Sandwiched between two towering mountain ranges, fed by the inflows of nine freshwater rivers, and teeming with boats, wildlife, and natural forces, the Puget Sound waters of Western Washington characterize the diverse landscape and array of destinations for which the area is known.
Beneath its surface, the perpetually cold waters of The Sound nurtures another collection: a perennial bounty of aquatic creatures, seasoned in their own salty life support to be enjoyed, often on the spot, by whoever puts in the time and effort to dupe them.
Amongst the most dupable, delicious, and plentiful of these morsels is the Dungeness crab.
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Beneath its distinctively deep-purple carapace, the sweet and tender meat of Dungeness crab is a delicacy throughout North America's west coast where they are found amidst the mud and the rocks. Despite their healthy population, the natural pitfalls of harvesting in the unforgiving Pacific Ocean, combined with the laborious prep a crab dish requires compared to other seafood dishes, means it demands a respectable price in the restaurants where it's offered on the menu.
In The Sound, however, where the water is geographically shielded from the woes of the Pacific, Dungeness is inexpensive, accessible, and exciting to catch for anyone who wants to give it a try.
All you need is some basic equipment and the required permits to harvest crab legally and sustainably.
Rules and Regulations
Before you can embark on the adventure of a self-harvested supper, you must first obtain both a fishing license and crab endorsement from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Both residents and non-residents of Washington State can purchase the permits at either annual or 1-3 day spans.
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This is a good time to learn the many different regulations around crabbing, such as which times of year you can harvest and at which regions of Puget Sound. You will also need to know the size limits and types of crabs that can be kept, and how many are allowed per person.
With those critical boxes now checked we can begin outfitting the necessary equipment. The most obvious item is the crab pot.
Crap traps, or pots, are wicker cages dropped from watercraft to the seafloor to bait and ensnare crabs. The pots contain a smaller bait cage to lure the crabs through easy-in doors that won't egress to allow an escape.
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Used pots are prolific and inexpensive throughout Western Washington, and basic new pots cost around $20. While most any small pot will suffice, square pots are easier to manage for beginners (versus ring pots). Whatever pot you choose should have biodegradable release mechanisms to let your catch escape should the pot become abandoned or lost.
An additional smaller cage, called the bait box, will need to be attached inside the pot and outside of a claw's reach from passerby crab. Most new crab pots come with the bait cage included.
Length of Line
Of course, the crab pot is no good for yourself or the crab if abandoned at the bottom of the seafloor, so you will need a line that you can tow from the surface to retrieve your pots.
Plenty of Dungeness can be found at shallower depths near the shoreline, so 100 feet of weighted line is plenty to access some prime crabbing. On the other end of the line from the pot, attach a red and white buoy with your name, phone number, and address so you can be tracked down should your trap go adrift for any reason.
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Of course, 100 feet of line doesn't mean you can crab at depths of 100 feet. As the depth fluctuates with the tide, slack in the line is required to make sure your buoy doesn't submerge or your pot goes adrift.
Unless you have a good understanding of the tides or follow a tide table, it helps to drop your pots close to shore around high tide when the depth is near its maximum point.
The Art of Seduction
Rotten chicken, fish scraps, a perforated can of Friskies...each is sworn wide and large, depending on the crabber you ask, as a surefire bait device to lure hungry crustaceans.
As crabs are bottom feeders, their pallet for seafloor refuse plays a critical role in their ecosystem, and they're not picky about what type of rotting flesh they consume and graciously return to the food chain.
So long as it's pungent enough to get them in the pot, it's worth stuffing in the bait box.
You've procured a crab pot, bait, and weighted line, and you're licensed and ready to head out for your daily allowance. How are you getting out to drop the pot? Just because you don't have a large boat doesn't mean you're without a paddle.
Two crabbers retrieve their pot from a kayak in Puget Sound’s Hood Canal. Courtesy of Hood Canal Adventures
Inflatable boats, dinghies, and many kayak varieties boast the space to haul a crab pot and the stability required to retrieve it from the seafloor. Even stand up paddleboarders can be seen slipping throughout Puget Sound with a square pot between their feet!
Puget Sound has many boat rental and crabbing equipment opportunities as well. The Center for Wooden Boats on Camano Island provides a free crab pot each day you rent a rowboat or motorboat at their livery.
Whether you're powered by wind, paddle or an electric trolling motor, never enter go out on the water with a Coast Guard-approved PFD.
The items listed here are enough to get you on the water, collect your daily allowance, and get you excited about crabbing.
Other items such as strong gloves, carapace measuring tools, and many others will make crabbing easier and more comfortable if you should become serious about the hobby.
In the meantime, enjoy the sweet Dungeness meat and your adventure in the majestic Puget Sound!