order to mate. It’s an art to catch them at the right time, and there are all kind of tricks for knowing and catching them when they’re “hot,” or ready to molt.

And then there’s the “Crab Crew” at Hudson’s on the Docks. For a few weeks each year, a group of workers at the iconic restaurant/fish market on the banks of Skull Creek on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, pull “hots” and then monitor them in custom tanks inside the restaurant.

“We took the extra step to install tanks because the difference in quality is amazing when we can pull them minutes after the shell comes off,” says Andrew Carmines, general manager.

“They only come around once a year, and this way, they have the potential for real, real culinary greatness. And we didn’t do anything to augment the natural process. The tanks just provide a chance to pull them out of the water in three minutes after they molt.”

During the few brief weeks that soft shells crabs are in season, Hudson’s 13 tanks hold 300-350 female crabs at a time, and they are monitored overnight, because the molting happens in waves of usually 600-700 at a time.

Photos by Andrew Branning
Crab of Hudson's on the Docks / Photos by Andrew Branning

And exactly what is the taste difference in pulling them so fast? The shells begin to grow back immediately, and if you’ve ever had a “softie” that was harvested too late, then you might remember the papery texture of the shell between your teeth when you bit into it. Carmines attests that Hudson’s softies are so tender, they are buttery. On a busy night, the restaurant can serve 400 orders.

They aren’t the only people using tanks, but for this Hilton Head institution, it’s about as local as you can get. Crabber Rob Roe pulls up at the restaurant dock to deliver his daily catch, and other employees monitor crab pots steps away from the front door.

Carmines sums it up: “These are special, and so it’s worth it to do it right.”


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