Crabbing in the Columbia River Estuary
Recently, I joined my good friend Steve Fick to learn the tactics and techniques for catching this Oregon seafood delicacy. Steve first explored the Columbia River estuary as a kid and knows his way around the vast waterway where the river meets the sea.
For Fick, the first lesson is simple enough: always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device.) He insisted it’s a personal lesson in life and safety: ”You always wear it Grant, because if you fall overboard, particularly with heavy rain gear on, it’s very difficult to survive. The water is always cold and can sap your strength in a matter of minutes.”
We left the snug harbor at Hammond, Oregon and slowly motored the short distance downriver to an area just off Clatsop Beach. Fick had prepared five large crab traps with varied baits – a strategy he often used so to “see what the crabs prefer.” Sometimes he’ll use turkey legs, chicken wings, shad or salmon carcasses – even a can of tuna for crab bait.
“Oh yes, a can of tuna fish is perfect bait, exclaimed Fick. “All you do is perforate the can so that the scent comes out – you can also buy canned sardines or mackerel too – both work well. As long as they have a high oil content, it seems to fish well – the scent is what draws the crab into the pot.”
Each Oregon crabber must carry an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish License. Each crabber is allowed to use up to three crab traps.
We timed our trip to fish our traps the last hour of the incoming tide and through the high slack period, (that’s often the best crabbing time.)
Steve said it’s the safest time to crab in the estuary: “There is no reason to be out here on the ebb tide – that’s the out-going tide. It can be the most dangerous part of the tide cycle and this river can change so fast. You just don’t take chances out here.”
Fick said that each trap should “soak” for 15-20 minutes – that allows enough time for the crabs to locate the bait and enter the trap.
Each crabber is allowed a dozen male crabs apiece, and in Oregon they must be five and three-quarters (5¾) inches across the back.
Females are protected to preserve the breeding population of crabs. A crab gauge or other measuring device is essential gear since some crabs miss the mark by only a hair’s length.
Within a half hour, we had landed and checked each of our traps and we were fortunate to retain 18 legal Dungeness crabs; plenty to go around our small but hearty crew.
As much fun as it was to catch these crabs, the best part was yet to come when Steve motored back to the dock in Astoria and we carried our crustaceans up to his shop to learn the proper way to cook our crabs.
Fick dropped a pound of salt into ten gallons of boiling water and then placed each crab into the pot. The crabs must cook approximately twenty minutes.
While we waited, I chatted with Oregon Fish and Wildlife Shellfish Manager, Matt Hunter.
He explained that the crabbing in the Columbia River estuary had been exceptional this year. “We’re seeing darn near a limit per person and when we don’t see a limit it’s because of weather or that people just don’t want their dozen crabs.”
The reason for this year’s remarkable catch rate? “Well, the crabs molted in early summer so they’re coming off the molt and they’re hungry and looking for food. At this time of year there’s plenty of food: baitfish die offs, natural salmon spawning events so there is plenty of available to them.”
As we chilled our catch on ice, I asked Fick what he enjoyed most about the adventure that’s just off his front door step:
“Oh, it’s simple and everyone can be involved in it. It’s easy to catch a dozen crabs per person with lots of action for kids. And – you never really know until you pull the pot up what you got…you know and that is fun!”
Editor’s Note: Grant’s Getaways is a production of Travel Oregon brought to you in association with Oregon State Parks, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife and Oregon State Marine Board. Episodes air Fridays on KGW Newschannel 8 and Saturdays on Northwest Cable News Network. Before you embark on your own crabbing adventure, be sure to check check shellfish license/regulations and rental facilities.
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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