Jake swings the crab pot out of the dark water of the Yaquina Bay and sets it on the boat’s floor, then hesitates. Inside is a wriggling mass of legs and claws of nearly two dozen Dungeness and Red Rock Crabs.
“I don’t know if I want to stick my hand in there,” he says, voicing what nearly everyone else onboard is thinking. It’s understandable. Although not particularly large crabs when compared to other species around the world, both of these crabs can and will deliver a very painful pinch if not handled carefully.
“One reason why we decided to take this class is so we could learn how to crab better,” Jake tells the Oceanscape Network. “And I suppose that includes learning how to keep from getting pinched.”
The class Jake’s attending is hosted by ODFW Outdoors, a program of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which teaches the public the basics of many outdoor activities like fishing, crabbing and clamming.
Mark Newell is the coordinator of the program and is careful to point out that there’s more to crabbing than just throwing a trap in the water. A good crabber needs to understand how crabs and other local marine life behave. Time of year, time of day and the types of bait used all play a huge role in whether you’re going to have a successful crabbing trip.
“Having the right kind of gear and knowing how to use it properly is really important if you’re crabbing,” Mark says. For example, it’s important to use fresh bait because, despite common belief about crabs, species like the Dungeness will not eat rotted food. Mark suggests using fresh turkey, chicken, herring, shad or clams to lure crabs into the traps. To keep the bait from being stolen by Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions or fish, the meat can be secured using a net-like bait bag which allows crabs to pick off pieces of food without stealing with all the bait at once.
“You need a bait which has a really strong smell to it,” Jake explains. Crabs will detect the aromatic bait using a pair of antennae on their heads that contain specialized sensory organs called chemoreceptors. They then congregate around the food, using their nimble claws to snip off bits and pieces. ODFW recommends you allow at least an hour or two for crabs to gather in the traps before hauling them up.
Participants must obtain a shellfish license from the state before they can participate in the class or any crabbing activity. The ODFW class also educates the public on water safety, good outdoor etiquette and the rules designed to prevent over-harvesting of crabs.
“If they’re Dungeness, you can only keep males of a certain size,” says Jake. “If they’re too small you have to throw them back and if they’re females you have to throw them back so they can reproduce. You can take the males because one male crab can fertilize lots of females.”
After spending a day crabbing from a pier and off a boat, Jake had a new appreciation for people who crab professionally. “It’s hard work,” he confesses. “But it’s also a lot of fun and I’d definitely come do it again. We’re definitely going to come out here more often on our own time. Just come out to any dock, go crabbing with the proper license and stuff…Take some crabs home…”
And he didn’t get pinched even once.