Scooping up Delicious Dungeness Crabs
TIPS AND TRICKS TO PULL YOUR LIMIT IN THE STATE OF OREGON
Three hours before high tide. We’ve checked the boat. It still starts. That’s key. We load it up with rings, pots and boxes. We’re going crabbing. On the Oregon Coast. Yes – you heard me. OREGON. Oregon Girl and crew are back around the world for a month visiting family and friends. In Oregon. It’s a little surreal. In the best way. Don’t worry Denmark, we’ll be back. But for now, we’re soaking up, tasting, seeing, hugging all those things and people that we missed. It’s good.
Have you been crabbing? I have done this in Oregon as long as I can remember living here. Maine may have lobstahs, but here on the Pacific Northwest Coast, we hunt Dungeness Crab. Growing up in Eugene – a university town that sits mid-state off Interstate 5 in western Oregon – we frequent the central Oregon coast between the little towns of Florence and Newport. And we’re more than lucky that my mom loves sharing her coast house. We spend most of our time in charming and quirky, but oh so cozy Yachats. (Don’t call it Yeah-chats. It’s YAH-hots. It’s a Native American thing. Siletz tribe to be exact. It translates loosely to “dark water at the foot of the mountain.” Speaking my language.)
When in Yachats, we love taking my Dad’s boat out for crabbing. My mom drives it now. But today, she is happy to relinquish the wheel and help with crabbing technique. We drive the eight miles north up Highway 101 to Waldport where the Alsea River runs to the sea. This is our crabbing place. Yours too? Many others favor the beautiful bay here and it can be quite busy on weekends and holidays when crab is in season.
Today, we are lucky. Independence Day festivities are complete and most holiday celebrants have packed up. The bulk of them returning east over the winding forested roads of the coast range back to homes up and down the Willamette Valley. (Pronounced Will-AM-ette. Another indigenous namesake. We have a lot up here.) This year, the 5th of July falls on a weekday and we only have to share the bay with five to six other boats.
Crabbing in Oregon is state regulated to keep populations stable and sustainable. Not an Oregon resident? You can still crab here. No problem. We’ll let you. We like you. Just buy a three day visitor’s license for each crabber over 14 years of age. Bonus for you – it’s a shellfish license – so you’re good to go to collect all manner of mollusks including but not limited to; butter clams, razor clams, cockles, gaper, littleneck and softshell clams. Purple varnish clams, mussels and giant geoducks (pronounced gooey duck – I have no idea why. But it is. Just trust me.) If you can catch ’em – you can also take squid, octopus, sand crabs and kelp worm. But eeuw. Who would do that? Seriously. Kelp worm? I don’t even want to process how that would taste.
Where to get this amazing access to all things shellfishy? At any Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office of course. But probably easier and more accessible, licenses are easy to pick up at most hardware or sporting goods stores up and down the coast. In Waldport, we get all our essentials at Dock of the Bay Marina right at the Alsea Port. Friendly, helpful, knowledgable staff can get you legal and set up with rings, bait, snacks and tips. You can throw your traps in right off the nearby dock – but keep kids safe and remember life jackets are essential for kids under 12. Even older, if yours aren’t good swimmers. The water is chilly and does have some current.
It’s a little windy today. But the sun is shining and the sky is an unfiltered bluebird blue. Breathe it in. I love that salty, kelpy, sea smell. We launch successfully after a little uncertainty as to who would cast the lines off and jump in last second. My 15 year old executed perfectly and we’re off without drama. As we cruise away from the dock, up the river to the bay, we set up bait boxes filling with a mixture of chicken pieces and frozen mink. Yes. Mink. It reeks more and more with each successful pull and dunk in the salty water, but it does seem to attract the crustacean scavengers and we are told the seals don’t like it.
Harbor seals and sea lions are prevalent here and we spy a huge grouping sunning and splashing on the sand bar before we head underneath the Alsea Bay Bridge. To keep the curious and potentially pesky seals from absconding with our bait, we strap down the bait boxes to the centers of each ring and pot. Many times the seals are able to MacGyver those things open and even steal the whole box straight off. The large brown mischievous eyes not quite as charming when this happens, as they watch us as keenly as we watch them before they turn and slip back below the surface. Our dog is supremely interested in them.
