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Crabbing on Bodega Bay

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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, crab salad

17 responses to “Crabbing on Bodega Bay”

  1. Kristine Shreve

    Oh, now I’m hungry. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten crab that was fresh caught. I bet it tastes wonderful.

  2. Garrett

    Wow, this sounds like amazing fun. =)
    I am filled with envy!

  3. Stacey S

    Crabbing is one on our favorite things to do in Southwest Louisiana. We boil them just like our crawfish and serve them with boiled corn and baby red potatoes. The spicy boil with the sweet crab are just an amazing combo. Plus it is practically free (besides the gas). We normally use chicken wings, but I’ll suggest to my husband the shad head idea, we can usually catch some in our friends pond. We normally come home with about 50-60 crab to share between 4 adults and have enough leftover for crab cakes and gumbo.

  4. We Are Never Full

    i can’t believe you went crabbing with chicken on a string too! I grew up going to the Jersey shore (Avalon…southern jersey) and did the same thing. Still do. Great memory.

  5. Ryan

    Arg! Now I’ve got to make crab cakes tonight! It’s impossible to come to your site Hank and not get hungry, you know that, right?

  6. John C. Martin

    If you drove to Bodega from Petaluma, you drove right past my driveway!

    Nothing like fresh Dungeness crab.

  7. adele

    This sounds like a great day out. Now I want to go crabbing. :)

  8. Bob

    used a rotted freezer burned piece of venison once at Seacliff… muy stinky… The locals thought we were nuts, but shut up fast when we pulled up a full trap – with another half dozen clinging to the outside.

    So try some of your leftover deer carcass some time… maybe that’s another good one…

  9. Mrs. L

    Dungeness crab…sigh, one of my favorite foods. I eagerly await crab season around here every year.

  10. Finspot

    Great post! Can’t wait to squeeze into the wet suit and dive for some Dungeness. It’s really not fair at all: the big males are usually locked in a mating embrace with the females before being plucked from the Sound and then tossed in a cauldron. Talk about interruptus…

  11. Nick

    Great piece! Fresh crab is the best! Were you on a boat or crabbing off of a pier/dock? Whereabouts in Bodega Bay?

  12. Dan

    Thanks for the report! I am visiting your area from central California in two weeks and crabbing looks like a cool option.

    I will have missed the Dunginess season, damn, are the other rock crabs worth it? I do a lot of ocean kayak fishing down here and would want to drop crab nets from my kayak. Is this a reasonable approach in this bay? I have never visited this bay before. Thansk so much for any input you can give me. Take care Dan in SLO.

  13. Remzod

    Great article — fun to read and inspiring at the same time. I did some time at Tom’s River as a youth as well, and used to get fish heads from the incoming fishermen (two for a nickel) to use as bait. Other days it was squid, chicken necks and, of course, bull lips.

    Having read this, I have to go out next week when the season starts. Other than substiting Anchor Steam for the Pabst, this sounds like a plan.

  14. Sean Constantine

    This was a great read, especially since I do this trip no less than twice a year from the Sacramento area. The Red Crabs have a great taste and there are fairly-nice campgrounds in Bodega for those seeking to set out on the water. Great entry!

  15. meekou

    i am planning on going crabbing in bodega this wk.end. where is the best spot to go? i went with my brother once but we didnt catch any good size to keep.

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