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Fishing 101

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How to harvest shellfish

Washington offers a banquet of shellfish, from Puget Sound crab to razor clams found on Pacific coast beaches, along with other clam species, oysters and shrimp. Fishing for some shellfish species can be pursued with equipment as simple as a bucket and shovel, while others involve specialized equipment.

Like other forms of fishing, a state recreational license is required for shellfishing in Washington. Licenses can be purchased online or at retail outlets statewide.

Current shellfishing consumptions advisories from the state Department of Health are available on the toll-free DOH Shellfish Safety Hotline at 1(800) 562-5632 or online at the DOH Marine Biotoxin website.

Suitable beaches for clam and oyster digging can be found at our shellfishing beaches website.

Before heading out, it’s important to check fishing rules and seasons. Rule changes also are available by phone on WDFW’s Shellfish Rule Change Hotline at 1-866-880-5431

Pictures and illustrations of shellfish species, gear and harvest methods can be found on Shellfishing website. Here’s an overview of shellfish harvesting techniques:

  Clams, Cockles and Mussels
Most anglers go for the meaty Pacific razor clam, although smaller clam species are also available in Washington. Five Pacific coast beaches are periodically open to clam digging, depending on tides and marine-toxin levels. Approximately eight digs—usually for a few days each— are held from fall through spring. Razor clams are found in the sand of intertidal coastal beaches (those exposed at low tides ranging from a +3-foot level to a -2-foot tide level on tide charts).   To find your clam, first look for a "clam show" — a hole or dimple in the sand where a clam has withdrawn its neck or started to dig. Clams also show at the edge of the surf line when you pound the beach with a shovel handle or your foot. They may squirt sand and water out of the hole. You need to be quick when digging in the surf because razor clams dig quite fast in the soft, fluid sand.  Razor clams can be dug with a clam shovel or a clam tube. Remember that proper digging improves your catch rate and reduces the chance of breaking the clam shells. That’s important because catch limits include all clams taken, regardless of condition.

Littleneck, horse and butter clams, cockles, mussels
These shellfish are available on a number of public beaches listed in the WDFW "Fishing in Washington" pamphlet and are found on intertidal beaches of mixed sand, gravel, and mud. Except for the larger butter clams, rakes are usually most effective for gathering clams and cockles, and are less damaging to the clams and the beach. Butter clams are normally buried between 8 to 14 inches deep, requiring the use of shovels or digging forks. Clams must be at least 1.5 inches wide to be legally harvested. Mussels are found in groups, attached to rocks or seaweed on Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean beaches. They are easily gathered by hand and there is no minimum size limit. Once harvested, place your catch in a bucket and cover with a damp cloth. Always fill in your clam holes. 

Geoducks
The geoduck is the world's largest burrowing clam, reaching an average size of 1.9 pounds in subtidal waters of Puget Sound. Natural beds of geoduck exist on many public beaches in Washington, but are seldom exposed except at tides lower than about -2.0 feet. Only Puget Sound and Hood Canal contain abundant populations. Geoduck clams are found buried two to three feet deep in mud, sand, or gravel. The gaping, oblong shell is white with concentric rings, and generally has thin patches of flaky brown covering at the edges. The siphon and mantle are so large that they cannot be withdrawn into the shell. Recreational digging on public beaches is permitted only when the clam season on a particular public beach is open. Because clam seasons vary from beach to beach, and from year to year, check the annual "Fishing in Washington" rules pamphlet. Harvesting geoduck can be difficult, but rewarding. With the proper equipment, practice, and a willingness to get thoroughly wet and dirty, just about anyone can bring home this iconic and tasty "king clam." Complete details are located on our Geoduck website.

Oysters

Pacific oysters aren’t "caught" so much as simply collected. They’re found on intertidal beaches, usually in groups attached to one another or a solid object like a rock or shell. The legal minimum size for oysters on all tidelands is 2.5 inches. Small Olympia oysters often attach to Pacific oyster shells, so be sure to shuck all your oysters on the beach and leave the shells there. The only equipment needed to collect them are sturdy gloves to protect your hands and a bucket. More information on oysters is available on the Oysters website

Crab
Several species of crab are found in Washington's marine waters and along its shores, but the two favorites are Dungeness and red rock crab.

Dungeness crab can reach 10 inches across the back, although six to seven inches is more common. In Puget Sound this crab is most abundant north of Seattle, in Hood Canal, and near the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Dungeness crab is frequently associated with eelgrass beds and prefers sandy or muddy substrates.

Red rock crab usually measures less than six inches across the back and has large claws. It can be distinguished from the Dungeness by its black-tipped claws and its red color. Although it is less meaty than the Dungeness, red rock crab meat is tasty. The red rock crab also prefers rocky areas, as its name implies.

Some of the most productive crabbing is in Birch Bay, off Neptune Beach just north of Lummi Island, Samish Bay, Padilla Bay near Anacortes, Utsaladdy Bay on Camano Island, Port Susan, Hood Canal and Dungeness Bay.

