Crabbing at Cornet Bay

If you want to be almost guaranteed to harvest legal-sized Dungeness or Red rock crab around Whidbey Island: buy a boat. If not, try crabbing from the new in 2022 Cornet Bay dock. It can get a little crowded in the summer; however, in the winter, you may find yourself alone save for others’ crab pots. The summer crabbing season for Area 8-1 typically runs from the July 4th through Labor Day, winter from the beginning of October through December. Summer crabbing is typically allowed from Thursdays through Mondays (no crabbing on Tuesdays or Wednesdays) but in winter, you can crab every day of the week.

Before you go, buy a shellfish harvesting license (cash or check only), a Discover Pass and review Recreational Crab Fishing rules at the Washington Department of Fishing and Wildlife site. You will also need: a crab trap, about 50 feet of lead line, a buoy marked and used as required by law, bait and either a bait holder or something to attach the bait to the pot, a crab gauge, hatchet (for killing what you catch), a bucket or cooler in which to place your crab and a burlap sack. Don Velasquez, WDFW Fish and Wildlife biologist, suggests that storing and transporting crab in seawater actually kills them. Instead, set crab in a bucket or cooler. Soak towels or burlap sacks in water and place them over the crab. Keep the container cool and the crab can survive for days this way.

Crab catching items

Locally, you can find bait at any large grocery store and everything else you need to go crabbing at a hardware store. Before you go, assemble your trap, attach the bait to the pot (either using string or by placing it in a bait holder and attaching that to the pot with a small bungee cord), label the buoy, and connect the buoy/line to the pot. I prefer chicken drumsticks as bait because it’s easy to tie the smaller end of them to the pot. Bait holders prevent crab from eating the bait, but I like to provide something for them to snack on while they wait to be kept or released. Trust me on this: crabs prefer fresh bait.

When you choosing a spot on the dock, give your fellow crabbers some space and consider where additional boats might want to moor. This won’t be as difficult since the metal replacement dock is much bigger than the old wooden one. Although the sign was demolished along with the docks, please note:

FISHERMEN (including CRABBERS) MUST YIELD TO BOATERS

Once you’ve dropped your pot (throw it out away from the dock as far as you can) and left enough line to accommodate the tide, tie the line to the low wooden rail. I typically leave my pot (with a required, marked buoy) for 20 minutes to several hours during a slack tide if possible (I’ve never experienced or heard of a pot being stolen from the dock). If you have a clamp-type, open type or snare-type trap, it’d be pointless not to stay and pull it in every twenty to thirty minutes, otherwise, the crab will eat your bait.

crab pots

The best day to crab at Cornet Bay is also the worst day: Opening Day. My understanding is that you may begin crabbing an hour before sunrise and end an hour after sunset. Typically, I harvest an average of one legal-sized crab on a typical day if I leave the pot out for two to six hours.

The requirement that crabbers retain the shell in the field means that if you want to clean your crab before taking it home, you must keep the entire, intact shell.

WA Dept of Fisheries Crab Measure.bmp-001
This photo from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the proper way to measure crab, at the narrowest part of the crab shell BETWEEN (excluding) the spines.

The WDFW explains how to determine whether or not you’ve trapped a soft-shelled crab and the reasoning behind the requirement, “A soft-shell crab will yield less than 20% of its weight in meat while a prime hard-shell crab will yield 25% of its weight in meat…More significant, however, is that the meat from a soft-shell crab is of very low quality compared to meat from a harder cousin.” A WDFW enforcement officer mentioned that the most common infractions he tickets for are undersized crab and/or exceeded the allowed limit. He tends to give those who harvest molts a warning and educate them on the law prohibiting it. Once you’ve seen a few soft shelled crab, it’s obvious. Molting crab tend to be light in color. If the crab’s body or upper sections of its legs give in the least bit when you try to squeeze it, you may not harvest it.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests, ‘Fall is typically the best time to crab. Beginning in September, crabs tend to be more “filled out”, meaning there is a higher percentage of meat…Hard-shelled crabs contain 20 to 30 percent meat by weight, compared to soft-shelled crabs, which can be as low as 12 percent,” “Slack water (the time around high or low tide) are the best times to crab…[because they] are generally walking around and foraging since they are not getting pushed around by tidal exchange,” “Allow between one to two hours before retrieving your gear if you are crabbing with crab pots and 15 to 30 minutes if you are crabbing with rings,” “An experienced crab handler will sort crabs by keeping them at ease. They want to get out, but they don’t want to be forcefully grabbed. A quick shake of the pot is often more effective than reaching directly for them,” and “Be sure to carefully and quickly release crab, do not throw them from heights as this will often crack their carapace and kill them. It is illegal to retain only the claws on all species.”

With the new gigantic dock, Crabbing at Cornet Bay will likely yield legal-size Dungeness and Red Rock crab. Even if you don’t catch any keepers, you’ll likely trap at lot of crab, and dock crabbers tend to be really friendly, so if you have any questions, just ask someone.

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