Monday, June 5, 2017


back when we could find plenty of crab in nearby bays.
Scoop up crabs with a dip net at low tide.
Lower a few pots in the morning... and find them loaded with crab later that same day.
So simple! So much fun!

before the reintroduction of sea otters in our area in the late 1960's.
The intent was to bring the marine ecosystem
 back into balance. With unimaginable amounts of their favorite foods available, the sea otter population exploded.

Sea otters, unlike many other marine mammals, do not have a layer of fat for insulation.
To keep warm, sea otters have the densest of fur coats along with voracious, insatiable appetites. Yes, as you may have guessed, one of the sea otters' favorite foods is crab.

The good news? The sea otters have not yet eaten all of the crab! It may be necessary to travel further than you like. It may be necessary to spend a considerable amount of time testing the waters. But, eventually, you just might catch some crabs! Admittedly, it is often quite challenging. But, in the end, the crab you catch, cook and eat will be as delicious as ever!

Although pretty much all of the many species of crab in our area are edible, let's focus on three favorites.

DUNGENESS CRAB (Cancer magister)

Soon after arriving in Sitka, friendly locals invited us newcomers into their homes to share delicious local foods. Was I ever surprised to see the size of the dungeness crabs they shared! And, oh, that amazing flavor!!!

Out we went with new found friends and learned the basics of how, where and when to catch dungeness crab.
It was late summer... a great time to launch right into dip netting crabs at low tide. This particular approach to catching dungeness crab is often hilarious and great fun. Whether walking the flats, wading along the shoreline or skiffing close to shore, the crab tend to be elusive... scurrying, hiding and keeping you going in circles throughout the chase! 

If you find a good location, by the time the tide starts coming up, you just might get your quota of very large, male, dungeness crabs. Nowadays, for Alaska residents, the bag and possession limit per person is 20 males per day with a minimum size of 6 1/2 inches.

As so often happens in this part of the world, the photo below was taken with a rain spattered lens. 
Dipnetting on this particular occasion from a skiff, we dropped the crabs out of the net and into the bottom of the skiff. My sweet dog, Ru, quickly learned to keep his feet up off the floor of the skiff away from pinching crab claws!
                                                                                          photo by Hope Merritt

A lot of important information is contained in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's Southeast Alaska Sport fishing Regulations Summary.

For instance, NO harvest of female dungeness crabs is allowed. It is quite simple to learn and to see the difference between male and female dungeness crabs. Here is the visual from the above summary:

Here are real life shots of the abdominal flaps of male and female dungeness crabs:


Besides the abdominal flap being wider, the overall shape and color of the female dungeness crab is a little different from the male. Also, the females frequently host barnacles and are sometimes carrying a load of eggs under the abdominal flap. Females are often, but not always, smaller than the minimum size of 6 1/2 inches required for the male dungeness crabs:

When females are plentiful in a bay, it is not unusual to see countless young dungeness crabs feeding and growing in the shallow waters. The crabs in the photo below all measured about 3 to 4 inches.

When minus tides, good weather and plentiful crab in a bay coincide, we sure enjoy catching dungeness crab with a dip net. Because the odds are against that happening, we are more likely to catch dungeness crab with pots.

Crab pots come in lots of sizes and shapes. As many locals have done, we designed and made our own pots from time to time. It is not all that unusual to see old, abandoned crab pots in distant bays.

Whether home made or purchased, be sure to meet the important pot requirements explained in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's Southeast Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations Summary. 

After using a wide variety of crab pots over the years, we were most impressed with the performance of pots made by former Sitkan, Dennis Franson. He took the time to design and test some amazing crab and shrimp pots. SEA TRAPS is the name of his business. His pots (traps) are sold in marine supply stores in locations far and wide, including Sitka. Look at how effective his crab pots can be!

Of course, there are other factors that lead to success catching crabs in pots. 
What you use for BAIT really does matter. 

We save and freeze our own salmon heads and carcasses for crab bait. 
It doesn't always amount to much though.

When and if available from fishermen or processing plants, we like to get a few buckets of either black cod heads or salmons heads when we are heading out in our boat to go crabbing. Crabs seem to be especially attracted to oily fish waste.

Sometimes we need to catch bait for our pots when we are already out on the ocean in our boat. It is important to know which fish are okay to catch and use for bait in your crab pots.

On page 7 of the 2017 Southeast Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations Summary, there is a section with the heading 
Here it is:

Once you have bait for the pots, you will need to contain the bait inside the pots somehow. People have been really creative with home made bait pots. There are usually several bait pots to choose from in marine supply stores, too. 

We are inclined to use the orange sock-like netting found in spools in marine supply stores. We cut it to our chosen length and tie a knot on one end. 

After loading the bait into the socks, we hook one or two inside the pot so it dangles somewhere near the center of the pot.

Now... where to lower the pot to catch the crab?

If you do not already know of some bays where there is the likelihood of catching dungeness crab, don't be surprised or disappointed when other people are not willing to share this information with you! Most of the bays closest to town no longer yield much in the way of dungeness crab. 

