Understanding & Navigating Around Crab Pot Buoys 


Those saltwater fishermen who navigate coastal waters will undoubtedly encounter crab pot buoys.  These can be more than a nuisance if you happen to come too close to the wrong side and tangle your prop in the pot/buoy line.  It could even be disastrous if you were then without power, and in a stormy weather situation.  I have noticed some fishermen avoid them as if they were the plague.  However if you understand how they are laid out, the tide/current and how the buoy is attached to the pot, you could come real close to the "Back or Downstream Side" of one while avoiding the "Front Side".


There is a system here, just think how does the commercial crabber lay and or retrieve their pots without getting tangled?   In the open ocean you may see pots laid in a straight line north and south.  This helps in deploying and recovering otherwise they would have to hunt all over the place to find them on recovering.   Also with many different commercial crabbing boats operating in the same area so they use floats painted a different identification colors.

 

How the Pot / Buoy Works ;  On the west coast off the state of Washington and Oregon, you may find crab pots in water from 25' to 200' of water.   These  pots, sometimes called traps are basically a heavy wire round or square frame covered with wire mesh and with entrance holes on the bottom sides.  These entrance holes may have a inner tapered cone or a hinged gate designed so when the crab enter they can not easily get back out.

 

There will be some sort of  a bait container inside the pot and a means of opening part of the pot to retrieve any crab.  They need to be made heavy enough or additional weights added to keep them from being moved around by the tide/wind.  A rope is run from the pot to a buoy that floats above the pot to identify where your pot is when you return.  This rope can be only 50' for a recreational pot in shallow water, to 250' for a commercial pot in deeper water.  For recreational pots, the buoy has to be marked with the owners name and address and they are required to use a non-floating line or a line weight to ensure that at a low tide the rope does not float and interfere with boating traffic.  The buoys for recreational pots is required to be red/white.  Commercial pots are identified by individually colored buoys identifying each crabber, and have their name/address on the buoy or pot.

 

Shown here is a better round pot made with stainless steel wire.  The bait cage is in the middle & the lid opens from the left & is held in place by a bungee cord.  This pot is a smaller version of the commercial pots. Here a modified Danielson recreational crab pot is shown.  These modifications greatly help load & unload it.

 

 

The buoy rope needs to be considerably longer than just the depth the pot is deployed into to accommodate the tide and or wind AND compensate for the difference in the tide's height changes.

 

Some crabbers, both commercial and recreational will add a smaller "tag or trailer buoy" to the main one.  This at least gives you some idea which way the current is, because the tag buoy will always be laying the direction the current/wind will be pushing the main buoy.

 

Determining Which Way the Rope is Laying ;   One method a friend explained to his wife (who was the skipper at times when he is attending gear) is don't fret the distance if it is within rifle range, at muzzle loader range be cautious, but if it is within archery or slingshot range then take action to avoid it.

 

Here a rough drawing of what is under the water

 


Since the pot's rope has to be longer than the water depth, the line will be coming up at an angle toward the surface and the attached floating buoy.   The trick is in deciphering which side the rope is on so you can run/fish by without tangling/loosing your fishing gear.  A good number of downrigger cannon balls have succumbed to these crab pot ropes.  Even worse is if they tangle your propeller in this rope. 

 

In understanding this, you need to look for which way the buoy is laying/being pushed by the tide/wind.  If the crabber is  using two buoys/floats on his rope it is easier than if just a single buoy.  In the photos below, (the left hand photo) the buoy on the right is tipped and the top is pointing up and to the left.  The secondary buoy is laying flat with no downward drag and floating again to the left.  This means the rope to the pot is on the right and directly attached to the tipped buoy.  On this buoy you could run a boat really close to the left side of the buoys without a problem of becoming tangled.  However you do not know how much rope is deployed on this pot and the rope WILL be at an angle off to the right of the buoys.  Give this buoy lots of room on the right.

 

Commercial Pots ;  The commercial pots have to be identified by a owner's specific color and number burned into the floatable buoy.  These will usually be laid in a North/South direction along the coast.  You may see many different crabber's buoys running in parallel lines less than 100 yards from each other.  They can be identified by the colors.

 

You may find some randomly laid inside the bays.  They are not supposed to be laid in the main shipping channels.  You will notice I said not supposed to be.

 

These pots will have a line attached to them leading to a floating buoy.  They are pulled by a hydraulic operated wheeled winch that when the line is placed between two tapered wheels, and power applied, the line wedges deeper into the "Vee" of the wheels and can be pulled up to the surface where the boat operator will swing the winch davit, dropping the pot on the boat's deck where the crabbers can remove the crab, sort by size and sex, keeping the legal ones.  The others get thrown back.  The pot is re-baited and returned until the next pulling. 

 

These lines can not have a splice or knot because of the type of puller they use.   Obviously these commercial crabbers need to use lines of a normal amount of length.  So if a pot is in 30' of water, it may well have 100' of line attached to it.    That means there is a lot of line that could be floating  just under the water, DEPENDING  on the current or time of the tide ands in this shallower water.   When the current or tide is moving, usually the line will be pretty much under the water.  But at a slack tide, the 70' of extra line may be semi floating since no strain is on it.

