If you want to be guaranteed to harvest legal-sized Dungeness or Red rock crab around Whidbey Island: buy a boat. If that’s not an option, you should try crabbing from the dock at Cornet Bay. With boaters, fishermen and crabbers all sharing the same dock space, 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 typically runs from the 4th of July through Labor Day weekend in September, while winter runs from the beginning of October through December. Summer crabbing is typically allowed from Thursdays through Mondays (no crabbing on Tuesdays or Wednesdays) but winter crabbing is allowed every day of the week.
Before you go, be sure to buy a shellfish harvesting license, 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, lead line (the water is shallow at Cornet Bay so you don’t need more than 30 feet), a red and white buoy marked as required by law (if you plan to leave the pot unattended), 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.
Locally, you can get all you need to go crabbing at a hardware store, except the bait, which you can get at any large grocery 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 like to use chicken drumsticks for bait because they are easy to tie with cotton twine (starting with the small end) to the pot. People tend to use bait holders (which the crab can’t access, so the bait lasts) but I don’t mind the extra effort of tying it to the trap so that the crab can snack while they wait to be kept or released. NOTE: CRABS PREFER THEIR BAIT FRESH, THE FRESHER THE BETTER.
When you arrive at the dock, pay attention to the location of other crabbers’ pots. There’s no actual rule, but if you place your pot directly next to another person’s, they’ll probably glare at you. Some folks prefer to place their pots in specific spots, but I don’t think it matters that much. Walking along the stationary dock leading to the floating one that you crab from you won’t likely notice the sign high up that says, “FISHERMEN MUST YIELD TO BOATERS.” That includes crabbers, so I like to place my pot somewhere that’s unlikely to be blocked by an incoming boater.
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 one hour to several with the midpoint corresponding to low tide as 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.
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. The most keepers I’ve ever caught on a single day at the dock is four Dungeness. Typically, I harvest an average of one legal-sized crab on any other day if I leave the pot out for two to six hours. In a typical summer season, I harvest a total of about one to two dozen Dungies.
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.
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 it’s 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 once told me that the most common infractions he tickets for are for those who’ve harvested 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, the lighter than usual look is a dead giveaway. 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,” “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.”
Although crabbing at Cornet Bay can be frustrating, more often than not, I come home empty handed, it’s always fun. 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.