Dropping Pots: Talking Crabbing with Nate Watters

Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by Nate Watters

Tying a fish head to a cage and dropping it to the bottom of the sea only to pull it up again hours later could seem like an exercise in futility, but around the world, people do this daily in search of that hard-shelled treasure known as crab. From the back bays of Maryland, the wild waters of the Bering Sea and Washington’s Puget Sound, people head out, and drop a pot along with a hope and a prayer it will come up full. With the popularity of shows like The Deadliest Catch, there is more awareness around crabbing than ever before, and while most weekend warrior’s crabbing experiences are a bit more relaxed and much less deadly, the thrill of the catch remains.

Every morning around the Puget Sound from July to September you can watch people leaving the marina with a stack of crab pots on their boat, out to drop them early only to return later in the day with hopes of a motherlode. Nate Watters is one of those people. As someone who spends his time outdoors fishing, hunting and foraging for berries, Nate has a real connection to nature and an appreciation for the food he harvests. We had a chance to pick Nate’s brain about crabbing, get some tips on catching it, and learn the most important lesson of all: always make sure to tie your pot off to a buoy.  

What got you interested in crabbing? Was it something you grew up doing or started doing once you were older?

I remember crabbing as a kid, but not on a super-regular basis or anything. I grew up salmon and steelhead fishing with my dad here in Washington, so as a fishing family in the northwest, we definitely ventured into other related activities like crabbing and clam digging fairly often. As a kid, crabbing is a thrill—you always pull something up, even if it’s not crab. There’s all sorts of stuff down there to catch.

Once I moved to Seattle as an adult, I was immediately drawn back to crabbing. I started out using the cheap old crab traps from my childhood home, and they worked great. The idea you can so easily catch your own food just a few minutes from home while enjoying the scenery of the Puget Sound is still amazing to me. And I still get a kick out of it like I did as a kid. Every time you pull up a pot, that same sense of anticipation and excitement comes back.

 

Can you talk about how the crab we have in the Puget Sound is unique compared to other places?

The two main species of crab found in the Sound are Dungeness and Red Rock crab. Dungeness is what people really want to catch (they’re the ones you see on display in Pike Place Market), and in my opinion the flavor can’t be beat. I would dare to say even better than lobster. Red Rocks are very tasty as well–but people are less inclined to keep them since they’re smaller and their shells are hard as….rocks. I’ve always wanted to try Blue Crabs, which are found on the East Coast around Maryland, etc.

Can you give us a quick rundown of the gear and tools needed to go crabbing?

Crabbing can be done from a pier or from a boat. Both can be highly effective, but require slightly different setups.

We have a boat, so we have multiple pots, which allows us to get out to deeper water and drop pots for longer periods of time, even overnight if we want, resulting in (hopefully) higher catch rates. If you have a kayak or even a SUP, you can  access deeper and less-fished waters. A crab cage or pot setup is ideal. These have doors on them that let crabs in, but not out. You’ll need 100’ of leaded line (rope that sinks so boats don’t run it over), and a crab float/buoy so you can find your pot after you leave it for awhile. There are many ways to put bait in a pot, but most involve a mesh bag or basket that straps to the bottom interior in someway. An optional but highly recommended accessory for crabbing in more open water is weight on your crab pot. You can buy fancy plastic-coated lead weights, but you can just as easily use old metal pipe, scuba weights or even bricks. This will prevent the pots from drifting in currents and tides. The overall cost of this type of setup is a little higher, but the payoff is potentially much higher.

For crabbing from a pier, all you really need is a basic crab ring or trap (a full cage or pot isn’t necessary for crabbing from a pier), 100’ of rope and some bait. Head to one of the many marina piers around Seattle, toss it out, tie it off to the railing, and kick back with your favorite beverage, checking it every 15-20 minutes. Crab traps come in a lot of different styles and various levels of build quality, but really, any of them will work—you just have to find what fits your needs. Just remember, saltwater is not friendly to fishing gear, so if you think you’ll be going often, it might pay to invest in higher quality gear. Always rinse gear with freshwater after you get home.

Once you catch crab, measure them to see if they’re keepers with a crab gauge. I recommend splurging on the $8 aluminum one, as the plastic ones tend to break easily. A good crab gauge will not only measure your crab, but will also have printed on it the other info you’ll need to know, like how to tell what sex the crab is, (for Dungeness, only males can be kept) and what size they need to be to keep in different states.

Once you get some keepers, you need to keep them alive until you cook them. The best way to do this is keeping them in a cooler with a wet towel over them, or maybe some ice blocks. Cold and damp, with a little airflow is good, but never a bucket full of water—they’ll eventually just use up all the oxygen and die. If a crab dies, it releases toxins into its muscle tissue that can make you pretty sick if you eat it.

What about bait, what have you found works best?