 

Commercial pots are considerably larger and heavier, requiring larger and or more buoys depending on where they are deployed.  In the photos below the line to the pot goes off the float/buoy on the right.   The buoys on the left can be smaller than the initial buoy and are sometimes used as an additional identifier or making it easier to recover when using more than one buoy.

 

Here you will notice a blueish green commercial WDFW test tag Here you can see the line leading up from the pot to the main buoy & the tag buoy on the left at a slack tide
 

 

Recreational Pots ;  Recreational crab pots legally have to be identified by a red/white buoy.  These pots are smaller because most are manually pulled.  Recreational pots in Washington state are required to use either sinking line or have a line weight attached to the line so that it does not float, creating a hazard to boaters so as not to get the floating line fouled in props.

 

One night a number of years ago at Westport, I launched on a Friday night and by the time I got in the water it was getting dark.  My son took the vehicle and trailer to park it and since my boat at the time was a 20' cabin boat, being on the boat alone, the dock floodlight was inoperative, so instead of using the main motor to move to the outer transit dock, I just used the kicker and backed out the short distance to tie up for the night.  What I did not know was that some crabber had left their pot in the water on this empty dock, but without any line weight.  I did not see it and got it hung around the prop.  With me steering using the tiller handle of this kicker, when my boat/motor became tight tied to the dock by this pot line, the movement of the boat and me holding onto the tiller, it broke the tiller off the kicker.  And you guessed it, the name and address on the pot was invalid.

 

Here is a single buoy with a smaller tag float Here the second buoy is 10' from & snapped onto main flagged buoy & two 50' lines

 

 

In the LH photo below, with the buoy tipped to the right, this means the current is pushing it to the right.  Therefore the pot has to be to the left of the buoy.  You as a fisherman could troll/run your boat fairly close to the RH side without having the possibility of fowling in the line.  On the other hand the other side (LH) would be less desirable to travel because of possible prop fouling or tangling you fishing gear depending on how close you are and the angle of the pot line.

 

In the RH photo below, here is a harder one to read because it is a low slack tide and the buoy is just laying there.  You really have not much of an idea where to safely travel as the line could be anywhere.

 

This RH buoy in the photo below has not been pulled for a while and is covered with growth.  It is hard to tell which way this one has the rope leading to the buoy, EXCEPT if you have observed others in the area and remember which way THEY are laying.

 

With a high or low slack tide, where you see a buoy single laying flat, it is really hard to tell where the line is.  Many times these buoys at these times, will have line floating on top of the water, which can be a hazard to boaters.

 

Here a commercial buoy is standing somewhat upright & the current is pushing it to the right, therefore the rope is leading in the water to the left.   Stay away from that side. Here a buoy is laying flat and covered with weeds at slack tide, hard to decide which side the line is on
 

 

Here commercial buoys are riding the tide, here with the line to the pot leading to the left Here the front buoy has been sucked under by the swell.
 

 

 

Here a recreational buoy has a flag on the staff, which makes it easier for others to see & you to locate Here the white buoy is hard to see in the fog

 

 

Lost /Abandoned Pots ;  Since commercial crabbing occurs mostly during the winter and early summer months weather may not co-operate all the time.  Sometimes the current may move a pot on the sandy bottom, or the crabber may not be able to get back to recover in a timely manner.  When this happens, the pot is not where the crabber left it (or thought he left it).  It could be still there but the stormy weather is so bad the crabber can not find the buoy.  After a while the line can become covered with floating or partially submerged weeds and barnacles or small mussels start to grow on it.  When this happens, the line is way heavier than the buoy and the buoy is pulled under.  In situations like this you may only see a "lost pot" at low slack tide with not wind.   But is now being pulled down and it also is covered with weeds.  All you may see just part of it bobbing when there is no current running.   It may look like a black sea bird.  The bad part is since it will only be showing at a low slack tide, you have little to go on which way the line is laying. 

 

The buoys in the photo below indicate the rope is on the right as evidenced by the right hand pot only having the very upper end showing occasionally.  This RH buoy was under water most of the time.  The reason is that since the pot had not been pulled for some time, the sea weed growth/slime has accumulated so much on the rope that just the weight of this growth pulls the buoys underwater during a moving tide and are only visible at a LOW SLACK tide.

 

Here a lost commercial pot as indicated by the algae/weed covered black buoy which is only visible at a low slack tide  Again a  lost commercial pot that is visible at a low slack tide
   

Here commercial buoys at just visible at a low slack tide Here they aren't visible an hour later, being pulled under by the current as the tide is coming in
 

 

 

The year 2014 at the Willapa Bay, there were two abandoned pots in the main cannel, about 300 yards downstream marker #2.  They only showed at a slack tide because of the current normally there at any other time kept them under.  I should have marked them as a waypoint on my GPS plotter.  I knew they were there, but this day it was a bit foggy and in running out to Wash-Away, I did not realize EXACTLY where I was.  Running at about 22 MPH, I caught a glimpse of an object out of my eye on my Port side just before it hit the chine of my hull about 3/4 of the way back.  Thump and I was on and over it.  If I had been another three feet to the south, I would have came to a sudden halt and tangled the rope in my prop.

 

Again in 2015 there were two more abandoned commercial pots in the same area, I managed to stay clear, but another boat was not so lucky.

 

 

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Originated 08-08-2012, Last updated 10-09-2015 
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