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 (center photo is winter, bottom is summer). The summer crabbing season runs from the 4th of July through Labor Day weekend in September, while the winter season runs from October through December. Crabbing is typically allowed from Thursdays through Mondays, that is, no crabbing on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
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 (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 measurer, hatchet (for killing what you catch) and a bucket or cooler in which to place your crab.
Locally, you can get all you need to go crabbing in Oak Harbor at Ace Hardware or WalMart and in Anacortes at Sebo’s Hardware or Ace Hardware. Before you go, you’ll want to assemble your trap, attach the bait to the pot (either using string or placing it in the bait holder and attaching that to the pot), label the buoy (which you have to have if you plan to leave the pot unattended) and attach it to the line that you’ll connect to the center top of the pot. The Washington Department of Fishing and Wildlife provides an excellent pamphlet that explains everything.
When you arrive at the dock, pay attention to the location of other crabbers’ pots. There’s no real 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 is unlikely to be blocked by an incoming boater who plans to moor their vessel. I took this photo this summer of a gal who found a Cabezon in her crab pot. To the left of the fish you can see a large boat that obviously arrived after a crabber dropped his or her pot and so will require the crabber to maneuver his or her way around to check it.
Once you’ve dropped your pot (throw it out away from the dock) and left a little bit of extra line to accommodate the tide, tie the line to the low wooden rail. I always leave my pot for one hour to several and return later to check on it. I’ve never heard of a crab pot being stolen from Cornet Bay dock and can’t imagine it happening, especially during the day. If you have little kids along who you want to experience the fun of pulling the pot up often, there are alternate pot types including the crab jaw, the crab snag and the crab ring (the open kind). These types of crab traps must be babysat. All three types can be thrown further from the dock than the heavier, bulkier “box” type trap.
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: crab prefer their bait fresh.
Although on this particular day (Christmas Eve), I didn’t catch any keepers, I was excited to have trapped this female Dungeness crab with eggs. I always try to return the less-than-legal sized crab pretty far from my or others’ pots (because they tend to come right back). And I do so carefully so that I don’t damage the crab’s shell as it hits the water.
Two days later I returned and dropped my pots before heading out with friends for a long trail run at Hoypus Point, accessible only a short distance from the dock. My friend Nina’s family greeted when we returned and her kids agreed to help pull up the crab pots. Best of the event: hearing the cheers as I announced, twice, “It’s a keeper,” and, of course, the kids’ participation. After marking my crab catch card, I brought the two legal-sized crab home to kill (I’d forgotten my hatchet), clean and cook.
Summer crabbing is a different story because you are competing with half a dozen to dozens of other crabbers for the same (I swear there are only about ten keepable crab on a typical day) few big-enough-to-keep crab. During the 2015 summer season, I decided to crab when the season started, at 6:00 am on Opening Day. Of course, about twenty other persons had the same idea. Within an hour, I caught four legal sized Dungeness and one Red Rock crab, which is a Cornet Bay dock crabbing record for me. This summer, I’ve had one other “good” day at the dock, during which I caught four keepers. Typically, I harvest an average of one legal-sized crab if I leave the pot out for three to six hours. This week I crabbed three days and caught two Red Rock crab, which must be five inches across the back. Males and females may be kept. In a typical summer season, I harvest a total of about two dozen crab.
This summer (2016), I arrived late on opening day, several hours after the season had started. In about six hours time, I caught one Dungeness and one Red Rock crab…sigh; but during that time, I met two tween girls who spent the entire day (from the 7:00 am start until late afternoon) with their family, methodically checking their family’s 8 pots (two per person) who had nearly all caught their limit of both crab species!
I asked a Park Ranger about the rule requiring crabbers to “retain the shell from the field,” and learned that technically, crabbers must retain the crab shell until they arrive home with their crab. In practice, at least this enforcement officer said that crabbers must retain crabs’ shells until they leave the dock. You may then clean your crab near the shore and leave the shell in the water. Seagulls will be happy to take care of the guts for you.
