On a sunny, T-shirt day in late October, I sit in the front of a tandem kayak on Siletz Bay just south of Lincoln City, a cage of raw chicken hearts, legs and livers on my lap. I'm on my first kayak crabbing expedition, and, other than a close proximity to discount chicken parts, I have no idea what to expect.
My partner in crime, Dave Hoffman, also a kayak crabbing newbie, pushes the boat away from the sandy shoreline and jumps in the back. "Let's head out toward that seal head," he says, indicating a glistening gray crown watching us from 50 yards away. Positioning our feet in the forward-backward pedals of our boat and our hands on the plastic switches that control the rudder, we maneuver into the bay to begin dropping the baited rings, which look a lot like oversized basketball hoops with enclosed nets. We are determined to catch crabs today—and we don't plan to go home until we do.
"You're an asshole!" yells Nathaniel Olken, the man who brought us to this bay today to introduce us to the sport of kayak crabbing. He's on his own kayak nearby and talking to a crab. A 32-year-old with green eyes and a red beard, Nathaniel wears a yellow splashguard under his personal flotation device and khaki-colored waders tucked into tall brown galoshes. An employee of Next Adventure outdoor store, the lifelong fisherman comes alive out on the water, enthusiastically answering all of our questions and talking smack to crabs that give him trouble.
Kayak crabbing and fishing involve the same techniques as the traditional sports, but from sit-on-top kayaks rather than powerboats. They originated about a decade ago in warm-water places like Southern California, Texas and Florida—and have been steadily growing in popularity in the Northwest over the past couple of years. "Even though we're behind the eight ball, we're catching up really fast," says Michael Rischer, an expert kayak fisherman from Portland who is sponsored by Hobie, Next Adventure and Korkers to serve as an ambassador for the sport. "It's a huge movement."
PADDLE MAN: Expert kayak fisherman Michael Rischer enjoys a float on Siletz Bay.
NorthWest Kayak Anglers, an online forum on which members exchange kayak fishing tips and information, had 800 members at the end of October, probably 300 to 400 from Oregon. Rischer said he prefers kayak to traditional fishing because it allows him to sneak up on his prey and navigate tight or shallow areas other boats can't go. He likes not having to license or trailer his boat or put money into gas. Plus, catching a fish from a human-powered craft can be downright thrilling, he says, recalling the 30-pound chinook that recently dragged his 60-pound Hobie craft on a "sleigh ride" around Nehalem Bay for 10 minutes before wearing out.
Now is a great time to hit the water for crabs—Dungeness and red around here, Rischer says, because the Oregon season runs during the months whose names end in "R"—September through December.
By the time Dave and I finish placing three rings about 20 yards apart, it's time to loop back and check the first for occupants. The sky above us is cloudless, hazy against the low hills in the distance, and a warm breeze carries the thick, salty smell of the ocean across the bay. Seagulls hover in the air above us and float in the water around our boat, at the ready in case we drop anything edible. Through the narrow opening to our right, I can see the waves of the ocean crashing white and a pod of harbor seals lazing in the shallow water by the shore.
Once Dave and I glide in to the red-and-white buoy marking the position of our first trap, I gingerly take up the slack in the rope. Finally, feeling resistance—the end of the slack—I yank the rope hard, hoisting it swiftly hand over hand to keep the crabs from escaping out the open top. I'm excited to see what it will contain; at this point, a jackpot is still completely within the realm of possibility.
The net emerges dripping from the water with eight frantic crustaceans inside. "Looks like some keepers!" Dave says, leaning forward to get a better view. I scoot as far back against my seat as I can and, though it grates against all my instincts, dump the eight crabs onto the floor between my legs. Inches from their flailing and rip-ready pincers, I'm grateful for the thick rubber gloves and wetsuit I'm wearing.
Following Nathaniel's instructions, I reach into the pile of shelled bodies, grab one from behind and hold it up. Under the smooth hood of its dark-purple carapace, the creature is a jumble of joints, serrations, spines and claws—prehistoric-looking. Its beady eyes, protruding like thick pencil tips from the front edge of its shell, stare straight ahead; its mouth parts open and close. I fit a neon green plastic caliper over the width of its shell. It's just barely smaller than the legal limit, 5.75 inches.
"Your youth has saved you," I say to the crab, tossing it over the edge of the boat. "Youth is wasted in crabs," Dave says, disappointed.
I work my way through the pile of crustaceans, returning the smaller ones and females to the water (the plate configuration on a crab's underside indicates its gender) and passing the larger males to Nathaniel, who puts them in the blue cooler on the boat behind him.
Rischer is sure the sport of kayak crabbing is on the verge of exploding. Traditional anglers are always intrigued when they see him fishing spots they can't get to, and tackle, rod, reel and wader companies have already started creating kayak versions of their products. "I think there'll be a time when you see more kayaks on the rivers than boats," he says.
All afternoon, Dave, Nathaniel and I make the rounds, checking and rechecking the traps, measuring, tossing, saving. Even if we hadn't been collecting food for dinner, the activity would have been fun.
"Even if you have a bad day fishing and don't catch anything," Nathaniel notes at one point, "you still get out and have a nice kayaking trip."
As the sun sinks toward the horizon, we begin to move our traps closer and closer to shore and finally, out of the water altogether. We count the crabs—33—tie the boats on top of the car and head home toward our kitchens.
So You Wanna Go Kayak Crabbing?
Freshwater locations include the Clackamas, Columbia, Willamette and Sandy rivers and Henry Hagg, Diamond and Crane Prairie lakes for winter and summer steelhead, coho and chinook salmon, small and largemouth bass, rainbow trout, sturgeon and walleye. Saltwater locations include Nehalem, Netarts, Siletz and Yaquina bays for Dungeness crab and salmon and the ocean for lingcod, salmon, cabazon, albacore tuna, halibut and some rockfish. Info at NorthWest Kayak Anglers (northwestkayakanglers.com) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (dfw.state.or.us).
Sit-on-top kayak: The Hobie MirageDrive pedal-powered boats are available for rent at Next Adventure for $50 (single) or $80 (tandem). Regular sit-on-top kayaks also work. Next Adventure rents these for $30 (single) or $40 (tandem) per day; Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe rents them for $50 per day.
Dry- or wetsuit: $10 a day from Next Adventure; $20 a day from Alder Creek.
Fishing license: A day license for shellfishing costs $7; available at Fred Meyer, Bi-Mart, Dick's Sporting Goods and Big 5 Sporting Goods and at dfw.state.or.us/resources/licenses.
More gear: PFD, crabbing rings or traps, fishing rods, bait, a caliper for crabbing and a cooler.
Next Adventure, 704 SE Washington St., 445-9435, nextadventure.net. Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, Portland Boathouse: 1515 SE Water St., 285-1819, and Jantzen Beach, 200 NE Tomahawk Island Drive, 285-0464, aldercreek.com.