Crabbing in the Salish Sea ?

Crabbing in the Salish Sea ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Just outside the guest house where we live, Short Story, our little boat, sits all buttoned up for the winter. Pulling her out of the water was a momentous occasion because it marked a seasonal transition in our lives from the warm fun of summer to the chill and rain of fall.

Short Story
Short Story

The transition also means that we lose an amazing source of protein and a hobby that adds excitement to summer days. You see, Short Story, for us, is a working boat. Its hard fiberglass deck can take a beating and throughout the last two summers, it performed admirably as we became dedicated to catching as many Dungeness crabs as possible.  

How this works is best told through a couple of summer days. 

The process starts at Costco, where it’s possible to find chicken at the lowest price per pound. We load pounds and pounds of drumsticks into our cart to use as bait for the crab. Upon returning home, some of it goes in the freezer, some the fridge and some into a cooler without ice. This is where our dedication to crabbing is tested.

We’ve heard that crab may be more attracted to smelly meat, so Sachi started her own chicken spoiling project. The basic idea is to throw raw chicken into a cooler and let sit for a few days. Once it’s nice and ripe, it becomes the bait. This process is a reflection of Sachi’s personal dedication to crabbing. I am willing to take my chances on fresh chicken.

This year crab season started on July 12th in our area and we put traps out the first morning we could. That morning we got up and gathered all our boat things, like a dry bag, a bucket with crab tools and our four crab traps. It all barely fits in our car, which quickly becomes filled with the smell of rotting chicken. The crabs better love that stuff, I think to myself.

The marina is only a couple of minutes away and it’s a minor trial to get everything to the boat because the traps, which are metal cages shaped like big hockey pucks, are heavy and unwieldy.

The crab traps, or “crab pots”, are designed to sit on the bottom in 50-70 feet of water and we’ve weighted them with rebar to keep them in place. Leading up from the trap is a line attached to a buoy that has our name and address on it. As long as we’re in regulation, we can throw the traps into the sea almost anywhere we want. And that is the real challenge in crabbing: location.

Sitting inside the metal cage is a box that contains, in our case, radioactive chicken that acts as a beacon, inviting crab to enter the trap via little ramps which lead to trap doors. The traps are designed to catch not just crab, but the right crab. Small ones should be able to get in and out with ease. We want those little guys to grow big and strong and feeding them is a cost of doing business.

metal cage

Once we have everything loaded onto the boat, we putter out of the marina and into Deer Harbor, which is well known for crabbing and only a few minutes away from the dock.

On the way, Sachi stands at the front of the boat with a stack of crab pots. Each one needs to be inspected and baited. Being downwind at the helm of the boat, I get assaulted by chicken smell, which you can almost see in the air. Sachi is undeterred. Using tongs, she loads the off-color flesh into the traps one-by-one and arranges the lines on the deck to reduce tangles.

stack of crab pots

Then the challenge begins. Where do we drop the pots? Dungeness crab live in eelgrass and usually, the best crabbing is in areas where it grows. The problem, as with a lot of fishing, is the well known places see a lot of competition. Over time, we’ve tried to forge our own way and have seen success off the beaten path. By the end of the season, I’m willing to try just about anywhere.

I read once that you should hold the line as the pot sinks so you can be sure it lands on the bottom correctly, which is right side up. Once it hits, you can feel the tension lax, and I give it two or three tugs to stir up the detritus on the bottom. This practice is another bit of tribal crab knowledge with unknown benefits. Why not? We are learning and always open to new tactics.

With the crab pots in the water and locations marked with GPS, we putter back to the marina and drive home. It usually takes about 45 minutes, door-to-door, and our anticipation can begin. We both hope the crabs are appreciating the effort we put into the chicken. It’s surely a delicacy.

Our crab pot buoy floats in Deer Harbor
Our crab pot buoy floats in Deer Harbor

On this day, we return to the boat in the afternoon once work is done. The pots have been in the water or “soaking” for about 8 hours and this trip is different. Our goal is to remove crab from the pots, refill the bait and put them right back into the water. This is a cycle we repeat every day, five days a week. Crabbing is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Usually, the buoys are easy to find and I’ve learned to approach them at just the right angle for Sachi to grab the line with a paddle handle. This is when I get to work. The line is 100 feet long and that works out to about 55 hand-over-hand pulls to get the trap to the surface. If you’re wondering, that’s 220 pulls, often twice a day. Over the summer, I become stronger in very specific ways.

As the crab pot approaches the surface, it feels a little like Christmas. What is the gift that nature bestowed on us today? I’ve become quite good, on the 53rd or 54th pull, at peering into the water and judging the catch. Some days, it’s possible to tell from weight alone.

Not a big day
Not a big day

I pull the trap into the boat and slide it across the metal rail to Sachi, who opens the trap from the top. Because I already have gloves on, I am usually the one who removes the crab, which can do damage to your fingers if they get ahold of one. So far my fingers remain intact.

Two Dungeness Crabs
Two Dungeness Crabs

Across the four traps on this day, we caught 10 Dungeness crabs and could keep four. That’s because females and small crabs must be returned to the water. We measure male crabs to be sure they meet regulations. The traps also catch many red rock crabs, which are smaller and less meaty, but still delicious. They can grow huge claws and we often keep them when they’re big enough.

A red rock crab sporting a big claw
A red rock crab sporting a big claw

Each pot is emptied, restocked with chicken and placed back into the water with intention and hope. We putter back to the marina and tie Short Story to the dock.

These days, I clean the crab on the pier beside our boat. The process is simple and quick. I hold the legs of the crab to the deck and use my other hand to rip off the shell. Then I split the crab down the middle with my hands or a cleat and shake out the innards. Most of the waste ends up back in the water, where it would end up anyway. This has been a huge improvement in our crab process.

When the crabbing is good, we have fresh crab for weeks at a time and it becomes a substantial and delicious source of protein. Once we get home, Sachi boils them in a big pot and places them in the fridge to cool.

fresh crab

Then, she sits at our dining room table and shells them in what I consider a state of zen. The product is a big bowl of delicious crabmeat that, in a restaurant, would cost at least $40 per serving, and a big bowl of shells to dump into the water on the next trip.

The results from multiple crab

When the crabbing is fruitful, we share cooked crab with friends and neighbors. It feels like we’re living off the land, or water. It can be frozen, but there is no replacement for fresh crab.

This summer, we brought home 86 keepers and a few dozen red rocks. That beat last year’s total by about 20. I’m sure that next year, we’ll continue to hone our skills and strategies a bit further and shoot for 100.