Few of the marine species we can harvest are as widely available, at least north of Point Conception, than the Dungeness crab. Named for a seaport in Washington state on the Olympic Peninsula (hence the capitalization of the first name), this species is one of several present along California’s northern coastline.
Willing to forage along smooth mud or sandy bottoms out to 300 feet, and at times even deeper, the Dungeness can be caught from piers, by casting in the surf, diving and via pots and traps, from boat. Since our winter options in the ocean have dwindled, more and more anglers have discovered the fascinating sport of crabbing.
As with any specialized type of fishing, crabbing choices have definite cult followings. Bait is a choice topic if you want to hear many different opinions. Some say the stinkier the better, while others insist that fresh, clean bait draws more crabs. Some popular baits include squid, both market and giant, a filleted fish carcass or head, and since crab season opens every November, turkey carcasses. Aside from the availability and Thanksgiving specials on turkey meat, poultry seems to really draw the crabs. Why bird meat? Only answers I’ve heard is either that it’s something different from what they are used to, or conversely, that they get a taste for bird meat from seabirds that end up on the bottom of the ocean. Like I said, the only consistent thing about crabber opinions are that they are diverse, and they all think they’re right about a given crab topic.
While female crabs are legally fair game, every crabber I know releases the girls and only keeps the males. Crabs molt when they grow, and a freshly molted crab is considered a softshell; there is typically less meat in a freshly molted crab, so most crabbers toss the softies back, also. Dungies are known to grow to 9 inches, nearly double the minimum size limit of a sport caught keeper.
What makes a keeper by sport law can be confusing. On a private boat, it’s 5.75 inches. On a charter boat, it’s 6 inches. Commercial crabbers are held to an even higher standard of 6.25 inches, and they are also limited to an only-male rule.
Like size limits, bag limits are also a little ambiguous. If you’re on a party boat south of Mendocino County, the limit is six. On a private boat, you can keep 10 in the same region. North of the Sonoma-Mendo county line, party boat and private boat bag limits are the same — 10 per day.
At one time, crab “theft” was a big problem among sport crabbers. Seems that a loophole in the law left sport caught Dungeness crabs fair game among unscrupulous fishermen. Since a sport caught crab has no commercial value (you can’t legally sell them), taking one from someone else’s pot wasn’t theft. After all, you can’t be charged for taking something that has no value. Taking crabs from a commercial pot was theft, since those crabs had a dollar value. The DFG drafted special regulations to make it illegal to take crabs from another’s pots, solving this problem from an enforcement stance. Monitoring the pots to make sure violations of the law don’t occur is the hard part here!
While crabbing laws protect Dungeness crab numbers, the population is cyclic. Likely based on ocean productivity, the current prospect for the coming season is excellent. We’ve had a three year downturn on landings, but last year’s numbers were on the rise, and the number of small crabs reported last year supported a growing population. With the status of ocean productivity among the highest ever recorded, it’s certain crab numbers will bloom in the next two to six years. There’s never been a better time to take up pursuit of the tasty crab!Comments to Inside Saltwater can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.