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Catching Dungeness Crab with Rod & Reel

Chapter II: What is a crab snare?
By Jerry Back
10/18/15 -- Standing on Fort Point Pier that day, I was less concerned about the thrown-back Dungeness crab and instead stood fascinated looking at this odd contraption responsible for bringing in the two crabs. It was a crab snare -- a tiny 2” x 3” cage of bait that had six loops attached to it. Each loop, usually made of monofilament line or “weed-eater” line, was a snare that upon reeling would instantly cinch around whatever crab appendage was caught inside.

[Editor's Note: This is the second of four chapters in this "How To" article. Chapter I can be found here. The next chapters will be posted here within the week. The entire article will be posted to our "Fishing TIPs" section once all four chapters have appeared here. We hope this helps many of you catch more Dungeness crabs.]

Two legal-sized crab on one crab snare. Photo: Jerry Back
Two legal-sized crab on one crab snare. Photo by Jerry Back

Nice photo, right? These are the same crab you’d buy at the supermarket for up to $12 per pound, only you got your crab for free. A crab snare gets tossed out past the nearby breaking waves. After waiting five to 10 minutes, the crab snare gets reeled in -- hopefully with a crab or two along with it.

Basic Rules and Regulations for Dungeness Crab
For the complete list of rules and regulations, and for other crab species, you should reference the current California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations booklet.

The key rules for Dungeness crab, though, are as follows:

  1. Crab must be 5.75” long between the two key measuring points. These are not the actual points that stick out on each side of the crab’s carapace, but just inside those carapace points. Reference the following illustration so that you know exactly how to measure your crab. Incorrect measurements might lead to you keeping a “shorty,” so know how to measure your crab and avoid a hefty fine.
  2. Daily limit of ten legal-sized Dungeness crab.
  3. Can be either male or female. While commercial fishermen (you know, those guys on the boats with crab pots stacked 15 feet high) are restricted to harvesting only male Dungeness crab, recreational sports fishermen (i.e., you and I) are legally allowed to take both male and female crab.
  4. In California, crab snares may be used north of Point Arguello to take all species of crab.
  5. No Dungeness crab can be taken from any place located inside the Golden Gate Bridge. Outside the Golden Gate Bridge is where you need to be -- either up the coast to the North or down the coast to the South. There are exceptions, however, such as in certain protected marine areas. Refer to the California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations manual to find out which areas prohibit crab snares.
Crab, photo by Jerry Back
Illustration and Photo by Jerry Back

Should You Keep Your Female Dungeness Crab?
So, just because it’s legal, should you be throwing into your Homer bucket female Dungeness crab with the same gusto as their male counterparts? During the first two months of the crab season you’ll often be reeling in females loaded with orange eggs protruding from their abdomens. Now, I’ve witnessed a fair amount of questionable behavior from some fishermen lecturing other fishermen for keeping a female “Mama D.” I understand their passion and motivation because they love crab snaring almost as much as I do and they want to try and ensure there will be crab galore in the years to come.

First, however, let’s learn how to tell the difference between a male crab and a female crab. It’s all about the abdomen (the underside of the crab).

If the abdomen resembles the shape of the Transamerica Pyramid building (or a very acute isosceles triangle, for you geometry-types), then you have a male crab:

If the abdomen resembles the Taj Mahal, the iconic Indian structure (technically, it’s a mausoleum), however, then it’s a female crab:

Jerry Back, Crab Snaring with rod and reel, Female Dungeness Crab

My personal feelings on the “keep or not keep female crab” matter can be put into a Pro/Con table:

Pros:
1. You caught her legally; therefore, you can keep her. The Department of Fish & Game demands that I be fully compliant with every one of its regulations and I am. If my crab is just a fraction short of 5.75 inches, I expect to be given a ticket of somewhere between $500 to $1,000. If it was really critical for recreational sports fishermen to throw back all female crab in order to protect the overall fishery, then it should be written into the regulations. Since there are no such prohibitions, it must be currently considered sustainable and therefore I shouldn’t feel any guilt keeping a female crab once in a while.
2. Unless you’ve got a female or two in the bucket, you might not make your personal goal for that day (mine is always around five crabs).

