After a wildly successful weekend of crab fishing in Half Moon Bay, CA:
I've been convinced to write a how-to guide.
I'd previously considered blogging about some of my favorite fishing spots, but always decided not to. I want all the fish for myself! However, Dungeness crabs are super plentiful in California -- they held the Seafood Watch's Best Choice sustainability ranking until recently, when they were downgraded to "Good Alternative" due to the need for a stock assessment.
(Interestingly, the reason for this assessment is that Dungeness populations have exploded in the last four years, during which Central Coast crab crops averaged 14 million pounds per season. The average for the last decade was 4 million pounds, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It's normal for crab populations to rise and fall in 7- to 10-year cycles, but this recent rise is extreme by traditional standards.)
Anyway. Before you get started, here is a list of everything you will need:
1. Crab Traps. In order to catch crabs, you will need one of these. At least one. But I recommend ordering 3-5. They're normally $50, but are on sale now for $24.99.
This is the exact same one I use, and I'm super happy with it. The Amazon reviews complain that there is too much space between the bars, allowing crabs to escape. But. That's because they're using the traps for blue crabs, which are smaller than Dungeness. If your Dungeness crabs escape from this trap, they weren't legal, anyway.
FYI, the trap is all one collapsible piece, and snapping the panels into place is really intuitive and easy.
2. Bait boxes. If you want the crabs to wander into your trap, you're going to need a bait box. (You know. The box you put your bait in.) They come in all shapes, sizes and prices. But based on experience, I recommendthese:
I like these because the slits in the sides are too thin for the crabs to actually eat your bait -- which means that the bait stays in the traps and continues attracting new crabs until you pull them up. Even/especially if you want to leave your traps out overnight.
The other nice thing about these over other traps is that they're super easy to refill. The box unscrews from the lid, so you don't have to cut or maneuver around the zip tie (see below).
Or, if you want to be super cheap about it, just use a leftover plastic container. Drill some holes in it so the bait can lure the crabs in. And zip tie it through one of the holes you make.
You need one bait box per trap.
It will end up looking like this.
Or this, if you're a total perv. (Just kidding -- they're banana keepers. But they also make great bait boxes.
3. Squid. Or chicken, pork, beef or other leftover meat. You know, for the actual bait. In my experience, crabs aren't especially fussy. They just like meat. I've even crabbed with fish heads I pulled out of the dumpster at the fish cleaning station, and that worked just fine.
The bait goes in the bait box.
4.Zip ties. Use them to attach your bait box to your trap. And attach them to the floor, not the roof, of the trap. When the bait is on the roof (based on what I've seen in the GoPro footage), the crabs get confused and can't find the door that opens into the trap, since the door is on the bottom, not the top, of the trap.
5. Float set. You can spring for the high-end float set or this cheaper (functionally identical, but slightly less visible) one. Again, you can also be ultra-cheap and make your own out of rope and empty milk jugs or old pool noodles. If you make your own, though, make sure that you pick a rope that is at least 50 feet long, and one that floats. (It'll be easier to find if it's floating.) One like this one.
You will need one of these per trap. Tie the non-floating end to the trap before you drop it in the water. Also make sure that the rope is not knotted or coiled when you drop your trap or you will lose it. Better yet, rather than drop the trap, lower it down to the bottom using the rope on your float set? This way, nothing could possibly go wrong.
6. Crab gauge. You need to have one, and you need to use it. This isn't the exact one I have, but it should work.
When you use your gauge, make sure that you're using the notches for the state you're in and the species you've caught. (For instance, Washington has a larger legal minimum size than California.)
7. Bungees. Okay, you don't NEED these. But if your kayak flips, you will lose everything that isn't bungeed down. They're $3. It's worth it.
8. Kayak. If you can't rent a kayak, or if you plan to go out a lot, it might make sense to buy one. The one I have is the Ocean Kayak Malibu Two XL Tandem, and I like it because:
a) It's a sit-on-top, which gives you extra maneuverability when you're assembling/dropping/pulling up traps and dealing with your equipment
b) It's extra long, which means you'll have more space to store your gear
c) If you need to, you can store your crabs in the hull without getting pinched.
I also have a single sit on top kayak from emotion kayak, which was less expensive, but it is a little more difficult to launch traps from because of its size.
Before committing to a new kayak, you may want to check craigslist (or another local classified) for a cheaper alternative.
If you go this route, you're also going to need paddles. I recommend the Shoreline Marine Paddle Rounder 96" -- it's affordable, durable and comfy.
For the absolute beginner - this is one paddle. The two halves connect in the middle.
9. Crab bag. You'll need a place to store your crabs after you catch (and gauge) them. You can pretty much put them in any burlap sack you pick up at the hardware store, or buy a bag like this one:
Once I get to shore, I transfer them into a cooler. But note that crabs need air to breathe. So if you fill the cooler with water, they will die. And you want to keep them alive until you're ready to eat them. So instead of covering them with water, cover them with a damp cloth or wet cardboard. (Or even kelp!) Keep them in a cool, dark, moist place until dinnertime.
10. Kevlar neoprene gloves. Technically, these are optional, but I recommend them. They'll keep your hands warm while you're out on the water. But more importantly, they will protect your hands in the unlikely event that you get pinched.
I've caught maybe sixty crabs in the last few years, and have only seen someone get pinched once. Luckily, he was wearing kevlar gloves -- it still hurt immensely, and the pressure still broke his skin. I'm not sure what would have happened had he been gloveless... but I'm glad I didn't have to find out.
So that's the list of things you need to get started. Which, I guess, is the hard part. As you're preparing to launch, your setup is going to look something like this:
It's a lot of stuff.
