Can I tell you how happy I was when my friend Jason suggested we go crabbing on Bodega Bay the other day? I’ve been having a longstanding affair with the genus cancer. As a boy I chased down little green crabs on Block Island and wondered why we couldn’t eat them. One of my fondest memories as a teenager was going down to Tom’s River, New Jersey, with my stepfather Frank and renting rowboats to hand-line crabs with chicken legs.
Years later, when I lived on Long Island as an impoverished cub reporter, I practically lived off the crabs I caught from the piers and jetties along the Great South Bay. They came in all stripes: Pretty-but-shrewish calico crabs, docile rock and Jonah crabs, the occasional spider crab (which is an unappetizing shit-brown when it’s alive), and of course the prize — the blue crab.
Now blue crabs are perhaps the meanest thing in Nature, except for maybe the wolverine or a badger with its leg in a trap. Blue crabs are so mean that the watermen of the Chesapeake can stack them up in open bushel baskets: None will escape because as soon as one makes a break for it, another will grab his leg and hold him down. Talk about peer pressure.
Each crab had its purpose then. Some kinds were for soups, some for crab cakes, some just for pickin’ and eatin’. In college I once ate close to 50 blue crabs at one sitting, in a hotel room in Delaware. The maid refused to clean up the room the next day.
Now, a decade later, I was going crabbing in the Pacific. The only crab I’d ever heard of that lived in these parts was the giant Dungeness crab. I’ve eaten many, but all were store-bought. What else would we catch?
Jason said mostly red crabs and rock crabs. Rock crabs I understood: There is always some sort of sluggish, wilful walking-around crab that inhabits rocky nooks and crannies. Most of the meat in them is in the claws; the rest makes for superb crab-flavored soups. But what were red crabs?
Turns out that when we pulled the first hoop net, red crabs are merely day-glo crimson versions of rock crabs. And although reds are meaner than rocks, neither are anything like the bitchy calicos or the downright demonic blues back East. California crabs are just more mellow.
The crabs in the picture are uncooked and I did not mess with the color in Photoshop: Red crabs are really that red. Pretty cool huh?
Except for the death-defying trip out onto the breakwater, which was far less climb-able than those I’d wandered on in my youth, the crabbing was pretty similar to those halcyon days on the Island.
Basically you bait a trap, toss it in the drink, then haul it in periodically. We baited with some leftover shad heads from my fishing trip a few weeks prior (I’d frozen them), as well as some chicken legs from the Lucky supermarket. Note to self: Stinky, bloody shad heads are primo, A1 crab bait. We locked them into a little cage inside the hoop net and chucked it into the bay.
It was a gorgeous day, and we’d wished we had brought beers. Oh well. Back on Long Island, a cooler of beer, a boom box and a lawn chair were my weapons of choice. As you catch crabs, they go into the cooler and the beer comes out. Try getting that last Pabst when the cooler is full of irate blue crabs. I dare you.
Within seven minutes, Jason said haul the trap. Three keepers in one haul! Woo hoo! Go shad heads! The crabbing went on pretty much like that for more than three hours, and in what seemed like no time we had three dozen good red and rock crabs — as well as two legal Dungeness.
Dungies are the kings of the California crab world. They get huge and their bodies are filled with sweet meat. I love them dearly when they start running in November, but the season was very nearly done when we caught our pair; After July 1, you gotta toss them back until November rolls around again.
These we’d eat. And Jason, a veteran crabber here in Bodega, came prepared: He’d brought a massive burner, a propane tank and an old Army-issue stockpot his grandfather had lifted from the corps after World War II. In went some Zatarain’s seasoning and we were good to go. This is living.
We did not eat all of them there, though. I took most home and began crab-picking, a task not humanly possible without a miminum of six beers. In the end, I got more than two pounds of meat from the 30-odd crabs I picked, some of which went into the deviled crab Holly and I ate tonight.
I am now a happy man, flush with crab. Soon I will make spaghetti and crab sauce, crab cakes, crab gumbo…