Getting Crabby

I have an inherited crab pot sitting in my side yard. It came to me when a friend moved back east, and for a couple of years it has sat idly, lending a vaguely maritime vibe to that small corner of the yard. But this is not what a crab pot is made for.

I wanted to go crabbing, but hadn't done it before. As with many other pursuits, there's a certain amount of momentum required to get through the first outing, and I just hadn't yet mustered it. When I got an invitation from a neighborhood friend -- a friend with a boat, no less -- to join him to go trap some Dungeness crabs and troll for pink salmon in Puget Sound I responded with an immediate "yes!" Nothing breaks through first-timer inertia like riding along with a seasoned hand. Early in the morning Chris picked up my son Finlay and I, we got Chris' boat out of a nearby storage lot, and we drove down to the Shilshole Bay boat launch.

The boat looked ready for an episode of Deadliest Catch. It was a nice roomy aluminum boat, with a sheltered cabin, console steering, a windscreen and some helpful electronics for navigation and fish-finding. Crab pots were stacked in the back, with coils of line and colorful bouys and flags nearby. A cooler full of bait, and a fair number of tackle boxes, buckets, and boathooks rounded out the scene. Once the boat was in the water and the trailer stowed in the lot, Chris fired up the motor and we headed out of the marina. "Now," I thought, "now I'll get to see the secret crabbing spots of central Puget Sound!"

Chris steered the boat past the marina breakwater and towards a number of red and white bouys maybe 100-150 yards out from the shoreline. "Here we are! Let's drop some pots!" I looked back over my shoulder. I could clearly see the truck in the parking lot where we had just left it. The secret spot, it turns out, was in plain view.

Crabbing is a simple business for the hobbyist. You put a piece of bait in a cage. You attach the cage to a line (on shore you might call it a rope, but on a boat you call it line). You attach the line to a bouy. You toss the whole affair overboard. If you have given it just a little bit of thought you probably have enough line to allow the cage to sink to the bottom, where there be crabs. The crabs swarm the trap, working their way inside through hinged doors, and do their best to attack the bait and sometimes each other. You wait for a bit, allowing lots of the critters to accumulate (you hope) haul the whole arrangement back up to the surface, and then engage in hand to hand combat with a tangle of angry crustaceans.

There's a little more to it, but not much. Choosing location, depth, tide, duration of soak, and bait are all matters of some debate, but there's great guidance on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife web page. Seasons are a little squirrelly, and can vary across sub-sections of Puget Sound. A shellfish license is required, as well as a crab catch card for reporting what you take in, and there are specifications for the gear (sinking line, red and white bouy properly labeled, crab trap requirements). There's also a little discernment required, as you're only allowed to keep male Dungeness crabs of a certain size, as measured across their shell. Sorting the keepers from the throw-backs is where the hand to hand combat comes in.

The good news is that the license is cheap, the gear doesn't cost much and is readily available, it's easy to learn to tell the male from the female crabs, and you'll have a handy little crab gauge on hand for measuring your keepers.

I think in this photo the conversation was something like "Listen you're wearing the gloves so you reach in there..."

Some nice sized Dungeness crabs nested in the bottom of our bucket. We ended up with 9 or 10 keepers on this outing.

Once we'd emptied all our crab traps we headed back into the marina, trailered the boat, and worked our way back to Chris' house. Chris was going to teach me the Coos Bay method of cleaning and cooking crab, which he had learned from his Coos Bay wife. As with pretty much every other foraging/hunting/fishing endeavor the bulk of the work starts once you get home and have to convert your catch into something to eat or to store for later eating.

The Coos Bay method was fast and efficient. The crabs are (almost) halved on the edge of a metal tub, the legs and body halves are pulled out leaving the rest of the innards inside the shell. It's remarkably easy. A large kettle was set to boil and the halves were simmered for 8-10 minutes. The WDFW site recommends 18-20 minutes, which seems a little excessive. In any case, the once purply/dunn colored shells take on a bright orange/red character when they hit the hot water.

At this point they were ready to eat, and if you had a bunch of hungry people armed with hammers and toothpicks they could go to town on that pile of legs, pincers, and body halves. However, to use the crab meat in other recipes (I had crab cakes in mind, and a Goan crab curry) the meat has to be removed from the shells. Chris generously gave me all of that day's catch to take home, but it also meant I was picking crab meat for almost four hours that night.

First crabbing outing done! I learned a lot, and I'm grateful to Chris for being such a good teacher. I love how easy the activity is, and how affordable. Except for the boat. It was fun to go out on Chris' boat, but if I was going to go crabbing again on my own I'd need to find another way out onto the water. Given how close to the marina we were operating, however, I was already scheming about how to do that.


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