So now, load up your gear onto the kayak, strap it down in case you flip, and launch your kayak. Pick a protected area with small waves. I crab out of Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, CA, but you should do a Google search or ask at a local bait shop to find a good place near you.
I don't usually assemble my traps till I'm ready to drop them -- they're more compact that way. From the surface, there isn't really a good way to know if you've put your traps in a good spot or not. Generally, if I find rock crabs in a trap, I move the trap. Rock crabs live in rocks, and Dungeness crabs live in sand, so you want to drop your trap in a sandy spot. Of course, you can keep and eat the rock crabs, too (you can basically keep as many as you want, and it doesn't count against your Dungeness legal limit), but their legs are pretty skinny, so all you'll really get to eat is their claws.
This is a rock crab. Note the skinny legs, and don't let him pinch you.
Speaking of legal limits, the California limit for Dungeness crabs is 10 per license. Oregon's is 12 male crabs. Washington's is generally 5-6. Make sure to look up local fishing regulations for season openings, as it varies be state and region.
Oh, and by the way. This is what Dungeness crabs look like.
The longer you leave the traps down, the more likely you'll be to have crabs when you pull them up. I usually make a circuit of five traps and raise each trap every 15-20 minutes -- but, again, longer is probably better.
If you catch a lot of crabs in one area, try to triangulate your position (use your compass to get a bearing on three different, permanent points that are more than 60 degrees apart -- this won't work if you're currently or will later be in fog) or get the GPS coordinates so you can find the spot again. And move your other traps closer to that spot.
And, to reiterate what I said before, never drop a trap if the line is tangled, knotted or coiled. The float set is not buoyant enough to keep the trap from sinking. You'll just lose your whole setup. So lower, rather than drop, them.
Getting crabs out of your traps can be annoying. They like to pinch onto the bars of the cage and hold on. Try not to rip their limbs off -- that's just mean. They can't pinch you if you grab them by their back legs, so grab them there, gauge them, and either release or put them in your crab bag.
At the end of your trip, remove your crabs from the traps and either bag or release them. Next, remove your bait box from the inside of the trap. Collapse the trap and strap it down. Wrap your float set so it doesn't tangle. Then paddle to your next trap, raise and repeat.
As I also previously mentioned, crabs live the longest in a dark, damp, cool place. If you're going to store them in a cooler, make sure it's not airtight, or they will suffocate.
Then take them home and cook! You can boil, steam or grill. Invite your friends and make it a party!
11/18/2014 04:02:20 am
Here is a video of what it looks like down there. Pretty cool. It's crazy how many crabs end up in the trap. This is the exact same kind of trap Eva and I use. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3YJLj-5h-8
9/1/2015 07:33:01 am
Hi! Love this "how to" guide. Great job and thank you. I am looking to do this for the first time this November, but I must admit that I'm a little chicken. How choppy is the water out there? How far out do you go? Have you ever overturned? Seen any big ass sharks? Lol! Anyway, thanks again as I explore this further.
9/1/2015 09:42:16 am
The days I've been out, it's always been manageable. There was one unfortunate day when the wind was really strong, and my brother's kayak sunk... but I'm pretty sure that's because, between him and the gear, they weight limit was exceeded. (He's 6'5 and pretty heavy, so that probably won't happen to you!)
9/1/2015 09:52:46 am
Hi Eva. Thank you for the nice response and I am really getting excited about this. I've wanted to buy a kayak anyway, so this may be just the excuse I need. About how far out are you do you think? 100 yards? And is it pretty shallow?
4/7/2016 05:54:11 pm
Hey how many days maximum legal to leave your pot in the water
11/2/2015 09:46:36 am
I think it takes about 15 minutes to paddle out of the mouth of the jetty -- just head straight out along the wall until you see the opening -- and another five to paddle out of the traffic lane and to a spot where you can start dropping traps.
9/15/2016 06:26:13 pm
Great guide! Re: floating rope though, I was always told by fishermen that sinking (leaded) line is best so it doesn't get caught in boat propellers. That cheap yellow nylon floats on the surface and boats don't see it till it's too late. Bye bye trap :(
10/26/2016 10:07:30 pm
you are right. please don't use floating line if there are boats anywhere nearby. crusty old crab fisherman will actually cut your line if they see it floating since it can foul a boat propeller and create a serious safety issue for the folks on the boat. lead line at west marine lasts a long time and sinks properly. or, just tie lead sinkers on the line at some intervals and they will do the job. :)
10/23/2017 09:25:42 pm
Nice write up! Getting pumped for the season opener by reading articles about kayak crabbing. I went fishing at Pillar Point this afternoon and stopped by HMB Sportfishing & Tackle to get a new float. Can't wait!
11/27/2018 05:30:59 am
great job. I love crabbing, and other activities , out of the kayak. Regarding crabbing, I'd like to add a few comments. I keep the trap line out and trailing the kayak while paddling, just in case the the kayak flips or the trap slips off. That way you won't lose the trap unless you are in deeper water than the amount of line you have. I use heavier commercial style traps (there are great stainless steel ones on the market that will last a lifetime you don't lose them) that would make it more difficult to upright the kayak if it was secured to the top of the kayak.
11/27/2018 10:17:52 am
Good advice -- I saw a guy flip his kayak once, and he lost ALL his traps. It was sad.
10/11/2020 09:38:09 am
Hi! Do you crab outside the break wall in the HMB harbor or inside the break wall? Sometimes it seems really rough outside and wondering how you manage that. Thanks!
10/14/2020 09:40:11 pm
It's always very calm inside the break wall, so launching from there won't be a problem. However, if it's super windy or rough outside the wall, turn back. The waves out there aren't really breaking, but there is still a lot of motion and it's not exactly relaxing to go out on a day like that.
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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