Introduction: Crabbing Basics for Puget Sound
Did you know that Dungeness Crabs are named after the port of Dungeness, Washington where they were first commercially fished? Big, meaty and delicious these crabs are plentiful in the Puget Sound region and we will give you the knowledge you need to catch, clean and cook these as well as their under appreciated cousins the Red Rock Crab.
Although our advice will be focused on Puget Sound, I'm sure much of our advice here could apply to anywhere crabbing is available focused on frugal advice for beginners.
Step 1: Know Your Regulations
The Washington State Department of Fishing and Wildlife regulates crabbing in Puget Sound. There are many rules that I have not listed here and the seasons and even days when crabbing is permitted is very limited and constantly changing so its best to stay up with their regulations. In addition there are many different zones with different regulations so there is a lot to know.
You will need a shell fishing permit with a crab endorsement which is available on their website or in some sporting goods stores.
Following the rules, getting your permits and recording your catches helps keep Puget Sound crabbing safe and sustainable for everyone.
Step 2: Your Boat
Some people spend thousands of dollars outfitting their yachts with the latest depth finders, crab pot lifts and various expensive gear. But there is no need to go out and spend lots of money on a boat.
Recreational kayaks on the other hand are tough, low maintenance, polyethylene hull boats that are often under 50 pounds and 13 feet long. They can be launched by one person and offer a lot of stability which is crucial for pulling crab traps and is very comforting for beginning paddlers.
Small rowboats or dingy are also fine for crabbing. Not as swift or good for tracking as recreational kayaks they offer the distinct advantage of larger cockpits which are great for hauling up crab traps.
Small boats can found used complete with paddles and life vests but be sure to check the bottoms for damage. Pulling small boats across barnacles when entering and leaving the water can greatly reduce their lifespan.
Besides paddles and a good fitting life vest, you may want to invest in some neoprene gloves. This will not only extend your paddling season, but sometimes jellyfish get caught up in your traps and lines and having a pair of gloves makes you much less likely to be stung let alone get pinched by a crab.
There are many small businesses all around Puget Sound that rent small craft like kayaks, in fact some businesses are so small that you won't be able to find listings online, you will just happen upon them when you are out exploring.
Step 3: Your Gear
There are actually many kinds of crab traps which are also referred to as crab pots, the two most popular in the Puget Sound Region are Ring Traps and Square Box Style Traps. We are going to focus here on the Square Style because they are very productive and much easier to deal with from a kayak or small boat than ring traps. Square Traps (also known as fold up traps or Danielson Traps) are set at the bottom of the ocean, they have two to four small hinged openings that crabs enter to feed on the bait, but they become trapped and can't be released unless they manage to wiggle through the bars, get lucky or if they are purposefully released. They have several safety features built in to ensure safety such as biodegradable release mechanisms which will render the trap useless if it is abandon or for some other reason accidentally left in the ocean.
Do not buy an expensive trap for now. Look for the basic traps which can be found for as little as $15 on sale. Later on you can buy the more expensive traps when you're a pro and you know you won't be losing them in the ocean. One of the main advantages of expensive traps is their heavy weight which can reduce the chances of them drifting, but you can always add weight to a cheap trap if this is a concern.
Next you will need a bait box. This is usually a smaller cage that is attached within the larger box cage and usually secured with a clamp, but even a small piece of string will do. Its important to mount the bait box where crabs can't reach the bait from outside the cage. They will need to figure out how to get inside if they want a free meal.
Next you will need about 100' of weighted rope (or less depending on your style). You don't actually have to buy the more expensive weighted line, you can buy cheaper nylon line but regulations say that it has to sink somehow so if you buy the cheaper rope then you will also need to buy or make a line weight.
Floating on the top of the water you will need to tie the line to a red and white buoy marked with your name and address. This will help to keep track of your traps and tell them apart from others AND it will hopefully help get it returned if you lose it. You will see people with double stacked buoy with all sorts of flags and masts attached. This goes beyond regulation and is generally to help them identify their traps.
Step 4: Bait
Crabs love anything meaty and smelly and fishermen all seem to swear by their own special bait concoctions that they keep highly secret. But really you can use just about anything and experiment and find out for yourself what works best. Simply saving chicken scraps and chopped up fish parts will go a long way. Just stock up in your freezer during the off season, the stinkier the better.
They do sell official crab bait and I'm sure it works great, but even a can of cat food with a few holes punched in the top will work in a pinch.
Step 5: Where to Launch?
