How to Catch Crab on the Coast

Crab season is revving up, but you don’t need a boat to catch the beloved crustacean. Here's Patch's guide on how to catch crab.

There's more than one way to catch a crab, but the most popular crabbing destination for locals and visitors using various methods is the Pacifica Pier and the Jetty at Surfer’s Beach in El Granada.

When to crab

There are two crabbing seasons that overlap one another. Crab season opened for sport fishermen on Nov. 3, 2012, giving recreational anglers roughly a two-week jump on the commercial crabbers, who usually begin by end of November/early December. Both the commercial and sport seasons end on June 30, so any time between now and the end of June is fine.

But crabs caught early in the season can be "hollow," said Mark Glisson, owner of New Coastside #2 Bait & Tackle in Pacifica. This means the meat is so thin, it overcooks and "tastes like beef jerky."

What you'll catch

Anglers in Pacifica and at the Jetty are mainly after two types of crabs: Dungeness and Rock.

The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by the tips of their pinchers: white tips indicate Dungeness crabs and black tips Rock crabs.

Dungeness crabs — a large variety most often seen (and eaten) in restaurants — are the main local crabbing attraction and can be caught from fishing boats or from the Jetty and Pacifica Pier.

Rock crabs "hide in craggy areas," said Glisson, and can be found close to the Jetty rocks and pilings at the Pacifica Pier.

How to catch a crab

Unless one is a commercial angler, most crabbing opportunities will be from the Pacifica Pier or Jetty.

In the Bay Area, crabbing (or fishing) from a manmade pier does not require a license. Pacifica has the only pier in the entire Bay Area where Dungeness crabbing is legal. This makes the Pacifica Pier a very popular place during crab season. 

Crab snares, according to Glisson, is the most effective tool for catching crabs.

Snares are small bait cages that are attached to the lines of fishing poles.

"Because they're tiny, snares can be thrown out far enough to make them especially effective for catching Dungeness crabs, which tend to favor sandy ocean bottoms farther out at sea," said Glisson.

Loops attached to the snares tighten around a crab's leg when it gets close enough to the bait to try to eat it. When the person holding the fishing pole feels a tug, he or she must carefully begin to reel the crab in, keeping the line taut the entire time. If the line goes slack, the loop will relax and the crab will get away.

Glisson estimates that snares are responsible for about 70 percent of daily catches and they're available at most local bait and sporting goods stores.

Crab nets are also used for pier fishing. Nets can't be thrown out very, thus missing many of the Dungeness, but they are effective at catching Rock crabs hiding near the pier structure or rock-and-trash formations.

A net is comprised of two hoops connected by netting with a small, one-way entrance for a crab. They're "like bare bones cars," said Glisson, and need the addition of bait boxes as well as weights to keep them from drifting.

Nets are high maintenance and need to be pulled up every 15 minutes or so and checked for crabs. Since baby crabs tend to stay close to the pier, it's common for them to wander into the nets but a fisherman may not keep them.

Crabs that are legal to keep must be at least five and three-quarter inches measured by the shortest distance through the body from edge of shell to edge of shell directly in front of and excluding the points (lateral spines).

For more information on how to measure a crab and regulations on crabbing, visit the California Department of Fish and Game's website.

Crab traps are another method used for pier crabbing. Though their sides are also made of netting, traps have lots of metal rigging and are rigid, collapsible structures that can be left in the water for up to three hours, making them more effective than nets. In fact, longboard surfers sometimes take out these springboard traps.

Bait is a crucial part of successful crabbing. Half Moon Bay resident and fisherman Frank Navin says that fresh or frozen squid is best for crabbing. Glisson adds that anchovies, mackerel or sardines can be mixed in, but he warns against using salmon heads or chicken as bait as they are guaranteed to attract sea lions.

Crabbing laws

On public piers, no person shall use more than two rods and lines, two hand lines, or two nets, traps or other appliances used to take crabs. Restrictions for sport crabbers are 10 crabs per day, per person, whether from a boat or from the pier. That number goes down to 6 crabs per person, per day, for party boats, however, which typically bring 20-25 people out at a time.

Licensing fees, available from the California Department of Fish and Game, can be steep and they are necessary for fishing boats but as stated above, licenses are not needed to crab from a manmade pier.

It's illegal to sell female crabs in California so commercial crabbers must throw them back to ensure the continued production of eggs. Although sport fishers are allowed to keep crabs of both genders, many opt not to for the same reason.

— Additional reporting by Christa Bigue

George Muteff November 09, 2012 at 07:12 PM
Stop it!!! Now, like I really needed it, you've got me craving crab; you've got me, who has only been out in this ocean once to catch salmon and all I caught was a miserable cold that turned into a nasty sinus infection, actually thinking about going to a bait shop and trying one of you recommended do-it-yourself contraptions. I now have visions of me way out on the rocks at Pillar Point actually trying to catch crabs for dinner tonight! The reality is that IF I were to try something like that, and based on my prior experience, my name will end up on these pages as some fool washed up on a beach nearby who the Police are trying to identify. As good as you make it sound, and as absolutely starving for that outstanding pot of crabs as I now am, I think maybe I'll just stick with my old tried and true - buying live crabs fresh off the boats when the commercial season opens, thank you. For some reason, I feel that method of "catching" those wonderful eats is in my best interests.
Christa Bigue November 10, 2012 at 03:37 AM
If I can do it, George, you can! Take your kids. No matter how old they are, it's fun, even if you catch a shoe or a plastic bag, which is what we got the first time :) The small crabs you do catch are nothing like what you get off the commercial boats of course, so you can always buy some since you're right there after giving it a try yourself.


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