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Capture the Crustacean

You don't need fancy boats, good sea legs or a salty disposition to ply the bottoms of Oregon bays for the tastiest of all shelled critters, Dungeness crab.

Dock crabbing is one of the best, easiest and cheapest ways to partake in one of Oregon's unique outdoor resources while taking home some of the riches of the sea.

And done right, anyone can catch a dozen keeper crabs in an afternoon for less than it costs to buy two in a market.

Virtually anyone can spend a day playing capture the crustacean at any of several Oregon port towns that cater to first-time or occasional crabbers.

For about $30, an Oregon adult can buy a resident shellfish license, rent three crab rings and buy bait, a bucket and a crab-measuring stick to get started at any of dozens of public crabbing docks along the coast.

"Consider that crab is going for $8.99 a pound and a good-sized Dungeness is about two pounds, that's a pretty good deal," says Joe Cook at Bite's On Bait and Tackle in Empire, a tiny burg along Coos Bay near Charleston.

"We'll rent you the rings, sell you the bait and give you some ideas how to use it," Cook says. "Then we'll point you down the street to a public dock. There's a lot of happy people doing it right now."

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2013 sold almost 150,000 resident annual shellfish licenses, which are required for in-state crabbers age 14 and older. Nonresidents bought about 33,000 annual or three-day licenses last year as well, so the docks are generally populated with a mix of experience.

Many first-timers rent gear and choose either chicken pieces, fish heads or frozen shad as bait. Many use chicken pieces or turkey legs because seals and sea lions are more likely to raid rings or traps baited with fish than fowl, a quirk the perpetually foraging crab don't seem to share.

Dropping baited rings off the dock during the incoming tide, then pulling them up after 10 or 15 minutes generally produces plenty of crabs. The pull has to be swift, steady and straight upward to give the Dungeness less of a chance to escape.

When using traps, many crabbers will drop their baited cages off the dock at the start of the incoming tide, then return in a few hours to pull the traps at high tide. Once crabs get inside a trap, they can't get out easily, so traps don't have to be pulled up as often as rings.

Once that ring or trap is flopped on the dock, the real fun begins.

Grabbing, measuring and either keeping or releasing the crabs is a free-for-all. The only crabbers not wearing thick rubber gloves are the greenest of newcomers. First, pick out those obviously smaller than the 5¾-inch minimum length (measured across their shell) of a "keeper" crab.

Those remaining are flipped to see whether they have the female's tell-tale rounded flap on their underside. Those, too, are released.

The remaining males get measured with the crab stick. Those big enough go into the bucket.

Simple enough. But all the while, sharp red pinchers are snapping at those gloved fingers.

If that's not enough entertainment, there's even more ways to capture crabs.

For about $5, you can buy a crab snare, which is a trap that is cast for crabs off the beach or dock using a stout fishing rod. Just put a piece of squid or other bait in the trap, cast it out and wait for the crab to ensnare itself before reeling in.

"It can be a real challenge getting them out of the snare," laughs Jim Carey, owner of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach. "It keeps the kids entertained. But a snare's also great to have if you don't have a boat or access to a dock. You can cast it off rocks into the open ocean when the ocean is open (to crabbing)."

The recreational season in the ocean opens Dec. 1 and runs through Aug. 14. Bays and estuaries are open year-round.

The best crabbing months are those that end in "R." Crabbing typically is best at high or low slack tides, and Dungeness are more plentiful in bays before storms instead of after storms, because they prefer the higher salinity of bay water that's not inundated by rain runoff.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

A red rock crab piggybacks on a Dungeness. - Courtesy Nancy McClain