Whidbey crabbers pinch themselves as season approaches

South Whidbey resident Kris Sanguino checks out the bait boxes at Ace Hardware Freeland. This will be Sanguino’s fifth season crabbing on the South End.

Hardware stores across the South End are fully stocked with the necessities: round and square pots, bait, buoys, bait boxes and lead line.

And they are going fast.

Crab season opens July 1 and runs through September 5. Hunting the succulent crustaceans is permitted throughout the season except for every Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Puget Sound is home to Dungeness and Red Rock crabs, both of which are free to catch and eat.

Whidbey Island is surrounded by three different marine areas designated by the department of fish and wildlife, all of which open on the same day. Marine area 9 covers Admiralty Inlet to the west and south of the island, whereas area 8-1 covers the Saratoga Passage from Deception Pass down to the South End. Area 8-2 covers the waters off Langley, Clinton and east towards Mukilteo.

Don Velasquez, fish and wildlife biologist for the department, said the areas surrounding Whidbey should all be well-stocked with Dungeness and Red Rock crabs this year. While the haul is usually even, Velasquez says there are hot spots traditionally.

“I would say, if you look at the recent track record, area 8-1 has the best supply,” Velasquez said.

Whidbey fishing/crabbing gurus agree.

“I think the area in Holmes Harbor and Greenbank is going to have a particularly great year,” said Jonathan Rich, the Ace Hardware sales associate also known as “the fish whisperer” within the store.

While crab populations in Puget Sound are believed to be bountiful, the fishery is regulated by the state. All sport crabbers are required to obtain a current Washington fishing license and acquire a crab endorsement. Endorsements can be purchased with the fishing license.

The rules are different between crab species.

For the larger and more desirable Dungeness, crabbers are required to fill out a catch record card before they drop their crab pots back into the water. The minimum size for caught crab is 6.25 inches with a limit of five males. All female, undersized and soft-shell crabs must be released.

For the smaller Red Rock crabs, the minimum size is five inches with a limit of six crabs of either sex. Soft-shell crabs must be tossed back into the water. If crabbers wish to clean their catch on the water, they must keep the back shell as proof of their catch.

Whidbey Islanders can expect a plentiful season this time around, according to Velasquez. Crabbers are coming off one of the best seasons Puget Sound has ever seen, especially in the marine areas surrounding the island. While those levels aren’t expected to be reached this year, experts say the prospects are looking good.

“Last year in the Whidbey/Camano area, it was a record year for harvest,” Velasquez said. “The early indication from test fishing is that it’s not quite as good as last year but it’s awfully close.”

As with nearly anything, methods for raking in the best harvest varies among crabbers. People have different ideas for what the best bait is: some utilize leftover salmon heads and guts, some use chicken scraps and others use turkey legs. Multiple scent products are sold to enhance the bait to help leave a stronger scent trail, which is crucial to luring in crab.

The stinkier the better, said Rich, and everybody has their own putrid mixture.

“The best thing for me, believe it or not, are turkey legs,” Rich said. “Bait is definitely a concoction that varies depending on the person. Everyone has their own recipe.”

Rich says bait storage is where many beginning crabbers make their first mistake. The key to reeling in scores of crabs is by leaving your bait in water and out of the freezer. He says the crab is turned off by freezer burn, which dulls the smell.

“A lot of people don’t realize that bottom feeders fully depend on their sense of smell,” Rich said. “That’s why having an oily scent trail is so important — so water can’t mix with the scent and make it dissipate.”

But bait recipes are only the first part of a successful crabbing equation. Experienced fishers would agree the real trick is knowing where the hotspots are, and incidentally that’s knowledge they’re much less willing to part with.

“You’d have to go and find out yourself,” said KeryJean Gehling, a floor associate at Ace Hardware.

Her best spot is a closely-guarded secret, and that likely won’t change anytime soon, she said.