You must release soft-shelled crab. The WDFW, which explains how to determine whether or not you’ve trapped a soft-shelled crab, explains 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. Harvesting crab when they are hard-shell maximizes the yield for a given number of crab. More significant, however, is that the meat from a soft-shell crab is of very low quality compared to meat from a harder cousin. People have described this meat as watery, mushy, lacking in texture, or even “jelly-like” and as a result it is often thrown away. Carefully releasing these soft-shell crab eliminates this wastage and allows the crab to be harvested later, when meat quality and quantity is greatest.” During one of the last days of the winter 2015 crabbing season, I had the chance to ask an enforcement officer from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife how he handles crabbers who break shellfish harvesting rules. He said that the most common infractions he tickets for are folks who harvest undersized crab and those who exceed the allowed limit of crab. The most common thing I notice with fellow harvesters, especially inexperienced ones, is persons who harvest soft-shelled crab, so I asked him about this. He said that those who take crab that are molting are only hurting themselves and that he tends to give them warnings instead of tickets and educate them on the law prohibiting harvesting of soft-shelled crab. Molting crab are absolutely obvious. If the crab’s body or upper sections of its legs show any give when you try to squeeze it, it’s molting. And if you can crack the crab with your hands after cooking it to remove the meat without needing a metal tool to do so, it’s molting.
This photo from the Washington Department of Fisheries shows the proper way to measure crab, which is at the narrowest part of the crab shell near (but not including) the spines.
“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. This is determined by the condition of the shell. 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. During slack water, crabs are generally walking around and foraging since they are not getting pushed around by tidal exchange.”
“Many different types of bait are used for crabbing: turkey, chicken, mink, fish carcass, shad, herring, clams, etc. Fresh bait is best.”
“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.”
I learned something very important in 2017 from Don Velasquez, WDFW Fish and Wildlife biologist–most crabbers’ intuition, to store and transport 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.
I prefer to first kill the crab (which I do by hitting them about mid-abdomen with a hatchet) before cooking, rinse them with a hose, then remove the shell, lungs and whatever guts remain. After cooking (in boiling salted water) and draining, the shells turn bright orange. These two crab contained about 2 cups of crab meat.
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 another crabber.
Lastly, there’s lots to do at Cornet Bay and other places within Deception Pass State Park while you wait for crab to enter your trap. Just look in the water to see eel grass (which is where crab tend to hang out), sometimes with stuff on it (like these brooding anemones), bull kelp and, sometimes, crab.
On any given day (at specific times, which I’ve yet to figure out), you’ll find “the regulars” fishing for herring and smelt along the right-hand-side of the dock at the bottom of the ramp. You can do this too. Check out the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife pamphlet for more information.
Along the perimeter of the dock (you’ll have to kneel down and look over the edge), you can find tube worms and anemones (plumrose I think) and low tide exposes creatures on the pilings like anemones and barnacles. This past week when the presence of more than normal jellyfish were being found in the Puget Sound was in the news, I saw Fried egg jellyfish (Phacellophora camtschatica) several times in the water near the dock.
As you exit the dock, walk to the left to access miles of peaceful trails. At low tide, comb the one mile stretch of beach (bring shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy) that parallels Cornet Bay Road towards Hoypus Point.
Take a boat ride around Cornet Bay, through Deception Pass and over to the Rosario and Bowman Bay areas by way of Deception Pass Tours (note: the boat has priority at this location on the dock so don’t place your crab pot there during tour hours). The boat tour begins at the Cornet Bay dock (but you have to buy the tickets elsewhere). Access Goose Rock trails from the Quarry Pond campground (only 2 miles away along Cornet Bay Road) or the parking lot south of Deception Pass Bridge. And bring your binoculars to watch gulls, eagles, herons that fly by or walk towards the right when you leave the dock and watch for birds (swallows that live in the little bird houses on an adjacent dock).