It could be another record season for the Dungeness fishery in Western Washington waters.
PUGET SOUND — Pursuing Dungeness crab is a fun summertime activity whether you’re setting a pot from a pier or boat or wading along a beachfront with dip net in hand.
To boost the excitement, state fishery shellfish managers report another potentially record-breaking crab season under way.
“I would say this summer so far has been pretty stellar for Dungeness crabs, and is very comparable to last year, which was a record-setting summer season,” said Rich Childers, state Fish and Wildlife shellfish manager.
The state and tribal Puget Sound Dungeness crab fisheries landed a total of 11.8 million pounds in 2015, exceeding the previous year’s record by 1.2 million pounds.
Just the thought of what might be a seabed lined with scurrying Dungeness crabs had me wrestling with excitement before a July 15 outing.
The adventure begins
Most of my companions, including “Uncle” Fred Matsunaga, of Honolulu, who had never been crabbing before, were up at the crack of dawn getting ready for what we hoped was a good morning of fishing.
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We pushed our aluminum boat off the beach on a pristine morning, looking toward the Seattle skyline from Northern Puget Sound, and took a 15-minute ride to the crab pots we’d left soaking the night before.
There, in an area filled with crab-pot buoys, we looked for ours, marked with the family name.
“Using fresh bait (lingcod and/or salmon carcasses) is the best way to attract them to our pots as the scent trail is what gets them into your pot,” said Nelson Nakata, of Seattle, who had our secret spot dialed in, with excellent catches since the season opened July 1.
We attached the line from our first pot to the pulley on the side of the boat and began pulling. That first pot, set at a depth of about 35 feet, yielded just a handful of Dungeness crabs. We then moved over to the second and third pots, each filled with a few keepers.
I gave a shot at pulling in the fourth pot, which felt heavy — that’s always a positive signal. Glancing over the gunwale I saw the pot loaded with a dozen or more of the mottled brownish-purple, hard-shelled critters with two scary pincers.
We opened the pot’s trap door and sorted through the smaller crabs, carefully throwing them back into the water. Just to make sure, we measured the legal-size male crabs. Any less than 6¼ inches across, and all female crabs, go back in the water.
I had Matsunaga, our newbie on the boat, proudly but carefully hoist two of the 7-inch beauties by the two back legs, keeping a safe distance from the gnarly pincers, as I snapped a few pictures.
How to catch crabs
Catching these delectable creatures is fairly easy and enjoyable. Unlike trying to catch a salmon, there isn’t too much skill involved.
Crab pots — wire cages with one-way entry doors or funnel-shaped openings — are most commonly used to catch crabs from a boat or a pier. They are typically set from 10 to 60 feet deep and left to “soak” for several hours or overnight before being checked.
Simpler and less-expensive ring nets, which depend on a quick hoisting from the seabed to catch crabs, should be monitored more regularly as bait can be picked away by crabs that come and go.
Popular bait includes fish carcasses and heads, horse clams, or chicken or turkey parts. Many outdoor stores sell liquid attractants that can be applied to the bait.
Another one of my favorite ways to catch Dungeness crab is by wading with a dip net along the shoreline. Target bays with sandy bottoms and large beds of eelgrass, good habitat for crabs. Go two to three hours before low tide.
On hot days, you can wade in a swimsuit and just a pair of old tennis shoes. Other times you might want hip boots or chest waders. Bring a bucket or a large mesh bag to carry your catch.
The water tends to magnify things so targeting crabs can be tricky. Be quick on the scoop as they’ll often hop out of the net before you get them to the surface.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has a wealth of online information on where and how to catch crabs: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/crab/.
“We have a great 15-minute video on the website that’s worth watching,” said Childers (see below).
Don’t be a crabby rule breaker
Abiding by the rules is important, and carefully reading the regulation pamphlet or online rules could keep you from getting “pinched” with a fine on the water by fisheries enforcement (wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations).
“Know the rules, make sure the crab are legal-size, have a license and catch-record card, and fill out your catch card immediately,” Childers stressed. “We’ve adopted a zero tolerance on folks who don’t fill out their catch card right after landing crabs.”
Another common violation is caused by mismeasuring Dungeness crab, which must be at least 6¼ inches at the widest point of the shell, just in front of the rearmost points or tips.
The most accurate way to measure is by using a plastic caliper crab gauge, available at most sporting-goods stores.
Poaching crabs by pulling another angler’s crab pot is also illegal, and those caught could be charged with theft.
Crabbers also shouldn’t overlook the mandatory use of a biodegradable rot cord (no plastic zip cords allowed) to secure a pot’s lid and escape hatches. This cord must be able to rot away to allow crabs to escape if a pot is lost. A derelict crab pot without a proper escape cord can attract and kill crabs for years.
Where to go crabbing
Fisheries managers report excellent Dungeness crab catches this summer across Western Washington waters except for Southern Hood Canal.
A few good places for crabbing:
• Shilshole Bay and Edmonds jetties
• Around Whidbey Island
• Kitsap Peninsula from Pilot Point south to Kingston
• Around Bainbridge Island
• Shoreline south of West Point to Magnolia Bluff
• Quartermaster Harbor
• Hat Island
• Richmond Beach north to Browns Bay
Shilshole Bay, Des Moines, Les Davis, Bremerton, Sinclair, Redondo
Elsewhere around the Salish Sea
Hood Canal north of the Great Bend, San Juan Islands, Dungeness Bay, Skagit Bay, Saratoga Passage, Sequim Bay, Discovery Bay, Port Townsend, Port Susan, Port Gardner, Padilla Bay, Samish Bay, Birch Bay
• Adult annual shellfish/seaweed license with Puget Sound crab endorsement = $26.15. One- to three-day licenses available (fishhunt.dfw. wa.gov).
• Crab pots/traps range from about $25 to $100+.