There are hundreds if not thousands of places to launch small craft in Puget Sound. Often times these are no more than an unmarked street that happens to dead end in the water. Check online for maps and get creative while respecting private property rights. State Parks are often located on the water and are usually offer a safe and accessible place to launch for beginners as well as offering over night camping. County Parks sometimes have gentle beaches and accessible parking that is great for launching small craft. Small marinas can be found everywhere that will sometimes charge a small fee for launching boats but just asking around and doing some detective work is often times the best bet.
Step 6: Attaching Your Gear
You have your boat and your gear. Now what?
This is where it gets a little advanced and you may want to alter your tactics depending on your skill level. For beginners I would recommend taking your traps out one at a time. You can attach your traps to the front of your kayak via string or bungee cords or just place them in the bottom of a rowboat depending on how comfortable you feel. Dropping pots off the side of your kayak can be a little unbalancing at should be tried in shallow water first to get the hang of it.
As you get more advanced and comfortable with your boat and the currents you can try stacking your traps on top of each other however this will make your boat even more top heavy. Even though regulations allow two traps you will probably want to start with only one until you get the hang of it and feel comfortable with your boat.
Get your lines neat and organized on land before you go. Lines can easily get tangled and its difficult and often unsafe to untangle them from a boat.
Step 7: Dropping Your Traps
Simply hang your trap over the side and drop it in the water making sure that the trap stays upright as it descends. Let it drop slowly controlling the speed by slowly releasing the rope. You will have a huge advantage over the yacht owners with their crab pullers at this point because you will actually be able to feel the current against your boat and how it is pulling against your line as it descends. Once the trap has hit the bottom give it a few good bounces to make sure that it landed upright and to stir up the bait a little so the crabs will take notice.
I would recommend that beginners drop their traps at high tide. Puget Sound has a huge tidal swing that can be more than 15' and this can be difficult to calculate if you are not experienced. Add to that some areas have a strong tidal current and it can be difficult to find a safe place to place a trap. By placing at high tide you will know the longest distance that your line will need to go and that it will only become more slack as the tide goes down. Its feels like cheating, but you can download a free tidal app for your phone that will help you track and identify tides in your area.
Try to keep in mind that Puget Sound can get to be about 900 feet deep, since you will be fishing with 100 feet of line maximum its best to stay in the shallower areas. Look for where others have placed their traps and ask lots of questions when you are first starting. Crabs can be just about anywhere there is water so don't be too surprised if you find what you are looking for in shallow depths.
Step 8: Retrieving Your Traps and Removing Crabs
Well, you have made it to the exciting part. There is nothing like pulling a trap up from the deep green depths of the Sound and finding what treasures are inside. Will it be packed with Dungeness or Red Rock? Or will you have just given a few sea stars a free ride to the surface?
You will need some upper body strength for this, not only will you need to pull up a lot of wet line, but it will be attached to a heavy trap and possibly entangled in sea weed. This is also where its best to practice in shallower water before pushing yourself deeper. It takes good balance to pull up a trap and navigate the current.
Its a good idea to tie off your paddle with a small rope. Its good safety practice in general but especially important since you will need both hands to pull up your line. From a kayak I try to load my rope into my lap as I go, this is not a great method since you are pouring seaweed gunky rope into your lap but it help keep everything nicely contained. Hopefully its a nice day and you will find this refreshing.
As the trap gets closer to your boat, take a look and see what you are getting yourself into. Is it full of crab? Empty? Full of sea stars? You will be picking it up and out of the water and placing it on the deck of your kayak or at your feet in a dingy so its best to at least have an idea of what you are getting into before it happens. Nothing more exciting than having some big juicy crabs drop in your lap when you least expect it.
Of course this is easier in a wide row boat or just about any boat you can get your hands on, but nothing beats the speed and tracking of a kayak and personally I think its worth the trade off of inconvenience while crabbing.
Step 9: Identifing Males and Females and Sizing
Now that your trap is on your boat you need to sort out crabs. You can have your butler use a caliper and tongs for this job while you sit back and drink champagne on your yacht. But since you are reading this I assume that is not the case for you so we are going to have to jump in and figure this out.
At this point I try to roll my trap up to see if I can see underneath the crabs and identify the sexes before I put my hands in. Regulations state that you can keep male Dungeness crabs over 6 1/4" in and they sell calipers specifically to help measure this. Of course this is easier said than done so I have the measurements notched off on the cockpit of my kayak. If we catch any female or a male Dungeness that are too small or if they are not in 'hard-shell' condition, then we try to pry the trap door open and shake them out of the side and back into the water. This is easier said than done and often times it takes a gentle prodding to set them free. You may also have to pry off any sea stars or chunks of sea weed at this point.
