Crab season starts Thursday.  Insider tip: There’s a secret way to consistently get Dungeness crabs here in Port Townsend. You can’t miss. Here it is, free of charge: Drive to the Boat Haven and buy them from Key City Fish.

There’s another way.  Catch them yourself. My partner and I are getting good at it. After two full summer seasons we’ve brought our average net price of fresh-caught Dungeness down to around $789.53 a pound, including boat repair, maintenance, insurance, license, bait, emergency health care, fixing the tail-lights of the trailer and relationship counseling.

Mistakes have been made, is what I’m saying. Like that time I tangled our main propeller in the weighted line to the crab trap.

“You’ve got that wrapped up pretty good,” admired a friend along for the ride. “Best turn off the engine, maybe.”

Unnecessary. The engine had already seized up. We were bobbing about a few hundred yards off Fort Townsend State Park. I said something about crabs that was anatomically impossible.

It turned out OK though — I learned how to crawl out on this tiny, heaving platform called the “swim step” with a Swiss Army knife in my teeth, pirate style. The rope had been too long anyway. I did salvage the trap but lost the knife.

Another time I misplaced our traps out on the water. Our boat has good navigation equipment, but it’s electronic, and therefore unintelligible. It has all these myriad modes, settings, programs and things that go “beep.” I prefer the more manly, old-school way of reckoning your location – squinting at landmarks. You squint at that tree with the crooked limb, the deadfall on the bluff, the house with cedar shakes, the paper mill, the blue crane on Indian Island. I like to squint keenly around me, make a quick professional calculation, and know exactly where I am.

But on the water, seems like wherever you are, the crane and paper mill always look like they’re in exactly the same relationship. (I think they do actually change locations.) And a lot of trees have crooked limbs. And so on.

So after dropping our three traps on a Saturday in carefully-noted locations (left of that deadfall on the bluff, right across from the crane, etc.) I confidently motored us back to the marina. Next afternoon, we went out to retrieve our delicious bounty of crabs. This is the life, I thought. I did not realize it was time to learn more things.

First, everybody’s white and red buoys look the same. Second, buoys drift with the current, and if your line is too long, they can drift way out of where you thought you left them. Third, Port Townsend Bay is affected by these events called tides, which play havoc with manly landmark reckoning.

There were red/white crab buoys out there thick as a kelp bed. I had dutifully written name, address and phone number on ours, as per the law. But by the time we had checked every buoy in the area where I was certain we had left them, it was grimly clear: Someone had stolen our traps. And only ours, leaving perhaps three dozen others untouched.

“This has to be personal,” I said. “This is someone we know.”

“We don’t know anyone here,” my partner pointed out.

“Then where are our floats?”

“They’re there,” she said, pointing afar, pulling out the notes she had made from our navigation beeper. “That way.”

And so they were.  She is now in charge of navigation technology.

Another mistake I am sure others have made, not just me: Don’t underestimate how nasty crabs are.

Insight: Dungeness crabs do not want to be caught. They want to keep on being bad-tempered beasts.  They bristle with sharp points. The term, “beady little eyes” was invented for them. They have vicious pincers. They walk sideways, which seems evil.

So when you catch them in a trap it does not improve their personality. (I don’t blame them – I am trying to kill and eat them. Fair is fair.)  Pro tip: When you reach into a trap to grab them properly from behind to avoid claws, be sure to note that other crabs in the same trap also have claws and don’t like you either.

Last August, a big strong Dungeness grabbed me solidly by the pinkie. How much can that hurt? This much: During the Spanish Inquisition, torturers used thumbscrews to make innocent people confess to witchcraft. They were too nice to crush a pinkie.

I yelled and flipped Torquemada up in the air. He let go, flew off my finger and settled back to the bottom of the bay, probably smirking to himself.

Until that day, I felt bad about killing crabs. What’s the most humane way to whack these little terrorists? Some people throw them alive into boiling water, others kill and clean them first. Neither is what anyone would call “humane.” Finally I thought of my bruised pinkie, and the answer was clear: What would the Grand Inquisitor do?

Feature image: “Dungeness crab in trap” by Oregon Sea Grant is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


  1. Good job Doug, exactly my experience with crabbing. Oh by the way, our chocolate lab Java is also water shy. Gary

    • Thanks sir. This season I actually fouled my propeller on a crab pot line — again. I picture these giant Dungeness giggling while they wrap the line around the prop.

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