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How to Catch Dungeness Crab

Canned Cat Food, Crab Fishing, Crabbing, Dungeness Crab, San Juan Islands

Like a lot of west coast natives, I was taught how to catch Dungeness crab almost as soon as I could hold a rope. In those days, Dungeness crab was an abundant species in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. It required very little time and almost no skill to catch a limit of that succulent crustacean. As children, we spent many Saturday afternoons fishing for crab from the boat docks near home. In an hour we’d be proudly carrying home our limit of crab for Mom to put on the dinner table. But, stocks of Dungeness crab, along with other fishing stocks, have declined significantly over the years. Today, in order to catch your limit every time, you’ll need to know:

1. What is the best Dungeness crab bait to use?

Crabs are bottom feeders – the garbage men of the sea. They consume the dead fish and sea creatures that fall to the ocean bottom. The best bait for Dungeness crab, therefore, is an old fish carcass, but raw poultry and canned cat food are adequate substitutes. Poultry (chicken and turkey) has an advantage when there are seals or sea lions actively fishing in the area. They are not attracted to the scent of poultry and are less likely to destroy your crab pot, steal your bait or decimate your crab catch.

Salmon and rockfish carcasses are the best. Frozen herring (salmon bait) works, too. If those aren’t readily available, fish-based canned cat food works very well. It’s loose consistency resembles chum, the scent dissipates quickly and presents a strong attraction for crab. Many local crabbers use nothing but cat food as bait for Dungeness crab. The tackle shop where you purchase crab traps and rings will have the small plastic containers needed to hold loose chum baits, like cat food. A wire mesh basket is best for holding fish carcasses or poultry. Both are best secured inside the crab trap with a length of wire.

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2. What is the best Dungeness crab trap to use?

The best trap to use for Dungeness crab depends upon how you plan to fish. If you are planning to drop a trap or two and then go off for a day of salmon fishing, choose the enclosed crab trap or pot. These allow the crabs to get in, but not to get out. Since these traps present only one entrance for the crabs, you’ll need to leave your crab pot submerged a minimum of 1 hour before pulling it up. There is no harm in leaving these pots out for the entire day or even overnight. Be sure to check the fishing regulations carefully, however, for specifics on attaching the appropriate line and buoy to any crab pots you plan to leave unattended. There are stiff fines for ignoring regulations.

The quickest way (and my preference) to catch your limit of Dungeness crab is to use an open crab ring. This type of crab trap collapses and lays flat on the bottom, with the bait container sitting in the center of the ring. Unlike enclosed crab pots, these rings present no obstacles to the crabs so they can quickly make their way to the bait. Allow the ring trap to remain submerged about 15 minutes. When pulling the trap to the surface, do so fairly quickly in order to trap the crab in the netting attached to the ring.

3. When is the best time to set your traps for Dungeness crab?

The best months to fish for Dungeness crab, generally, are July through December. Although it’s possible to catch crab year-round, Dungeness crabs molt in the late winter and spring months. During that time they don’t yield a lot of meat. A larger percentage of your catch is likely to be females, too, which you may not keep. In my area, the San Juan Islands of Washington State, the prime months for crabbing are July through October. In November, when the fall rains begin, it dilutes the salinity of the saltwater in our bays and the crabs move out into deeper, saltier ocean waters.

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The best days for catching your limit of Dungeness crab are when there is a relatively small difference between high tide and low tide. Check your tide book for days when that difference is 5 feet or less.

The absolute best time of the day to fish for crab is during high slack or low slack tide. Currents are calm then, crabs remain in an area longer, and this is when you’ll pick up your biggest catch.

4. Where are the best places to fish for Dungeness crab?

Crab are most plentiful in waters where the bottom has both sand and eelgrass. In my area, the shallow waters near the coastline are primarily this makeup, so crabbing with a ring trap from commercial and pleasure boat docks is both convenient and productive. When fishing in deeper waters, consult navigational charts to locate those bottom features favored by Dungeness crab. Ask locals or the clerks at the saltwater tackle shop for recommendations if you are unfamiliar with the area. The key in crab trap placement is to avoid any area with very strong current. Mind those tide changes and focus on those times when the tide is slack.

Follow these 4 tips to enjoy a great day of crabbing and insure that you’ll catch your limit of Dungeness crab. Speaking of limits…BEFORE putting these tips into action, be sure to read and understand the state fishing regulations and make certain that the waters you intend to fish are not temporarily closed to the taking of crab. Some years we experience multiple temporary closures to crab harvest in Washington State and occur with little forewarning. Wouldn’t hurt to inquire at the saltwater tackle shop whenever you plan to fish to be sure the season is open on Dungeness crab.

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Bonus Tip: Dungeness crab is best cooked in sea water since it contains the ideal amount of salt to enhance the sweet flavor of the crab meat. Take along a clean 5-gallong bucket to carry your crab catch home. Fill the bucket about 1/2 full with ocean saltwater to keep your crab alive and fresh until cooking. Use the saltwater in the bucket for boiling your crab.