You can 'safely' hold both Dungeness and Red Rock Crabs by pinching their back torsos. Of course this is easier said than done in the real world. Add to this that if you happen to have to deal with a Spider Crab they are much more difficult to handle safely. Maybe you should consider going to buy crab at the store?
If this is not difficult enough, the state also requires that immediately after retaining a Puget Sound male Dungeness crab you must recorded it on your Catch Record Card in ink. This must be done before you put the trap back in the water. Record the Marine Area, month, and day in the first columns. Check off each Dungeness crab as it is kept.
The regulations for keeping Red Rock Crab are less stringent. You can keep either a male of female over 5". However Red Rock have a tendency to grab onto traps more and fight back more when you are trying to release them so be warned.
You are probably thinking to yourself that this all seems like too much to try to do from a kayak and you are probably right. However the costs are low and the rewards are huge for those willing to try and risk having a few angry crabs tossed in their laps while they are in a small confined space stuck out in the ocean.
Step 10: More on Safety
Having a good fitting life vest that functions well is imperative, they do make vest specifically for kayakers that are very functional and comfortable. Coast Guard regulations require that all kayaks have a lifejacket on board. Wearing your lifejacket will help keep your head above water AND add insulation keeping you warmer in cold the cold Puget Sound.
You will also want to lash your kayak paddle to your boat, this is a good practice even when not crabbing. Nothing fancy is needed, even a sturdy shoelace that is well knotted will do the trick. Nothing worse than losing a paddle on the Sound.
If you do happen to get pinched by a crab, hold the back end with one hand and pull away the pinched hand until the crabs pincer separates from its body. Clearly this is not good for you or the crab so be extra diligent when handling.
Know your limits. We paddled for years before we first tried setting crab traps. Take some time to get familiar with your equipment and know your limits, try paddling different weather conditions before trying crabbing.
Plan an escape route - an alternative place to get off the water should environmental conditions change drastically.
Be well aware of weather conditions and water temperature. Prepare for changes in weather and the possibility of a capsize. Puget Sound weather can change quickly so make sure you look at a forecast before you go.
Be aware of off-shore winds and currents that make it difficult to return to shore. Some areas of Puget Sound like Deception Pass have amazingly strong currents and are only for advance users so make sure you know the area you/re exploring. It can sometimes take a lot more time and energy to go one way than the other.
Bright colors make your more visible to larger boats. Shop for bright colored boats and wear bright colored clothing.
In warm weather, a long sleeve shirt can provide sun protection and a little sun screen lotion goes a long way. Don't be fooled by cool Puget Sound breezes, you will be getting exposed to a lot of sun especially reflected sun off the water.
Never mix alcohol or drugs with boating. Just because its legal here does not mean its a good idea while kayaking. You will want your best judgement about you in case of an emergency.
Always check your equipment for wear and tear before you go, the barnacles of Puget Sound can chew up a hull quickly. And never exceed the weight capacity of your boat.
Brush up on self-rescue first in shallow areas first and then again in more extreme conditions.
Tell a friend or neighbor your paddle plan, which includes: where you are going, what you will be doing, how long you expect to be gone and how many people are in your group.
Don't rely on cell phones, but they can be stored safely in a wet bag in case of an emergency.
Be aware of shipping lanes and how to avoid them, especially Washington State Ferries that travel predictable routes and times. It is difficult to judge the speed and direction of a large boat from the water and ferries turn around frequently making them even harder to gauge.
Always bring plenty of food and water.
When paddling in a new area, check with locals regarding currents, shoreline conditions and other weather patterns.
Give wildlife plenty of space and be aware of regulations concerning Killer Whales. Don't get too close and stay out of their path.
There are lots of places that teach safe paddling techniques in the area and a class would be perfect and safe place to try this out before you go at it alone. Maybe you will even make a new crab loving friend that will want to go out with you.
Step 11: Cooking and Cleaning
Canida made an excellent Instructable on How to Cook and Clean a Fresh Dungeness Crab which also applies to Red Rock Crab so I won't go into detail here.
But I would give two additional warnings on this.
One is that it is a smelly process, if you have a side burner on your grill and can boil water outside then you may want to do it that way.
The second is that Red Rock Crabs are especially tough to crack, make sure you have a good set of crab crackers before you proceed.
Step 12: Eat and Enjoy!
Crabs taste delicious without any adornment, but add a little butter and lemon and it is just about natures perfect food. Dungeness Crab grab all of the glory but don't forget to try out their feisty cousins, the Red Rock Crab. Harder to crack and less meaty they do not enjoy all of the popularity, but they are just as tasty and delicious.
We are blessed that our crabbing season in the Pacific Northwest coincidences with our long and mild summer days and nothing beats eating a meal that you have sourced yourself basking in one of our sublime sunsets.