Cons:
1. Females are usually not as “meaty” as male crab, tend to be smaller, and, to many palates, not as tasty as male crab.
2. Maybe you ARE putting a dent in the overall Dungeness crab population by keeping that female crab. I would hope the experts in charge of writing the regulations have a handle on this issue because I’m not a marine biologist. I’ve certainly come across a few self-righteous crab snare fishermen out there who certainly THINK they are experts on this matter.

So to summarize, I definitely prefer male crab over female crab for taste reasons and it also makes sense to throw egg-bearing females back into the water. If the first crabs of the day I catch are female, I’ll keep them in my bucket. I’ve got to have something for my mother-in-law and wife guaranteed to eat that night. However, throughout the day, each time I catch a male crab, I will throw back one. I do this until I have in my possession around five legal-sized males, which is a king’s feast for my family. Seems like a sensible compromise between the competing points-of-view on the subject.

What You’ll Absolutely Must Need Before Going
There are three things that you absolutely must have before you hit the beach. Not having one of these items means you simply have to turn around and go back home:
1. Your California sport fishing license.
2. Your photo ID (driver’s license or ID used for official use).
3. Your crab shell length measuring device.

Your measuring device will look like this:

Jerry Back, Crab Snaring with rod and reel, crab measuring device
Dungeness crab measuring device sold in most bait and tackle stores. Photo: Jerry Back

Without all three of these items in your possession, you cannot legally fish for crab. Period. The fines for fishing without any of these three items are hefty and will put you in the doghouse for years to come with your significant other. DON’T DO IT!

With just a license, photo ID and measuring device, I have actually fished for Dungeness crab wading in the surf with just my keen eyesight and my bare hands “survivorman-style”—all done so legally. I like to imagine that our Native American brothers when living in villages along the Pacific coastline were harvesting their crab in the very same way and that I’ve rediscovered a long, lost skill. This is another article for another time, though. Just remember: everything else is a “nice-to-have” compared to the fishing license, photo ID and measuring device.

What You’ll Need to Catch Dungeness Crab
O.k., back to reality. This is about fishing for crab so let’s get serious about the tools you’ll need to start reeling in our favorite little crustaceans. We can divide this up into three sections:

Crab Snares
Called a “loop trap” in the California Fish & Game Rules and Regulations manual, these ingenious contraptions come in a variety of geometric shapes, but basically are made up of a wire-mesh cage to hold the bait and a 2 to 3 oz. lead weight along with six attached snare loops made up of weed-eater line or a heavy monofilament line (80 lb. line is ideal). Six loops is the maximum allowed—you can have less (but why would you); however, you can’t have more.

Some crab snares have a broad, wide surface area. Others are more aerodynamic and “rocket-like,” holding less bait, but probably will cast out a little farther than the more stubby crab snares. Both examples are seen above. Photo: Jerry Back

Tackle
Since you will be tossing out four to six ounces of weight and then reeling in sometimes two or even three 1.5 pound crabs, you need a strong line. It can be fluorocarbon, monofilament, or braided line. I prefer 30 to 50 pound rated braided line. Braided line has no “stretch” when it comes time to start reeling in your crab. This means the crab will almost instantaneously be snared by a loop as soon as you jerk back your rod and start reeling.

Monofilament and even Fluorocarbon lines do stretch a little so it provides the crab a split second to get off the snare and avoid getting caught in a loop before the snare really starts moving back to shore.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Some pier locations frown heavily upon the use of braided line. There have been incidents of braided line cutting into other fishermen's monofilament lines causing loss of rigs, live bait and/or hooked fish. Such boorish reactions are wrong, of course, and you’ll have to decide for yourself if fishing with your favorite braided line is worth it.