All traps loaded, baited and hopefully seal-proofed, we pick a corridor that runs along the beach towards the mouth of the river and start dropping pots in a line. The depth finder on board helps keep us off the sand bar and determines where and when we plunk in those readied pots. We aim for about 15′-20′ of water with the length of our lines and where we think we’ll find the most critters. Crabbing is best in the two hours before slack tide, after high tide is at it’s peak. The water stops moving and the crab can look for food without being pushed around by the tide.
Once all the pots have been deposited, we circle back to the start of the line and start pulling. This is the fun part. Today we forgot the crab trap hook we normally use to snag the lines and have to rely on well-executed boat manuevering with an old-fashioned reach and grab technique. Roll up your sleeves, it’s gonna get a little wet. The water is cool, not frigid – but no one is eager to take a swim.
The specific pulling technique depends on what style of trap you have, but unless you are using boxes where the crab walks in to get the bait and can’t get back out – you are going to have to pull quickly. Some speed is required to keep the collapsible sides from falling down and releasing potential keepers. It is THE WORST when you get the ring to the top and watch big guys swim out over the side.
In Oregon, you are not allowed to keep any females. Throw them back. They got a job to do. Procreate my crustacean sister. Keep the population up. Once you know the difference – it is easy to spot the boys from the girls. Pull the pot. Bring it on board. Careful! Don’t tip or toss any overboard in the process. Time to check for keepers. Female? Back in the drink. Too small? Back in for you too. How do you know? Take a measurer before you go. Attempt to keep any under age specimens, get caught by authorities and be prepared to pay a hefty fine. Not worth it. Compared to the size limits in our neighboring states California and Washington, Oregon can legally take the smallest. But don’t take the babies – give ’em a little “grow-big-good-juju” and send them on their way. Gently. Please.
We have a good start today with two keepers in our first pull. Within two hours, when the tide reaches slack – we garner 18 keepers. There are even several huge ones – legal in California! It was a good day. No family records, but way better than being skunked. We’ve had plenty of those days too. And even though it is more fun to catch crabs (Dungeness crabs people – don’t be gross), any time spent out on the water with family is good for the soul. With three generations out here doing something together, it is prime family bonding.
Seagulls screetch overhead as we empty the remains of the bait boxes and toss it overboard. An easy dinner for them. Coming up, easy dinner for us. Back at home, we clean the boat and set the water on to boil. We only add salt to the water, preferring to let the crab’s natural flavor shine. It’s going to be hot in my big silver pot. When ready, we plunge in the crab one by one. Bring the water back to a boil and cook for 15 minutes.
The beautiful purple shells now a brilliant reddish orange, the cooked crustaceans are set on ice to cool before cleaning. With a banner haul like we had today, it takes us two rounds to cook all 18 crab. Maybe we need a bigger pot! Once cool, it is quite easy to clean a crab. I use the male segment on the belly of the crab like a can tab and pluck off the entire back in one piece. Rinsing under water, remove all the inedible bits under the shell until you get to the white meat in the body cavity. With the legs still attached, you can find the center line and gently break it in half to serve. We like ours with melted butter, a little lemon (only me), fresh green salad, good crusty bread and fresh steamed Oregon artichokes. A cold Willamette Valley, Pinot Gris or golden craft wheat beer and you have a simple, casual, delicious, Oregon summer meal.
Have bowls ready for shells and artichoke leaves. And keep plenty of napkins nearby. Crab dinner is slow and determined and social. It takes time to eat. Especially when you procure more than your crowd can consume. Now it’s time for picking, chatting and sipping. Crab meat keeps for days and can be used in a million different ways. Classic in our house are toasted open-faced crab sandwiches, crab quesadillas or crab omelettes. Yes please. How do you enjoy your crab?
Crab techniques, baits, boxes and recipes are all highly personal and oft contested. Have a different way? Please share in the comments below. Cheers from Oregon this time!
Read here for limits, regulations and license information in the State of Oregon. Happy crabbing! Erin