You will clearly see if other people are already trying to catch crab in a bay because there will be commercial and/or sport buoys floating on the surface. The line connected to a crab pot is required to have a buoy on the other end. 

The buoy needs to have your:
  • first initial and last name
  • home address
  • AK number of the vessel or the vessel name

It is wise to have your line cut anywhere from one to two hundred feet. Best to have the type of line that does not float. If the line is plenty long, you can use it at a variety of depths. Depending on the time of year and the location of the bay, male dungeness crabs can be caught both shallow and deep. If time allows, it is worthwhile to experiment with depths and locations within a bay. 

We like to spend the night on our boat in the bay where our pots are soaking. That way, we can keep an eye on our pots... and give them plenty of time to attract crab.

For many years, we pulled our pots up out of the ocean by hand. We usually took turns until our children grew big and strong. Then they pulled the pots for us! 
Nowadays we have a larger boat than we had back in those days. And... Mr. Welsh installed a magnificent hydraulic pot puller on the back of our boat. I truly love that pot puller.

So, now that we soaked our baited pots overnight in a location likely to have crabs, we haul in the pots. It was a good location!

We lowered the pot to the floor of the boat at an angle with the pot gate open. Most of the crabs are willing to leave the pot on their own if they get to travel downhill.

When all of the crabs are out of the pot, we examine and measure each one carefully. The male keepers are placed in a container of salt water. We refresh the salt water frequently. We want to keep the crab contained and alive until we are ready to cook them.

The small males and all of the females are returned to the ocean. Down they go...


Whenever possible, we like to cook and clean our crab out on the back deck of our boat. The biggest benefit is the ease of washing away the mess we usually make. We like to process the crab soon after the catch. And, of course, we are always eager to eat fresh crab.

We keep a very large pot, a propane burner and a tank of propane stored safely away on our boat. Some people like to use ocean water to cook their crab. We like to cook our crab in salted, fresh water. Lucky for us, we have a large, fresh water tank on our boat. If we were not carrying fresh water, we would probably get fresh water from a nearby stream.

How much water and salt we use depends on how many crab we are going to cook. 
We use 1/4 cup of salt for each quart of water.
So, that adds up to 1 cup of salt for each 1 gallon of water.

We heat up our pot of salted water while we clean the crab. The water needs to be at a full rolling boil before we add the crab.

One at a time, we prepare the crabs to be boiled. We pull the  entire back off of the crab.

Most of the guts come away with the back. We break the body in half at the midline shaking out and pulling off any remaining guts. 

Because we caught our quota, we had a total of 40 crabs to cook. We filled our 10 gallon pot with 3 gallons of water and three cups of salt. We were able to cook all of the crabs in three separate loads using the same water. We simply brought the water to a boil before cooking each load. The dungeness crabs are nicely cooked after about 20 minutes in the pot. Notice we have a handy drain insert for our cook pot. It sure simplifies removing the cooked crab from the boiling water.

After removing a load of cooked crab, we immediately immerse the cooked crab in cold, fresh water for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. This ends the cooking process and causes the interior meat to withdraw from the shell somewhat. The crab sections are then stacked in a strainer with the open end of the cooked crab facing down so that the water drains out. 

When the crab is cracked open, the chunks of meat simply fall out. If not, simply give it a little shake.

Once a person develops their own method of cleaning the meat out of crabs, the challenge is to resist eating it all! 

We try to save some for the freezer.

Note: If you intend to transport more than one days' bag limit of crab on your boat, state regulations require that each days' bag limit be processed and frozen before catching any more crab. So, if we are having good luck crabbing far from home, we catch, cook, clean, package and freeze each day's catch on the boat. We purchased a small freezer and power it on our boat to accommodate the regulation. 

Our very favorite crab recipe is no recipe at all. We cook and eat the crab as is. Sometimes we get fancy and dredge the cooked morsels in lemon butter first before popping them in our mouth.

Once we have had our fill of the freshly cooked crab, we use some in recipes.

  • Crab, veggie and cheese quiche 
  • Crab cakes 
  • Salad topped with crab
  • Scrambled eggs with crab, cheese and veggies mixed in
  • A sandwich spread made with chunks of crab

I made a sandwich spread by adding some chopped chives, chopped beach asparagus and a little mayonnaise. 

Roll some of the mix up in a tortilla. Spread it on toast. Or roll it up in a large lettuce or mustard leaf.

If you are hungry for a crunchy, tasty treat, try cooking up some crab spring rolls. They are so worth the effort!

These lumpia wrappers work well:

Include your choice of ingredients. 

In the spring rolls below, I used:

  • a good amount of cooked crab 
  • a strip of cheddar cheese 
  • a few pieces of hot pepper to taste

I rolled it up (rolling instructions are on the wrapper box)

and then deep fried it in a few inches of vegetable oil at medium high heat. 
My favorite vegetable oils for frying are canola oil or avocado oil.
I cook three or four at a time in a medium sized, deep pot. The rolls only need to cook a minute or two on each side until golden brown. So flavorful!