Personally, I like to use salmon carcasses from fish we catch. They work great, and it helps me feel a little less wasteful when I’m processing our catch. Sometimes you can get them from fish markets or even the meat department at the grocery store. If you don’t have access to salmon carcasses, chicken works great. Turkey necks are also good. I’ve even used beef parts in a pinch. Crabs will eat just about anything.

 

Crab pots get dropped off then picked up later while fishing is more of a continuous effort. Can you talk about how the experience of crabbing is different than fishing?

Depending on the type of fishing you do, crabbing can be quite different. But if you’re used to fishing with a bobber and a night crawler on a lake with a beer and a lawn chair, you’ll do great crabbing. It’s not only a guessing game on where to do it, but very much a waiting game. If you’re used to river or stream fishing, where a lot of hiking and constant casting is involved, you’ll either be restless while crabbing or you’ll find it extremely relaxing. I highly suggest the latter. Like fishing, a lot of times it’s not about the catch, it’s about the experience.

 

How would you say crabbing from the pier is different than going out in a boat in Puget Sound?

Crabbing from a boat definitely opens up options in terms of areas to go. You can get to deeper water where there are typically more crab, especially later in the summer, and you can crab in areas where no one else is around, making for a bit more solitude on the water, which is always nice. You might work a little harder with the additional gear, but you also have the option of leaving pots out longer, giving crabs a good chance to come check out your bait offerings.

Pier fishing has it’s perks, too. There is still crab to be found and you’ll almost always make a new friend or two out there, as someone is almost always out there. The gear needs are a little simpler, and you can always bring a couple camp chairs and a little cooler with snacks and beverages to camp out for a few hours.

How would you describe the anticipation of pulling up a crab pot and waiting to see what’s inside it? Have you ever felt like you’re hauling in the motherlode then it turns out to just be seaweed or something?

Every time you pull up a pot, it’s the same feeling. Even after years of doing it. “How many crab will be in there? Any? Is it light? Is it heavy?” I’ve heard stories of people catching fish in their pots. I’ve caught giant Sunflower Seastars before. They’re about 18 – 24 inches across and have 20 or so legs. They’re pretty wild. We were pulling up pots in the boat once and there was one I couldn’t get to move—just wouldn’t budge no matter what. We had to drive the boat to break it loose. When we pulled it up it was covered with some kind of slime and seaweed. It may have just been jellyfish or something, but I like to think it was some kind of giant sea monster.

 

If someone wanted to drop some pots and catch some crab, what is the number one thing they should remember before sliding their pot over the side and into the sea?

  1. Did you bait the pot/trap?
  2. Did you bait the pot/trap?
  3. Make sure the end of your rope is tied to the pier, or if you’re out in a boat, make sure the end is tied to a buoy. Double check. Every time.

 

Can you give us a few tips on some accessible options around Western Washington that are good places to start crabbing?

Almost any of the marinas in the area have piers that will work. Head north. Stay out of Elliott Bay—I don’t think there is much in the way of crab in Elliott Bay anyway, but if you know the history (and current state) of the Duwamish waterway and Elliott Bay, you won’t want to eat anything off the bottom of the Sound in that area. Edmonds, Ballard and Kingston all have good piers. The further from people you go, the better the crabbing will be. It could always be worth a trip to an island. The closer to the ocean, the better. I’ve already said too much, now go explore!

If you’re in a boat, the options are nearly endless. Watch the tides and remember the length of your line—you don’t want to lose your gear. If you see a lot of boats fishing, keep your crab gear away from them unless you want to make some enemies real fast. ALWAYS read, understand and follow the fishing regulations. Our city is getting bigger and bigger with more and more people getting into fishing and crabbing. Regulations are in place to help control overfishing and keep populations of these resources growing so we can continue to enjoy these activities.

There seems to be a real communal aspect to a crab bake, how do you think that experience came to be and what does it mean to you?  

I don’t know where that tradition started. I think seafood boils and the like may have originated in the south or maybe up in the New England area as well. It’s a great activity and I don’t’ think people do it enough. Everything from catching and cooking the crab, to cracking all those shells and eating all the meat. It’s hard work and the more help you have, the better off you are. Gotta eat it fresh, so invite all your friends!

Every summer I have a friend come out from Montana for some Washington fishing and crabbing. He comes out at just the right time for the Coho salmon season and for crabbing to be pretty good. He’ll usually bring some kind of meat from one of his recent adventures—usually venison—this year it was Kudu steaks from Namibia. After a day of fishing, we’ll boil up some crabs, throw a salmon filet on the grill alongside the venison and have a perfect little surf-n-turf feast. We’ll usually top it off with something involving blackberries, since blackberries are peaking right about then and we like to spend a day or two picking them. I call it the Northwest Trifecta—salmon, crab and blackberries. It’s available for 2-3 short weeks is the best part of summer if you ask me. Nothing even comes close.

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