Wild Bill Schneider Explores Crabbing on the Oregon Coast
In late August, I spent two weeks vacationing Oregon Coast (OC). Like earlier trips to the OC, I thoroughly enjoyed the hiking and cycling and beach sunsets–and of course, that fresh seafood so hard to find here in Montana. This year, for the first time, some of it was extra-fresh because I caught it myself while crabbing Oregon.
Although I’ve been known to get really crabby, I’m certainly no expert at crabbing. But I’ve learned a few things that might help you enjoy your first time out.
I’ve always wanted to try crabbing, and now that I’ve had my chance, I recommend adding it to your wish list next time you’re vacationing on the Oregon Coast. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go out with friends Mike and Anita Harlan, but if you aren’t lucky enough to know experienced crabbers like Captain Mike and COO (Crabbing Operations Officer) Anita, you can join a guided trip or do it yourself by renting a boat, motor and a few crab pots. Most marinas on the OC offer both guided trips and rentals.
Captain Mike took us out in Netarts and Garibaldi Bays, near Tillamook, but crabbing is also popular in many other bays along the OC such as Alsea, Nahalem, Siletz, Winchester, and Yaquina. Even though crabbing seems nicely suited for the average person who doesn’t have time to become an expert, there’s more to it than you think. For starters, crabbing is not fishing. It’s more like mushroom hunting. And it can be a lot of work, so be prepared to get physical.
Actually, it isn’t that hard to catch crabs, but very hard to catch big crabs–enough, legally sized crabs to make a decent feast. And that’s why we do it, of course, for that banquet of freshly steamed crustaceans.
Here’s the basic drill. You throw out baited crab pots attached to ropes and buoys, let them sit on the bottom of the bay for 15-20 minutes, and then pull them in and sort out the catch, keeping legal crabs (males 5.75 inches or larger) and throwing back smaller males and all females. Keep throwing and hauling and sorting until you have enough crabs for dinner–being careful, of course, not to exceed the limit–12 Dungeness (male only) and 24 Japanese red crabs (any size or sex).
When that first pot-full of crabs comes into the boat, it gets exciting for first-timers. Crabs are running everywhere, and you have to catch them and throw most back, keeping in mind that those crabs are armed. Anita could do it in her sleep, but I was so wary of those pinchers after she told me how much it hurt that she ended up doing most of the work while I gingerly picked up a few and carefully tossed them overboard.
The big males go in the bucket for, as Captain Mike puts it, ” a free boat ride and a steam bath.”
When planning a crabbing trip, remember that rain is bad. It fills the bays with fresh water, and the crabs like salt water and won’t come into the bays, so don’t go crabbing after a big rainstorm.
Also, don’t plan on having the whole bay to yourself. We went out during the week and still had eight or nine boats working the same water. Be careful not to interfere with the crab pots of others. It’s challenging, actually, to claim and work your pot line in close proximity to other boats, but Captain Mike was a master at this. He had the tough job; Anita and I did the grunt work.
Crabs are everywhere on the Oregon Coast, but you want your pots (no more than three per person) in places with the highest concentrations. The trick is when and where.
Experienced crabbers watch the tide tables carefully. Days with a “small tide” (less difference between high and low tides) are better, and Mike and Anita prefer the incoming tide. You catch most crabs during the “slack tide” when the tide reverses direction.
The water all looked the same to me, but like a good river guide, Mike could read the water and avoided areas where the tide current was too strong.
What bait to use depends on personal and local preferences. People use fish carcasses, chicken, cat food, sardines, tuna and various other fish species, and combinations thereof–anything greasy and smelly. Crabbers get a little tight-lipped and competitive when it comes to bait, so it isn’t easy to find out what works best. We used “mystery fish,” and Anita said she’d hunt me down if I told you what it was.
One problem is those pesky seals and sea lions. They’re too fat and lazy, apparently, to catch their own fish or crabs, so instead, they keep raiding the bait out of the pots, which means they come empty for us.
Crabbing season starts in late July and runs out in February. Even though we caught plenty of crabs, August isn’t the best time. It gets better in September and October. Anita says all months ending with “R” are best.
Actually, you can catch crabs all year long, but after February they’re molting (growing a bigger exoskeleton) and not worth catching because they don’t have much meat in them.
After a tough day of crabbing and a bucket of nice fat Dungeness, we docked the boat and pulled out his “Crab Jacuzzi.” We sat around knocking down a few beers and watching the crabs turn deliciously red in the cooker. After they were fully steamed, Anita and I removed the exoskeleton, cleaned out the “crab butter,” and viola, let the feast begin.
It’s really hard for me to exaggerate how good your own all-you-can-eat feast of fresh crabs can be. The accompanying photos and video by Gene Colling might give you a small taste of the treat that awaits you, but to get a full meal, you’ll just have to try it yourself.