RED KING CRAB (Paralithodes camtschaticus)
BLUE KING CRAB (Paralithodes platypus)
BROWN/GOLDEN KING CRAB (Lithodes aequispinus)

Of the three species of king crab, the red king crab is the species most likely to be found closest to Sitka.

Although the most likely areas nearby for catching red or blue king crab have been closed for about 10 years now, let's  include king crab in this post simply because it is so darn delicious!

Each year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does a summer survey throughout Southeast Alaska to determine the health of the king crab population. 

Unfortunately, numbers have remained low for many years. As a result, several areas are designated  CLOSED  to the red and blue King Crab personal use fishery. Thus, you will see in the Southeast Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations Summary a message to check in with your local ADF&G office for news releases and emergency info concerning the personal use king crab fishery. You will be able to obtain, usually in the month of June, a news release update about 


The personal use king crab fishery has traditionally been open each year from July 1st through March 31st of the following year. 

The popular PERIL STRAIT section of 11-A Personal Use Area has been closed for many years. It is the area that goes from Poison Cove up through all of Hoonah Sound (South and North Arms) and all of Peril Strait until it meets Chatham Strait. Unfortunately, this covers just about everywhere locals choose to go to catch king crab. 

It is possible, though unlikely, to catch an occasional king crab in your pots in the areas that have remained OPEN.

So, here is the explanation of how many king crabs you were allowed to have in your possession, caught from specified open areas, from July 1st through March 31st for the past several years. This year (beginning July 1, 2017) the regulations will likely be the same:

Each resident is allowed to have a total of 6 king crab per day. Only one of the six can be red or blue. Remember, red or blue king crab can only be caught in the annually designated open areas. The other 5 of the 6 crabs you are allowed to possess each day must be GOLDEN (also known as BROWN) king crabs. Golden king crabs are not often found anywhere close to Sitka. And, golden king crabs are commonly located far deeper than red or blue king crab...150 fathoms or more. 

When we were looking around for dungeness crab last summer,
 we caught a few red king crab.

Not only were they too small (less than 7 inches across the carapace) but we were in an area closed for red and blue king crab. 

So, back into the ocean they went...

To sum it all up, catching any king crab is a rare treat for most of us these days. 
Should the closed areas nearest to Sitka ever open again, more information about king crab will be added to this post.

Meanwhile, watch for the occasional commercial king crabber selling king crabs on the docks. What a treat!
COMMERCIAL KING CRAB FISHING LONG AGO ON THE F/V REIVER                    photo by Aaron Bean

(Chionoecetes bairdi and Chionoecetes opilio)

It is always such a pleasant surprise to pull up crab pots with some unexpected tanner crabs inside. We have rarely targeted tanner crabs, but enjoy seeing them when we are fishing for dungeness crabs.

The legal size for keeper tanner crabs is at least 5.5 inches straight across the back (carapace) including spines... MALES ONLY.

Alaska residents are allowed to take 30 male tanner crabs per day. Fishing for tanner crabs is open all year except for the brief closure from June 16 through June 30.

We clean and cook tanner crabs the same as dungeness crabs. They are good eating. But, we don't find them to be quite as flavorful as dungeness crabs.


Over the years, we have encountered a wide assortment of crabs in the intertidal zone and in our crab and shrimp pots. Here are a few:

HEART CRAB (Phyllolithodes papillosus)
The heart crab is super tiny. It definitely wins my prize for cutest crab.

(Munida quadrispina)
We see these little crabs mixed in with shrimp when we pull up our shrimp pots.

This little crab is adorned with a variety of life including seaweeds and sponges. 
Bad hair day?

ARCTIC LYRE CRAB (Hyas coarctatus)
We were surprised to see this medium sized spider crab come up in our shrimp pot.

These small spider crabs seem to enjoy hanging out with shrimp.

GAPER PEA CRAB (Pinnixa littoralis)
Because of the surface color, we often called these crabs "ghost crabs." They are pretty creepy little things. I say this because, when you are cleaning horse clams, out they creep. A male and female usually live in the mantle cavity of each fat gaper clam. You can see the outline of a gaper pea crab under the mantle at the knife tip.

A male and female gaper pea crab are outside of the shell in the photo below. A bunch more were placed in the shell after gathering them from other horse clams. 

ALASKAN HERMIT CRAB (Pagurus ochotensis)
We have come across lots of hermit crabs in various sizes and shapes. This Alaskan hermit crab is comparatively large.

Here are two of my favorite cook books for crab recipes. The author of SHELLFISH COOKERY, John Doerper, uses all sorts of crabs, including creepy pea crabs, in his recipes!

Wishing you the best of luck fishing for crab!


  1. I would like to add when harvesting Dungeness crab throw the ones back that have shinny white under their legs. They have just molted and have no meat in them.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Richard. Good for the crab and good for people to know how to identify recently molted crab. It is so disappointing to go to the trouble of catching and cooking only to crack open a nearly empty crab.