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How to catch Dungeness crab from the beach

June 20, 2012

Live Dungeness Crab

Cold winds, heavy equipment and dodging park police – every time I go crab fishing from the beach I deal with at least two of these things. It’s worth it once you can taste that perfectly fresh, buttery strip of crab meat from a creature that was just fighting you 20 minutes ago. This is why I like to catch my own Dungeness crab. Most people think to catch them in a net from the pier, but those who want the big ones will catch them from the beach. Here’s some tips on how you can too..

On any given day, at least 40 groups of people line Pacifica Pier during crab season each year. If you think about how many large crabs are under the pier at that moment, you begin to realize your prospects of a decent crab haul are pretty slim. This is what draws me to more isolated beaches with a snare and fishing pole in hand. With the added regulations, extra equipment and skill requirements, the barrier to entry is high enough to deter most from doing it this way. Besides, who has heard about catching crab with a fishing pole?


Like every government document, the California fishing regulation book is the size of a small novel and reads like a terms of service brochure. However, if you don’t follow them you can get a big ticket, especially since fishing laws don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Since I read them every year, here’s what you need to know:

  • California’s recreational Dungeness crab season starts in November and typically lasts into June. Keep an eye on the Department of Fish and Game calendar for the season’s start/end times.
  • You can only keep up to ten Dungeness crabs that are a minimum of 5-3/4 inches in width, and you must have a measuring device on you. This can even be a 2×4 piece of lumber cut to 5-3/4 inches, as long as it’s accurate. You also need to learn how to measure a crab.
  • You can’t catch them anywhere in California. For starters, the entire San Francisco/San Pablo bay is closed to Dungeness crab harvest year-round.


If you’re not deterred by regulations, here’s the equipment that you’ll need:

  • Crab Snare. Not all crab snares are equal- try to find one which has weights attached, and a slim profile. Think local bait shop before big box store.
  • Fishing license. 1-day, 2-day and annual are all available, and you can buy them online.
  • Bait such as frozen squid or sardines. Most recommend squid because of how well it holds in the bait cage when crabs are picking at it. Sardines typically turn to mush too quickly, but they can sometimes be the flavor of the day for big crabs.
  • 9 – 12 foot fishing pole with a medium-heavy or heavy action
  • 25 – 30 lb. test fishing line
  • Waders (or waterproof boots, at least)
  • Crab measuring device
  • A 5-gallon bucket

Before you go

There’s just a couple more things you need to know before heading out:

  • Keep an eye on the ocean conditions. Having a high ocean swell is good for surfing, but prone to knocking crabs off of your snare are you’re reeling them in. It could also mean the difference between you having a comfortable, dry trip and one where you’re soaked. Winter weather can be unpredictable, so I like to look on sites like Swellinfo. Anything “waist”-high or lower is ideal, which is about 3-4 feet.
  • Know the tides. While you can catch crabs on any tide, I have more success on incoming tides (when the water level is rising). This makes sense since the water is pushing food closer to shore, which the crabs follow.


Now that you’re an expert you need to find a beach. Dungeness crab typically reside in sandy environments, but keep in mind there has to be a food source nearby as well – think a rocky area that leads to a sandy environment, or anywhere that’ll collect nutrients in the ocean.

Once at your beach, load up your snare with bait and pack it as tightly as you can. Walk up to the shore and wade as far into the water as you’re comfortable. Cast the snare out into the waves ahead of you – keep in mind that if crabs are around you don’t need a huge cast, but you want to get your snare beyond the first set of breakers so the waves don’t move it around too much.

After casting, open the bail and go back up the beach. Once you’re in position, close the bail and reel in the line slack. If your snare has enough weight and the waves aren’t too big, you won’t feel the snare moving much. If your line goes slack or the current pulls too much, you’ll either need more weight on the snare or it needs to be re-cast further.

If you’re content with your snare position, wait between five and ten minutes to reel in your catch. With a snare, you’ll need to “set the hook” to get a good grip on the crab’s legs. Start moving towards the water with the rod tip pointed down, reeling up the slack as you go (just be careful not to pull the snare). Once you’re near the edge of the water, pull back in a sharp, fluid motion so the snare gets pulled quickly – this closes the loops around the unsuspecting crabs’ leg. Start reeling immediately and consistently. You can’t let the line go slack for a second, or else the crab will be released. If the reeling is getting too difficult, start walking backwards up the beach. This keeps the line tight while you struggle to keep reeling.

Dungeness crab snared

You’ll know you have a crab if reeling is much more difficult than reeling in the snare alone. If it feels empty, stop reeling immediately and just let the snare drop back down to the bottom. Otherwise, keep going until the crab is safely on the beach. Measure it before going too far, so you can easily release it. If it’s 5-3/4 inches or larger, congratulations! Fill your bucket with some fresh seawater and put the crab in there. The crabs will use up all the oxygen in the water quickly, so try to change the water every 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how many crabs you have).

Cooked Dungeness Crab

Finally you’re left with the fun task of hauling a bucket of crabs and your equipment back up the beach. This after you’ve worked your arms off reeling them in from the ocean. But nobody said getting the freshest crab possible was easy!

  • Kim’s Kitchen Sink

    This seems kind of complicated, but so worth it!

    • Ryan

      It’s supposed to be complicated, so only people who put in the effort can enjoy it :-)

  • MHazell

    I love eating crab meat, and sea food in general. Always like it when I get to eat crab legs. All of that work is worth it.

    Also @ryanvalentin:disqus I see that you activated Disqus 2012 here. Have you visited my website recently? If you or any member of the Disqus team likes Linux, I suggest they look at this post:

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