Crabbing in the San Juan Islands

“You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.” ~ Aristophanes

I am not a morning person. I struggle with getting out of bed. I can recall a story from the past (okay, it was just last spring) where I may or may not have elected to stay in bed during the turkey hunt, and everyone returned about an hour later with toms slung over their shoulders. I did get to sleep in though. Totally worth it, right?

Okay, okay, not worth it. I am working on the getting up early thing, because we all know that animals tend to be more active in the early morning and late afternoon to evening. I know that when I pull myself out of my warm sleeping cocoon, rub the sleep angrily out of my eyes, pour a cup of warm, steamy coffee and complain to everyone around that getting up early is the worst idea ever, I ALWAYS have a much more productive day. I may not end the day with filling my tag, but I always have more bites on my fishing line, see more game, and have a plethora of stories to share upon my return to camp.

That being said, I still hate getting up early. And if you are like me and hate getting up early, then you will adore crabbing. Crabbing does not require getting up early! There is no advantage to throwing your covers off at the first peek of morning sunlight and racing off to pull your crab pot. It is an activity designed for ANY time of the day. I love it!

Throughout the world, there are over 850 different species of crabs. Crabs can be found in saltwater, freshwater, and on land. There are many different species that are edible, and this website is a great resource for discovering crabs that you maybe haven’t tried out yet: I am a huge fan of crab! I think it is delicious, and have tried Alaskan King Crab, both red and blue, Alaskan Snow Crab, Blue Crab, Red Rock Crab, and Dungeness Crab. However, I have only fished for Dungeness and Red Rock Crab.

SettingthepotLike any recreational fishing, there are regulations for specifics states and even areas within the states. Be sure to check out the regulations before heading out. In the San Juan Islands, which are located in Washington State, you are required to purchase a shellfishing license. I purchased a three day shellfish/seaweed and fishing license combination, since I was also going to be salmon fishing during the trip. There are several licensing options and they can be found at:

With your license, you will also receive a reporting card. Each time you catch and keep a crab, you are required to immediately document the catch on your reporting card. The reporting card must be turned in, either via mail or internet, to the Division of Wildlife and failure to do so will result in a $10 penalty added to your next license purchase in Washington. It’s not hard, but it is good to take note so you don’t lose out on ten bucks. Plus, the information you provide on the reporting card is used for assisting in maintaining sustainable crab harvest numbers.

The San Juan Islands are located in Marine Area 7, which also includes the waters near Bellingham, Washington. Each coastal area in Washington has a designated Marine Area, and the fishing and shellfishing regulations are unique to each area. For example, the shellfishing season in Marine Area 7 is open during different dates than Marine Area 13, the South Puget Sound area. There are also different regulations on the size and types of crabs you can keep, so it is important to know which area you are going to be shellfishing in, and the boundaries and regulations for that area.

In Marine Area 7, you can fish for both Dungeness and Red Rock Crabs with the method of your choice. I used a crab pot. The crab pot, which is a wire pot coated in black vinyl, has a bait bag attached to the center of the pot and then one-way entrances for the crabs. Other needed items include rope, which is to be constructed of 100% cotton or other natural material, a crab measuring ruler, and a red and white buoy marker with your name and address visibly labeled on the buoy. You also want to bring something to store your crabs in during transportation. Holding a crab while you are boating back to camp or your hotel might not be the easiest task. Crab pot regulations for Washington State can be found here:

Okay, so all the nitty-gritty details are out the way. The license has been purchased for the correct marine area, and you have a crab pot full of all the necessary goodies for catching crabs! Now what? Bait! For bait, I used chicken legs. I also let it sit in the sun for a day so it would be nice and juicy and stinky and rotten. Yum. Crabs are omnivores, feasting on both plants and animals, but they tend to prefer animals, so basically any type of meat could be used. I have seen people use hot dogs, but I don’t particularly like hot dogs because the crabs can easily rip up and destroy the hot dogs. Chicken works a little better because it is harder for the crabs to remove the meat from the bones. Another bait option is fish. I have tried using the heads and bodies of fish on two different occasions, and for me personally, it didn’t go well. The pot returned completely crabless both times. It might just be me, but that is the experience I have had. So, I stick to chicken.

When purchasing a crab pot kit, most include the yellow crab ruler. In order to keep the crab, it must be at least the size of the area cut out in the ruler, if not larger. This crab is much larger than the base size for keeping.

Anyway, with the bait in tow, I headed out to drop my pot. There are areas in the San Juan Islands closed to shellfishing, so be sure to check a map for those regions, but otherwise look for an area that is protected from the currents, so your pot doesn’t just end up being drug around for a couple of hours, and is not out where it will be run over by speeding boats. You also need to take into consideration the length of your rope. The pot should sit on the bottom of the ocean and there should be slack in the rope, which means to remember there is tide change! If you have 50 feet of rope and drop the pot at 48 feet during low tide, your pot will end up floating in a couple of hours as the tide rises, which means no crabs. And it is a sad feeling when you pull up an empty pot.

Since I don’t live in the area, I dropped my pot in an area where a couple other people were also crabbing. I also was on my boat, which meant I could leave my pot in the middle of a small, protected bay. If you don’t have a boat, people also fish off docks and other rocky areas.

Notice with the female Dungeness crab the abdominal flap, which runs from the rear of the crab near the thumb in the picture to the eyes located near the front claws, is very wide and rounded.
The abdominal flap for the male Dungeness crab is much more narrow than the female’s flap and is not at all rounded.

Since I was also salmon fishing, I would check my pot in the morning after fishing, and then again before sunset. With the Red Rocks crabs, you can keep either males or females and the crab must be larger than five inches, which you check this with your lovely crab measuring stick. For Dungeness, the crabs must be male and larger than 6.25″. Distinguishing if the crab is male or female is simple. You grab the crab out of the pot (move quick, they pinch!), and flip it over. On the crab’s underside is an abdominal flap. It is a well-defined flap running from the rear end of the crab towards the head. The female crabs have a wider and more rounded flap than the males. The males are long and narrower.

Before you place the crab in your cooler for dinner tonight, there is one other test you need to perform. The crab needs to be checked for softness. Crabs are from the arthropod family, which to make a long story short means they shed their exoskeleton at least yearly, sometimes more often depending on their age. This process is known as molting, and during molting the crab’s shell becomes very soft and pliable in preparation for shedding and replacement by the new shell. All crabs that are molting must be released, and this is determined through a softness check. You will notice that once you flip the crab over to check its sex, they tend to fold their legs in and the claws rest against their shell next to their eyes. To check for softness, gently push the folded claw towards the crab’s eye area. The exposed shell area is where you apply slight pressure to check for softness. If the area bends or flexes, the crab is molting and should be returned.

I usually checked my pots right before I was returning to land, so I could immediately cook, clean, and store the crab.  I didn’t want to drive around in the boat all day with a cooler full of crabs, but there are a few tips for transporting the crab so they stay alive, especially if you are in a situation where you can’t deal with them for a few hours.  I filled an ice chest with ice, placed the crabs in the ice and laid a towel soaked in salt water over them, and then placed more ice over the towel.  This keeps the crab cool and alive.

Well, after all this talk about crabs, I am craving some crab legs.  Maybe a little surf and turf!

Happy Hunting! (And Crabbing!)

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