  • Crab pots are commonly used to catch Dungeness crab in Puget Sound and can be bought or made. They are constructed by wrapping netting or wire mesh over an iron frame in which one or two funnel-shaped openings, called tunnels, are provided for crab to enter. Rapid exit from the pot is prevented by a 'trigger' device. Two escape rings, 4¼-inches in inside diameter, are required on all crab pots with tunnel triggers.

    All crab pots must be equipped with a biodegradable escapement device consisting of either: (1) a pot lid hook or tiedown strap secured by a single loop of cord, (2) a 3- by-5-inch escape panel sewed into the upper half of the pot with cord, or (3) a pot lid or one pot side (serving as a pot lid) secured by no more than three single loops of cord. Cord must be untreated, 100 percent cotton or other natural fiber no larger than thread size 120 or 1/8-inch. This cord, when attached as described above, will rot away and allow crab to escape freely if the pot is lost.

    Crab pots are generally baited with herring, rockfish carcasses, salmon heads, or clams, then set in water 20-150 feet deep (they must be placed below the lowest tide line) and located by the line buoy. Sport crabbers must attach red and white marker buoys. These must be legibly and permanently marked with the operator's first name, last name and address. Buoy lines must be weighted sufficiently to prevent them from floating on the surface.

  • Ring nets are baskets made from two iron hoops and cotton or nylon mesh. When lowered to the bottom, both rings lie flat to permit crabs quick access to the bait that is tied to the bottom meshes. When the ring net is hauled rapidly to the surface it forms a basket in which the crabs are momentarily trapped. These nets are tended frequently, about every 15 to 30 minutes.  Ring nets can be used  from boats, docks, piers and jetties.

  • Dip nets are used to scoop up crabs in calm weather at low tide in shallow water over sand flats or eelgrass beds, either from a boat with a long-handled net or while wading with a shorter-handled net.  This method is frequently employed in parts of Puget Sound, including the Dungeness and Birch Bay areas, and along ocean beaches. Boat dip-netting can involve a sporty chase and is used in areas such as Port Gardner off the Everett jetty, Lummi Bay, Padilla Bay, Camano and Whidbey Islands, and Port Susan. Waders generally tow a small tub or gunny sack to hold their catch, so their hands are free to use the dip net. See our Recreational Crab Fishing website for more information

Shrimp

Only seven of Washington’s 80-some shrimp species are regularly caught for consumption by sport harvesters, almost all in Puget Sound or connecting waters. Shrimp are found primarily on or near the bottom, but make daily migrations through the water column in search of food and are most frequently caught at depths of 30 to 300 feet.

Shrimpers use pots of various sizes and designs, most with two or four entrance tunnels sloping gently inward to a circular opening about three inches in diameter. Shrimp pots are available at many sporting goods stores, though many shrimpers choose to make their own. Whether you choose to buy or build your own pot, consult the fishing regulations pamphlet for regulations on pot design and mesh size.

Canned, fish-flavored cat food is the most popular bait for shrimping in Puget Sound. Baits such as fresh or frozen fish (whole or ground), clams, and oysters are also used with some success. Cat food cans should be punctured on both sides and ends, and placed in the pot as bait. Cat food and other baits may also be placed in bait containers and secured to the bottom of the pot between the entrance tunnels. See our Recreational Shrimping for more pointers.

Squid

Because a boat isn’t needed and jigging equipment is reasonable, squid-jigging is one of the most inexpensive ways to catch squid. Anglers should fish for squid at night and take a camping lantern or flashlight of significant size for unlit locations.

In many areas, a single lure works best. For example, at Edmonds, most of the successful anglers use a single lure. The tall pole lights at the Edmonds pier shine farther out into the water, making it necessary for anglers to cast lures farther out into the water.

In other places, multiple lures (up to four) are better. By putting lures of different sizes and colors on the line anglers can test which type is attractive to the squid at that site.

Anglers can also experiment with the lure arrangement. Sometimes putting the same lures in different order on the line makes a difference.

A favorite lure-setup is to space three lures with four-inch dropper lines 16 inches apart on the main line, with a one-ounce weight added to the end of the main line.

Jigging for squid:
(More details are catching squid are located on the Squid Fishing website.)

  • Single lure: If using a single lure, cast it out some distance from the dock (or boat or bulkhead) and allow it to sink to a depth where the squid may be lurking. Retrieve it with a series of steady jerks or "jigs."

  • Multiple lures: If using multiple lures, drop them into the lighted area of the water. Lower them down to the chosen depth (which frequently is just off bottom) then slowly raise them up and down in the water column.

    Again knowing how challenging squid can be, no one style of lure is a constant winner. The specific environmental conditions dictate what is going to work or isn't.

  • Depth: Depth is a critical factor in the pursuit of squid. Having jigs working at different depths often spells "luck" or lack of it for side-by-side anglers.

    Keep in mind that squid gather in schools.