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Capture the crustacean

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CHARLESTON — With three crab rings and a bag of frozen tuna in hand, Rob Gensorek walks out of his Basin Tackle store and across the parking lot to a public dock to prove just how simple it is to catch a Coos Bay crustacean in winter.

One by one Gensorek gently lowers the baited rings into the water from an open dock slip, ties the rope to the dock and begins the toughest part of dock crabbing — waiting.

“I hate waiting,” he says. “I’m like an ADD-squirrel, so about the time I get my third crab ring out, I’m pulling in the first one.”

Distraction gets the better of Gensorek in about five minutes, but it doesn’t matter.

He quickly pulls up the first ring and it is awash in crabs, mostly smaller red rock crabs and a few of the true treasure of Oregon bays — Dungeness crabs.

“Crabbing is just that easy,” Gensorek says. “This is about as easy as it gets.”

Crabbing off docks in Oregon estuaries such as Coos Bay and Bandon is one fun way Oregonians can rely on themselves to create their traditional holiday crab feasts without owning any crabbing gear, having access to a boat or knowing any tricks to capturing the Northwest’s iconic crustacean.

You can rent crab rings and buy bait from people like Gensorek, so anyone who can pull a rope can crab off public docks like those in Charleston on Coos Bay.

Drop the ring off the dock, wait about 15 minutes, then pull the ring to the surface and you’re guaranteed to catch at least a few small Dungeness and perhaps a handful of red rock crabs. The only question is whether they will be keepers.

Although red rock crabs are delicious to eat — some people even prefer them — “it’s the Dungeness that everybody’s after,” Gensorek says.

And to get a true Oregon Dungeness in time for the holidays this year, you’ll have to do it yourself.

Oregon’s commercial crab fleet, which traditionally starts fishing Dec. 1, has been delayed until at least Jan. 1 to give Dungeness a chance to fill out with more meat.

Because of domoic acid levels found in south coast Dungeness, the ocean and bays south of Port Orford are closed to crabbing, but bays north of there are open for sport crabbing, and Coos Bay literally is crawling with crabs.

“You’re guaranteed, basically, to catch something but not always something you can keep,” Gensorek says. “That’s the beauty of dock crabbing.”

Coos Bay is the closest of Oregon’s best crabbing bays, joining Tillamook and Yaquina bays as the best year-round crabbing destinations.

Months ending in R are considered best. Also, more crabs typically are found in bays between storms, when salinity levels are highest in bays and freshwater runoff is low.

It’s best to dock crab on the incoming tide, especially the period from an hour before to an hour after high tide. Each licensed crabber can use up to three rings. Any fish can be used as bait to catch crabs, which hunt by scent. Many people like to use chicken or turkey, because those meats don’t attract seals or sea lions, which are the bane of anyone trying to catch fish or crustaceans in Oregon estuaries.

“Tuna, rockfish, clams, a lot of people like chicken,” Gensorek says. “There really isn’t a meat that won’t catch crab.”

Gensorek likes to use chicken breasts soaked with squid juice.

“Crabs love squid, but seals and sea lions don’t,” Gensorek says. “I guess I just gave away the secret bait.”

“The more bait, the better, always,” Gensorek says. “The more bait, the bigger the scent trail.”

Only male Dungeness crabs can be kept, and their shells must measure at least 5-3/4 inches across. To tell males from females, turn the crabs over and look at their bellies. Males have a triangular shape on their abdominal flap, while the flap on females is more rounded, kind of like an igloo.

Crabbing is fairly inexpensive. A shellfish license costs $10 a year for Oregon residents, and shops such as Basin Tackle will rent a ring, bucket and crab-measuring gauge for $12.50 for two days. Numerous stores in the Rogue Valley sell crab rings and crab traps, as well as gauges and bait.

The daily limit is 12 male Dungeness of legal size. You can keep up to 24 red rock crabs regardless of size or sex.

“Red rock crab are really good, a sweeter meat,” Gensorek says. “They’re as tasty as all get-out. Pound for pound, I prefer them to Dungeness.”

Gensorek says he prefers using rings to traps. The rings are lowered into the water and tied to the dock with at least three feet of slack to account for any change in tides.

Because crabs can walk in and out of a ring, you’ll want to pull it up every 15 or 20 minutes to check on it and rebait if necessary.

If you use a crab trap, you can leave it out there for several hours — maybe lower it at the start of the incoming tide and check it just after high tide — because the crabs can’t get out once they’re in.

When you pull the rings up, do it with enough force to keep the crab pinned in the ring.

“You have to work them a little harder, but that’s part of the fun,” Gensorek says.

Then the hard work begins.

Sorting the crabs and getting the undersized or unwanted crustaceans safely back into the water is what separates the successful from the feeble. The pinchers are fast, but the trick is to be faster than the crab.

Some people use heavy rubber gloves to handle crabs, but Gensorek eschews protection. He grabs a free leg between his thumb and two fingers, pitching the crab either into the bucket or the bay in one quick move.

“They’re feisty. If they get ya, you’re going to feel it,” he says.

Gensorek is a Texas transplant who traveled from the oil fields to Charleston to crab for 13 years as a tourist before he bought Basin Tackle seven years ago.

“It’s definitely one of those ‘If I can do it, you can do it’ deals,” Gensorek says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Asher Strong, 4, and Benson Strong, 4, of North Bend, check out crabs caught by Rob Gensorek at a public dock in Charleston.
PHOTO BY NANCY MCCLAIN Crab gauges, readily available at bait stores, are used to measure Dungeness crabs, which must be at least 5-3/4 inches across.