Leader (if using braided line)

If you are using braided line, you will need to use a monofilament line leader so your crab snare doesn’t snap off when casting. Attach a three foot leader made up of 40 pound monofilament line to your main line. From the mainline:

* Attach a barrel swivel to the three foot leader line.

* Attach a snap-swivel to the end of the leader line.

* The leader’s barrel swivel will attach to your mainline.

* The snap-swivel will attach to the crab snare.

Jerry Back, Crab Snaring with rod and reel, three-foot leader recommeneded
Three-foot leader illustration: Jerry Back

NOTE: I use a simple Palomar knot for everything. It’s very strong and easy for beginner fishermen to make. Look it up if you aren’t using it already.

If you’re not using braided line, then you won’t need a leader—there should be plenty of stretch in the monofilament or fluorocarbon line to prevent your crab snare from snapping off and sailing off into the deep water.

Rods
You will need a rod that is rated to cast between four and eight ounces. Anything less and you’ll risk snapping the rod. A Heavy/Medium or Heavy/Fast rod is ideal. You want strength and stability when throwing out the snare. You also want some distance, so short poles need not apply. A 10-12 foot pole is an ideal length to get your crab snare just past the nearshore breaking waves where most of the crabs are found.

NOTE: Since you are fishing in the ocean, you can use more than one rod when you’re crab snaring. I like to use two rods, which keeps me busy. I cast a crab snare out with one rod and then go check the other rod to see if there’s a crab on top of its crab snare. If there is, I reel it in and then by the time I get that rod cast back out again, it’s time to check the other rod’s crab snare.

Reels
I’ve worn out the gears on some relatively smaller-sized spinning reels (e.g., a Penn Fierce 6000). These were reels that I had hoped would be able to handle the load of two or three large crab. They did for a while, but, alas, they failed after 15 outings or so. The reels I’m using now are larger (Penn Sargus 8000; Penn Battle 7000) and seem like mini-winches that easily handle the loads being pulled out of the water.

It’s not just pulling three pounds of crab using a six ounce snare that causes the stress. You have to realize you’re pulling dead weight with large surface areas through waves and water that are flowing back out to sea. All that outgoing force puts stress on the reel. A 15 pound Striped Bass, after being hooked, will sometimes swim toward the shore, tire quickly and then might practically float in on the incoming waves. This is why you can fish for striper using a lighter, 12 ounce reel. You’ll find that reeling in a large 1.5 pound crab almost immediately exhausts all of the oxygen in your blood and it will help having that larger 28 ounce beast of a reel do the heavy lifting for you.

Bait

Jerry Back, Crab Snaring with rod and reel, squid for bait
I prefer a three-pound box of frozen squid that you’ll find in most any Asian supermarket. Photo: Jerry Back

A single squid fits nice and snug in the bait box of the crab snare. One box should last you working two poles for at least of six hours. Just don’t forget to let it thaw out the night before the day you plan on hitting the beach!

Some fishermen use raw chicken. I have never used it for bait -- who wants to bring and handle raw chicken at the beach? Also, unlike a chicken wing, a single squid can be made to fit into a crab snare easily since it’s an invertebrate (i.e., “no bones”).

You
I tell you—it’s helpful to be in good shape when you’re pulling in a heavy load. The adrenaline helps, but wears off after 15 seconds of reeling in the crab. I first thought I needed more arm strength, but a fitness enthusiast of a friend told me that my fatigue was aerobic-related and if I worked on my overall stamina, I would notice a difference. He was right. It turned out my modest arm muscles weren’t the problem—it was how well my heart was pumping oxygen to my whole body. Walking the hills of San Francisco during my lunch break took care of that problem.

Jerry Back is a television research executive residing in San Francisco, California. Other outdoor interests include fishing for Striped Bass (a.k.a., “stripers”) and anything else he can catch on the beaches of San Francisco. Jerry can be contacted at jerry.back@gmail.com.


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