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Catching Dungeness Crab with Rod & Reel

Chapter III: When, Where and How to Do It
By Jerry Back

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

10/22/15 -- Dungeness crab season in California is from the first Saturday in November to the last day in June. This year, 2015, crab season opens on Saturday, November 7th. Eight months seems like a long opportunity to go out crabbing, but keep in mind that most of the legal-sized crab are caught during the first three months of the season (November, December and January). I’ve caught legal-sized crab in the spring months, as well, but I tend to throw back a lot more undersized crab to get that one keeper. The ratio of undersized to legal-sized might be 2:1 or 3:1 during November and December, but balloons to 10:1 or greater by May, so get out there at the beginning of the season if you want a better chance at filling your pot.

As far as time of day, it really helps to crab from the beginning of the low tide to the peak of high tide. Crab like to float and sidle up to the shoreline using the incoming tide. When the tide starts going back out, the crab tend to hunker down in the sand and aren’t as likely to wander around looking for a meal. When I first started crabbing, I would go out regardless of the tide. It quickly became apparent in my logs that working an incoming tide was productive and trying to work an outgoing tide was much less so -- sometimes even fruitless.

Sun or no sun doesn’t seem to matter much. I’ve crabbed at night, morning, afternoon, but what’s most important is whether the tide is incoming or not. Of course, to combine crabbing with a nice, sunny day at the beach is beautiful thing. It’s also safer since you can better see the oncoming waves. My ideal conditions are to try and work any incoming tide that begins in the early morning -- say 7 AM, or so. You can see the waves; it’s quiet at the beach, the temps. are cool and there might even be some shade before the sun climbs higher in the sky. By the time lunch time rolls around, you hopefully have several crab in the bucket and are ready to go home with something to eat for dinner that night.

Where to Do It
I haven’t fished for Dungeness crab south of Pacifica, but I’ve read their range can extend down past Half Moon Bay and all the way to Pt. Arguello (near the “elbow” of California). The northernmost is all the way up to Alaska. Find a beach that has a soft slope and few rocks that can potentially snag your line. Crabs love sandy bottoms. If eel grass starts to snake up your line as you reel in, you’re in a good place (Dungeness crab love eel grass).

Like any other type of fishing, ask your trusted local bait and tackle shop owner where he or she would go. If you’re in San Francisco, pay Stephanie a visit at Gus’ Bait and Tackle. If you’re in Pacifica, talk with Marque at New Coastside Bait and Tackle. Both of these individuals have given me invaluable advice on gear and productive fishing spots over the years. Bait and tackle shop owners want you to succeed, so come prepared with questions when loading up on gear and fire away.

How to Do It
This is where the magic finally happens. When all the preparation, equipment, and research come together in the form of a perfectly placed crab snare tossed over that breaking wave. Dungeness crab, if there, will soon be enticed over to feast on its squidy morsels.

The Load
In the snare there should already be a flat and rectangular 2-3 oz. lead weight. If you don’t have one this shape, any lead weight that fits in the bait cage will work fine -- just be sure to position it at the end of the cage (i.e., the side that will be closest to the ground when it’s hanging from your line). This will help it throw a little farther out. The weight might be an ounce heavier or an ounce lighter. In rough water, you will want a slightly heavier weight to keep the snare from drifting around.

Now put one whole squid taken from the box shown earlier into the bait cage -- put two smaller-sized ones in there if they will fit. You want that bait cage to be really compacted by one or two whole squid so that the crab can only pull tiny pieces out to eat. Don’t put in small, chopped up pieces of squid, as smaller pieces will tend to fall out of the cage and the crab will more easily and quickly devour your crab snare’s contents.

The Cast
If fishing from the shore, you will want to toss your crab snare past the main breaking wave. In general, try to throw out as far as you can. You DON’T want your crab snare to land where the wave is breaking as it will be unstable and will be washed around the bottom making it difficult for the crab to find and stay on top of the crab snare.

Before casting, the crab snare should hang about three feet or so from the rod tip. This might be just a little longer than your three foot leader (if you’re using braided line).

Fisherman wearing glove on his casting hand to prevent injury when using braided line. Photo: Jerry Back
Fisherman wearing glove on his casting hand to prevent injury when using braided line. Photo: Jerry Back

IMPORTANT: If you’re using braided line, wear a glove on your casting hand. There is at least four to six ounces of weight pulling down on your line. When you throw that line out, all that force pulling out the line can easily have that braid run across your casting finger and zip off a nice chunk of skin from the fingertip. I did it once and that was the end of my crab snaring session at the beach that day. Even putting a Band-Aid didn’t take away the pain when I tried to cast again. Ouch! Never again for me.

After casting, reel in the slack and put your rod in your sand spike. I used to take an old PVC pipe that was 1.5 inch in diameter to the beach and pound it into the sand with a rock. One time while doing this I hit the side of my finger with a rock. Dumb move. Afterwards, I bought a couple of those nice $20 sand spikes that extends to about four feet and can quickly and easily be put into the sand. It’s a worthwhile investment. You may already have one, but in case you don’t, they look like this:

A couple of quality sand spikes for your rods. Photo: Jerry Back
A couple of quality sand spikes for your rods. Photo: Jerry Back

Finally, this is a good time to check the drag on your reel. The drag needs to be set tight so that there is no give at all. You’re about to become a human winch, so you don’t need to worry about using the drag in the same way you would reel in a fish.

