West Coast Gold
Fishing for Dungeness crabs on the Columbia River
They fling the lines into the swells, and within minutes, the ends of their poles are quivering with the telltale nibbles of unseen critters, hidden in the deep.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES
“This is West Coast gold,” Phil Allen says gleefully as he plops a Dungeness crab the size of a dinner plate into a five-gallon bucket. We’re perched on a shoulder of boulders that comprise the North Jetty of the Columbia River’s vast mouth, where it thrashes into the Pacific Ocean at Cape Disappointment.
Phil and his close friend David Campiche, both locals and hobbyist fishers, are teaching me and photographer Noah Forbes how to fish for Dungeness, the Pacific Northwest’s prized crab. It’s September when we visit, and the crabs are hitting their peak.
We start our morning with a trip to the Dennis Company, where we pick up supplies. The hardware store along the main drag in Long Beach sells everything you need for a day on the water, including the proper licensing. Phil takes us over to the fishing aisle, where he loads up a basket with bait pellets, two types of crab traps that we’ll affix to the end of our fishing poles, and five-ounce lead weights to help the traps sink to the river floor, where the crabs are hiding.
Though we only have two fishing poles among the four of us, Phil tosses a few extra traps in the basket; as beginners, we’re especially likely to irreparably snag a trap or two on the jetty rocks.
To nab Dungeness on the Columbia River, fishers must possess a Washington or Oregon resident license and a shellfish license, sold in one-, two-, and three-day increments, as well as on an annual basis. In Long Beach, the Dennis Company sells the proper licenses
Washington doesn’t restrict crab fishing on the Columbia to any particular season, but Phil explains that the best time to go is in the fall, before the commercial season opens in December.
“From October to December, there are very few days that we can’t get our limit on the jetty,” says Phil, referring to the state-mandated limit of 12 male crabs per person, per day.
When the commercial season kicks off, the river is clogged with fishers, and the crab populations dwindle noticeably. By spring, the population has rebounded enough that the recreational fishers are back on the jetty.
After we finalize our purchases, Phil and David drive us out to Cape Disappointment State Park, where we’ll access the jetty. The park earned its gloomy name in 1788, when English fur trader John Meares was searching for the river’s mouth. He sailed into it, but he mistook it for a bay and immortalized his dismay in naming the headlands.
We time our arrival at the jetty with the incoming high tide, as the crabs tend to burrow in the sand during low tide. On this balmy, sunny day, the cape is anything but disappointing as a backdrop. Massive swells barrel towards 700-foot-high cliffs spiked with old-growth evergreens. The swells shatter at the foot of the black-and-white-striped Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, sending spray nearly to its base. We position ourselves and our gear halfway down the jetty’s rocks.
Phil and David skewer frozen razor clams onto the spikes inside the traps; they claim this is the best bait to use, though fish innards, fish heads, and chicken gizzards will also get the job done. They fling the lines into the swells, and within minutes, the ends of their poles are quivering with the telltale nibbles of unseen critters, hidden in the deep.
Both men begin reeling furiously, careful to keep their poles pointed skyward. The first crabs break the water’s surface, pincers grasping for flesh. Phil fearlessly plucks from the trap a massive male with a smaller crab hanging on for dear life. Holding the crabs from behind to avoid the claws, we measure the shells at their widest to make sure they meet the minimum size of 5.75 inches. Smaller crabs get tossed back into the drink, as do any females, which are recognizable by a wider “apron,” a flap on the underside of the shell. . State law also prohibits keeping soft-shell crabs.
Noah and I are up next. I’ve never cast one of the long, heavy surf rods — necessary to help the bait clear the jetty’s rocks — but the casting motion for me is like riding a bike. I grew up fishing in Louisiana, but this process of landing crabs on the end of a fishing pole is most definitely a first for me.
We use two different types of traps: The most popular among the regulars is a mesh bait-box the size of a Rubik’s Cube, with plastic loops dangling off the sides. When you start reeling, the force of the water closes the loops around any crab legs that have made their way through. It feels a bit like playing the claw crane in an arcade, only completely blind.
The second contraption is a mesh book that hinges in the middle, where the bait is stored. As long as you keep your pole pointed up as you reel, the book clamps closed on any crabs inside it.
Noah and I give the process a try. We cast our traps as far into the heaving sea as possible and then settle in for the delicate process of waiting for a nibble and reeling in the crabs. As high tide approaches, the bites become more fervent and frequent, and we’re soon nearing our catch limit. We do end up entangling a couple of traps on the rocks, and they’re too close to the surf to safely retrieve them. A simple slice of the fishing line, and we’re back in business.
As we fish, sea foam-green swells break at our feet. The air smells of salt and sun-baked rocks. A bald eagle fishes a hundred yards out, and a sea lion pokes its head up to investigate our group. The dorsal fin of a porpoise breaks the sea’s surface.
Though the crabs are plentiful, hauling them in takes some practice. I find the poles heavy and hard to hold upright, especially when reeling in against the significant force of the water. And it’s tough to clear the rocks, both to avoid snagging the trap or smashing the crabs against them on the way up.
But the simple act of netting a crab is exhilarating, and I can see why Phil and David find it so addicting that they’re out here several times a week when they’re not mushrooming or clamming. “It’s a foraging heaven,” Phil says. “We keep ourselves pretty well fed here.”
I reflect on the abundance of crabs piling up in our buckets; this is not a treasure to be taken for granted. Back in 2015, high levels of a potentially deadly toxin in Dungeness crabs delayed the start of the commercial fishing season for large swaths of California, Oregon, and Washington. Soon after our trip officials in California announce an indefinite moratorium on crabbing for Dungeness along a 200-mile stretch of its northern coast; Oregon, too, closes crabbing on a stretch of its southern coast. The Columbia River’s recreational crabbing is unaffected during both closures, and our haul is safe to eat.
As the sun’s rays weaken, we tote our supplies back up the jetty and head to a picnic table in the park, where we clean the crabs and ready them for a pot of boiling water. Then, we sit down to enjoy crab cakes made by Phil’s wife, Nancy. When our boiled catches are ready, we pry them apart, dipping the sweet meat into melted butter — a fittingly satisfying way to end our adventure.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.