Poor Man’s Crabbing on Dungeness Bay

By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer

Distance: A couple of miles or so

Time out: Half Day

Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Darn Easy

July 14th 2011

Catching a crab

I was skeptical when my friend Dave invited me to go “Poor Man’s Crabbing,” specifically because he said all I needed was a pitchfork to catch all the Dungeness Crab I could eat for lunch. I’ve been crabbing enough to know how it works. You find a friend with a boat or with an expensive beachfront home with a pier on Puget Sound. You bait the crab trap with chicken and throw it into the water. After a tide change you pull up your trap and if you’re lucky you’ll have a “keeper” or two. The night I proposed to my wife we were eating crab over a campfire on Orcas Island caught using this time-honored method. Plus I’m a big fan of TV’s “Deadliest Catch” where the crew baits crab pots the size of small cars. But it’s all the same – nobody shows up with a pitchfork.

After much insistence, I called Dave’s bluff and decided to see if we could really catch any Dungeness crab. I met him at Dungeness Bay. Lots of Dungeness’s, but the crab is named after the bay which is named after Dungeness Spit which was named by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 who said it looked like the Dungeness on the English Channel.

I arrived at Dungeness Bay in the morning during an ultra-low tide. The clouds clung to the beach and the primeval smell of rotting and decaying sea life was strong. Sure enough, Dave handed me a pitchfork (with guards to blunt the tips) and we walked out a mile from shore. Dave’s theory of crab psychology goes like this; after the crabs mate some of the males, too spent to move (or they are smoking a cigarette), are left behind hiding in the knee-deep water and eel grass of a low tide. Sure enough, after about half an hour of walking about, we spotted the brownish-purple shell of a large Dungeness crab moving slowly across the sandy bottom.

Cleaning a crab

The technique of Poor Man’s Crabbing is to basically sneak up on the crab and lift it gently out of the water with your pitchfork before it can scurry away into the eel grass or sea lettuce and hide. The weather was calm and the surface of the water still, so it was easy to see the crab. Dave lifted up the first one and then held it against the tines of his pitch folk. He flipped over the pitchfork and checked if it was a male, if it was bigger than six and a quarter inches and had a hard shell. It was too small so Dave dropped it back into the bay. I spotted my first crab, a big guy that was a keeper. We carefully put him into the floating cage that was tied to Dave’s belt with a ten foot rope. We ended up with five more crab as we spent a few pleasant hours walking back and forth in the knee deep water. It was a quiet morning. There in limbo between the faint sounds of fishing boats far offshore and the sight of houses far away onshore, it was easy to imagine Native Americans or early pioneers walking alongside me catching their dinner too.

The tide was coming so we waded back to shore where Dave showed me how to clean our crabs. He laid the crab upside down on its shell and deftly severed it in two. He removed the shell, guts and gills and threw the rest into a pot of boiling water. In a few minutes we were feasting on sweet crab. It was all so enjoyable and inexpensive. I attended college at the University of New Hampshire on the East Coast. Back there, catching yourself a lobster dinner is called poaching and it costs you a hefty fine if the police grab you or your arm if a commercial lobsterman does.

Here in Washington State, in addition to a pitchfork, you’ll need a crabbing license. Make sure you are familiar with all the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife crabbing regulations before you go. Dave says that you don’t catch Dungeness crab every day, but since there is parking right across from the 3 Crabs Restaurant, which has been serving Dungeness Bay seafood for over a generation, it would be next to impossible to leave without a succulent crab feast one way or another.

To get to the parking lot on Dungeness Bay from the Holiday Inn Express or the Quality Inn and Suites in Sequim

  • From Washington Street in downtown Sequim turn north on Sequim Avenue
  • Drive north for six miles – Sequim Avenue Turns into Sequim-Dungeness Way
  • Follow the signs for the 3 Crabs Restaurant until you reach Dungeness Bay
  • Park on the left side, not in the restaurant parking lot. Walk straight out, not to the left into the bird sanctuary

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4 thoughts on “Poor Man’s Crabbing on Dungeness Bay

  1. Dinh Tat

    I like your method. I used somewhat similar method but using long handle fish net instead.

    I’m really interested of where you got your floating cage. Was it homemade or purchase? if latter, where did you buy it at?
    thanks in advance

  2. P

    Have you ever had success spotting– and digging up– dungies buried in the sand during a minus tide? I’ve seen a few videos floating around the Internet of people up in Washington spotting oval-ish lumps in the sand, not covered by water but still pretty close to the wash, and digging up some feisty dungeness. I have never tried this myself but sounds like a hoot!

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