The Wait
Crab, if they’re around, are fast to pick up the scent of squid. Give them at least five minutes to find your crab snare. At some point between five and ten minutes, you can check your line to see if a crab is sitting on top of the crab snare or not. I get asked all the time, “How do you know when there is a crab ready to be pulled in?” It’s easy. After casting your snare, you tighten up the slack in the line and may even pull it back toward the shore a foot or two. You know what it feels like to NOT have a crab on the snare. Now, at the five or 10 minute mark, you can reel in the slack line very slowly, but don’t reel in the snare yet. Very gently, pull your rod back slowly and check for any resistance. If it feels like there’s a stone on top of your crab snare then STOP! There’s almost certainly a crab or two on top of your crab snare. Now, it’s time to reel them in!

The Pull
It’s finally showtime. Square off and face the ocean. Look behind you to make sure there aren’t any obstructions to trip over (like a big rock) because you may be walking backwards for part of this operation. Let’s again very carefully reel in any slack in the line and get your rod tip down almost perpendicular to your body. Bring your rod tip up very slowly until you feel that resistance again (like a stone on top of your crab snare). If your rod is still pointed out toward the ocean (and not the sky), you’re ready to pull. If your rod points up to the sky before feeling that resistance, then bring your rod tip down and again reel in that slack.

O.k., your rod is pointed out toward the ocean and the line is tight. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Now, in one quick motion, quickly pull upward on the rod. You don’t need to put your entire body into the pull, otherwise you risk yanking off the crab’s snared appendage and losing the crab. Instead, just make a smooth, fast movement upward on the rod. At the same time, you need to start reeling in the line at a quick and consistent speed.

The author’s friend at the exact moment he begins to reel in his crab snare. Photo: Jerry Back
The author’s friend at the exact moment he begins to reel in his crab snare. Photo: Jerry Back

What’s happening is that as soon as you pull up on the rod and begin reeling in the line, the snares will cinch any crab appendages caught in a loop. If you stop reeling at any point after the initial pull, the loop or loops will uncinch and the crab will escape. It’s an awful feeling -- especially because just a few seconds earlier you were at the peak of focus and anticipation right before pulling up on the rod.

Key points to remember:

  1. Never let your line go slack.
  2. Don’t reel in so fast that the crab snare with a cinched crab breaches the water. If this happens, the line will go slack and you might lose the crab.
  3. Be careful when the crab is near a cresting wave. If the crab falls off the top of a cresting wave, it will be in the air for a split second. That’s all it takes for the loops to uncinch and then you’ve lost the crab.
  4. Be careful when the crab is finally on the sand. If you’re reeling in too fast, the crab is going to be bouncing around on top of the sand. Bouncing means it’s sometimes airborne -- even for a split second -- and again you might lose your crab.
  5. Walk backwards, if necessary, to keep the line tight -- just don’t trip over a rock.

The Measurement
Well, it looks like you’ve pulled up a decent-sized Dungeness crab. Uncinch the crab from the loop or loops. To hold a Dungeness crab, I hold it from the back of its carapace (its large outer shell) using two hands to establish control. It cannot pinch you if you are holding it this way. Find a way to put the crab down on a large rock, keep control by pushing down on the carapace with one hand and then use your measuring device with the other hand.

As soon as you know it’s a legal-sized keeper, you can put it in your five gallon bucket. If the crab is less than 5.75 inches -- even by just the smallest of margins -- you throw the crab back into the ocean. That measuring device will not fit over a crab shell that is greater than 5.75 inches, so if that’s the case, it’s an obvious keeper. If the measuring device cleanly fits over the shell, then the crab is under 5.75 inches and needs to be returned immediately to the sea.

Keeping Crab Fresh
I will fill my five gallon bucket with approximately four gallons of ocean water. This will probably keep the crab feisty for about 30 minutes or so, but remember that oxygen is rapidly depleting and the water temperature is heating up from being out in the sun. I like to refresh the water with new ocean water in between pulls.

A couple of crab just chilling in the bucket. Photo: Jerry Back
A couple of crab just chilling in the bucket. Photo: Jerry Back

I’ve also seen guys with battery-powered aerators that push bubbles into the water. That probably works -- I just don’t want to lug one more bulky item to the beach, so I’m fine with just changing out the water every 30 minutes or so. Besides, it gives me something to do in between pulls.

When it’s time to go home, just dump out all the water before heading back to your vehicle. It’s heavy and you don’t need it. The crab without water will be fine will be fine as long as you keep them reasonably cool and out of the sun. If it’s going to take longer than 60 minutes, though, to get back home, maybe think about putting them in a cooler with some ice in there.

How many crab do you see? Answer: a daily limit of 10. Photo: Jerry Back
How many crab do you see? Answer: a daily limit of 10. Photo: Jerry Back

When you do get back home, I’ll leave it to you to figure out the best way to dispatch and cook them. I will say that if you’re not ready yet to eat them that night and want to wait until the next day, put them upside down in a large brown paper bag (double bag is ideal) and then into the refrigerator (not the freezer!). The next morning they should still be alive, though slow-moving. When they start to wake up, watch out! Some can catch their second wind and put the pinch on you!

For some reason unknown to me, crab, when turned upside down, become more docile and won’t be as likely to fight with each other as they drift off into cryogenic sleep. I’ve noticed that laying them upside down in the palm of my hand has the same calming effect on the beach, as well.

Upside down and docile. The middle crab was in the process of regenerating his right pincer claw. Photo: Jerry Back
Upside down and docile. The middle crab was in the process of regenerating his right pincer claw. Photo: Jerry Back

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

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