Going deep for Dungeness: Recreational crabbers share tips as season begins on Whidbey

Twelve hours after dropping a pair of crab pots into Holmes Harbor, Dave Anderson is back on the water approaching a red-and-white buoy, anxious to see what’s been crawling along the sea bottom and into the traps he’s set.

Twelve hours after dropping a pair of crab pots into Holmes Harbor, Dave Anderson is back on the water approaching a red-and-white buoy, anxious to see what’s been crawling along the sea bottom and into the traps he’s set.

A hearty pull on a rope reveals heavy resistance, which is a good sign and draws a smile from Anderson.

Hand over hand, the rope is retrieved on to the boat, more than 100 feet in all. When the first crab pot reaches the surface, a cage full of 13 crazy-legged crustaceans are unveiled. All are big and feisty and not pleased by the sight of blue sky or Anderson, for that matter.

It was quite a start to the 2015 Dungeness crab season for Anderson, an Admiral’s Cove resident, on the first day of recreational crabbing July 2. He and his wife drop pots in the harbor regularly.

“It really is a kick,” said Anderson, who retired to Whidbey Island from Porterville, Calif., three years ago. “Especially when you’re bringing up pots like this.”

Crabbing in Puget Sound is one of Washington’s most popular recreational fisheries with sport fishers catching more than 1 million pounds of Dungeness crab each year from July to September.

All waters around Whidbey Island as well as most of Puget Sound are open to crabbing. The season continues through Sept. 7.

Not only do many crabbers consider the Dungeness catch a delicacy, another appeal is that success rates are higher than most other fisheries, including salmon fishing.

“For catching crab, nearly any bait works, some better than others,” said John Hudson, one of North Whidbey’s resident experts on crabbing. “This is one of the highest-probability-of-success sportfishing endeavors.

“You’d have to be pretty hard-pressed not to have success.”

Hudson tries to get out on his boat several times a week to drop his crab pots between Strawberry Point and Polnell Point outside Oak Harbor and learn a little more about the recreational crab fishery he’s enjoyed in Washington for nearly 40 years.

He teaches crab seminars for the Deception Pass Sail & Power Squadron, using a PowerPoint presentation to share what gear to use, which methods to try, when and where to drop pots around Whidbey Island and every other imaginable detail to educate the local crabber.

“Long soaks improve odds,” Hudson said.

Hudson prefers to dig cockle clams on a beach near his North Whidbey home to use for crab bait.

Anderson also likes to dig clams for bait.

“I like clams because it is their natural food,” Hudson said. “They eat more clams than anything else.”

Hudson said he can only remember one time in 2014 when he didn’t catch his daily limit of five Dungeness crabs, which must be a minimum 61/4 inches wide or get tossed back.

The crabs also must be male and in hardshell condition.

To differentiate the sexes, look at the crab’s underside, Hudson said. Females have a wider abdomen than males.

Fishers also are allowed to keep six Red Rock crabs per day. They must be a minimum of 5 inches wide and can be either sex.

One of the differences between a Dungeness crab and Red Rock is the Dungeness crab has white-tipped claws and a brownish shell. Red Rock crabs have black-tipped claws and a reddish shell.

Hudson said there are a variety of ways to catch crab and not all require a boat.

Crab can be caught by tossing a ringnet, by hand or with a snare.

He’s even seen fishers have success with hand lines and dip nets, particularly near eel grass.

Cornet Bay is a popular place to fish for crab for those not using a boat, Hudson said.

Fishers may toss out casting traps, star traps and ringnets from a pier or even try a crude hand-line method.

Hudson suggests tying a grisly piece of meat to a line and tossing it from a pier and having a net ready to plunge into the water because most crabs will let go of the bait once they get near the surface and finally realize what’s going on.

Crabbers must follow a litany of rules to legally harvest crabs. Washington Sports Fishing Rules pamphlets can be hard to come by these days at local stores that sell fishing gear, so a good place to look is on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website at www.wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/crab

Crabbing is allowed every day of the week except Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Sept. 7.

Every crab fisher harvesting Dungeness crab in Puget Sound must have a shellfish license, crab endorsement and catch-record card, which combined cost about $25 for crabbers ages 16 to 69 with those 70 and older receiving a significant discount.

Ace Hardware in Oak Harbor sold more than 100 licenses each day last week leading up to the July 2 opener. Walmart, among other stores, also sells sport fishing licenses.

Only two units of gear may be used by each crabber. Units of gear include pots, star traps and ringnets.

Those who set traps on the water must attach a red-and-white buoy to their leaded lines and write their full name and address on the buoy.

All waters around Whidbey are now open to crabbing.

Wear rubber boots to keep your feet dry and bring a crab measurer as well as gloves to avoid any irritation and stinging from the slime of jellyfish that tends to stick to lines, said Oak Harbor’s Connie Ross, who’s crabbed around Whidbey most of her life.

Don’t just use a dollar bill to measure crab, she said. Legal crabs are a little larger than that.

Also, don’t forget the bait.

“Turkey legs are the best bait,” Ross said.

“I get the best results from turkey.”

Some try chicken legs, fish heads and soft cat food. Others such as Doug Rollin of Oak Harbor are more creative.

“I’ll tell you what,” Rollin said. “I did catch crabs with a pair of old trousers with bacon grease smeared on it.”