I’d been hearing for more than a month now about how stellar the winter Dungeness crab fishery has been going, and just needed to get an up close and personal account of it myself.
So on the day after Christmas I had a chance to fish with Tony Floor, the director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association who’d been scoring big numbers of monster-sized Dungeness crabs for the past few weeks in southern Puget Sound.
I was joined by retired Seattle Times outdoors columnist Brad O’Connor and my son Tegan who boarded Floor’s boat “The Starship Truth” at the West Bay Marina in Budd Inlet as we made the quick 20 minute ride near the southwest side of Hartsene Island.
This was also a chance for me to catch up on old times with O’Connor, and our conversation was quickly interrupted by Floor as we neared the shoreline where his six crab pots were soaking overnight at a depth of 130 feet.
“I guarantee they’ll be loaded with Dungeness crabs,” he said.
There is a lot of excitement when you first pull in that buoy, toss it on the boat and attach the electric pulley winch to the rope and begin pulling up the pot.
“Look on the fish-finder and you can see the pot coming up, 50 feet, 40 feet, 30 feet,” said Floor.
This sure beats the old school method of the human winch, which is simply using your own brute strength of arms and shoulders to pull up the rope from the bottom.
Once the first giant commercial-sized pot came to the surface we saw the color of the crabs we pulled up from the briny depths that had about a seven Dungies, and each one was well over the minimum size limit of 6 1/4 inches. We sorted and kept the four of the largest crabs, and then re-set the pot with fresh (or stinky and frozen) squid and salmon carcasses.
“I liken these to a filet mignon steak,” says Floor who holds up one of the giant crabs. “You don’t need any butter and should just enjoy the rich flavor of a fresh crab boiled in saltwater.”
We moved the boat over to the next two smaller-sized pots that had a few legal Dungeness crab, and also contained a handful of red rock crabs and pretty starfish that we released.
The fourth pot had the mother-lode of more than 25 Dungies, and all of them were jumbo-sized with some measuring well over eight inches.
We had our daily limit of five crabs apiece before we even pulled the final two pots, and each of those contained 20 more “jumbos.”
“This has been going on all winter long, and it’s not just in this spot,” Floor pointed out. “I’ve been hearing about good crabbing in many other areas of the sound as well.”
This past summer and the current winter crab fishery will likely go down in the crabbing history book as one of the most stellar sport fisheries seen in a long time around the inland marine areas of Puget Sound.
“Once we tally up all the catch cards and we get the numbers of crab caught, it’ll most likely be a record year for the recreational fishery,” said Rich Childers, the state Fish and Wildlife crab manager.
More than 240,000 sport crab licenses were sold this past summer generating a catch of slightly more than two-million crabs. Add to that another 25,000 or more licenses issued this winter, and while harvest figures aren’t known yet, word has it that catches remain excellent.
“In the (inland marine) areas that remained opened this winter all were doing quite for crabs, except for (the San Juan Islands) where it is more like a normal harvest year,” Childers said.
“Everyone agrees that crab abundance is very high and their size is much bigger,” Floor said. “You can go back not that far in time like about 20 years ago when the state didn’t even recognize a crab population in south sound. Whether the current carried the crab larva down there or there had always been a population. I truly believe the crab had already been in South Sound, and back then most crab fishers would go to Hood Canal and from Tacoma north up into the San Juan Islands.”
“It has been a windfall of a new sport fishery in South Sound, and the greatest populations of crab are in the Nisqually Delta, which is a wonderful habitat for crab,” Floor said. “It is different from most other areas in Puget Sound, and the best success comes from 130 to 190 feet in the northern section of the delta and that depth range has been money for the past few summers and winters now.”
Floor says the delta isn’t the only place to find huge populations of crab, and points out the southeast corner of Anderson Island, and the region from the Puget Marina and off Zittel’s Marina are good crabbing zones.
Floor says that Childers had a fact that got him pretty excited, and that is for every male crab that was 6 ¼ inches or greater is a surplus to the rest of the population.
A Dungeness crab won’t win any beauty contest, and some say their mouth resembles the ugly creature from the movie Alien.
Their hard as armor shelled body is a brownish-purple color, and each is equipped with two ferocious looking pincers. But they’re by far the tastiest creatures you can pull out of Puget Sound.
While setting crab pots by boat is the most popular way, I’ve had a great time about a year ago during the winter time venturing out in the pitch black dark of night with chest waders, a headlamp and a dip-net in search of Dungies on the outgoing tide.
The best spots are lagoons and bays with a sandy bottom and extensive beds of eelgrass like we had found off the south side of Whidbey Island on that cold winter night.
Simply wade out into the water and look for them by using a strong spot light type lamp, and when you spot them simply scoop them up.
It does sound a lot easier than it really is and takes more than a tries to be successful as the crabs will quickly move away from your net kicking up a cloud mud and silt.
State Fish and Wildlife enforcement increased their patrols on the waters this past summer to see how well sport fishermen are following rules, and according to Childers were quite surprised at how well they complied with all except for one rule that stood out.
“We know compliance was very good in all areas like not keeping any undersized crabs, no female crabs kept, and no over limits,” Childers said. “It was just across the board good except for failure to punch their catch cards immediately after the land the crabs. We need to stress to people that right after they keep their crab they need to mark it down. It isn’t something you do when you get home. We even had crabbers tell us that they’ve had a great season of crabbing, and then when we look at their cards they have nothing punched on them.”
Floor mentioned that writing down your catch on the punch card is a new rule that was implemented this season.
“It is a new rule and there will be a learning curve so it will improve over time and get better,” Floor said.
Childers says as part of the new crab policy he’ll provide a yearly report to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in February on the performance of the recreational, non-tribal commercial and tribal treaty fisheries.
The commission has the right to change the policy, but that is unlikely to happen in the near future.
It’s still not too late for people to take advantage of the fishery, which can be accessed using pots or traps from boats or piers, or wading the shorelines at low tide with dip nets or rakes.
Open areas through this Saturday are the Strait of Juan de Fuca east of Neah Bay; San Juan Islands; east side of Whidbey Island; most of northern Puget Sound; and south central and southern Puget Sound.
The daily catch limit in Puget Sound is five Dungeness crab, males only. In addition, you may keep six red rock crab of either sex daily.
Reporting your catch is now mandatory, and must be mailed or done on-line by Feb. 1. Crabbers who fail to file reports will face a $10 fine that’ll be imposed when applying for a 2012 fishing license. For details, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/crab/crc.html.
The summer Dungeness crab season will reopen in most areas of Puget Sound on July 1.
(Photos by Brad O’Connor)