by Jay Newcomer
On November 3rd, the Dungeness crab season opened for recreational fishing along our stretch of beautiful coast here in Mendocino County. Last year was a prosperous harvest, and I’m hoping for another great season this year (which will run through July of 2019). To be eligible to catch crab, one must have a valid California fishing license (children under 16 years of age do not need a license), and each angler can keep ten Dungeness crabs of legal size. A measuring tape or, even better, a crab gage must be used to be sure all crabs taken are of legal size—at least 5-¾" across the narrowest part of the shell on the crab’s back just in front of the lateral spines.
Female Dungeness are easily identified by looking at the belly, as she will have a half moon shaped shell. By contrast the males have a prominent point shape on their belly. I only keep males to encourage as many crab offspring as possible.
There are three popular ways to catch Dungeness crab. The first is by casting from the shore, using a sturdy fishing pole and a baited box with looped fishing line surrounding it. Squid makes fine bait and can be found along with the catching device at many county fishing and sporting goods outlets. My favorite one is the Noyo Fishing Center down in the harbor in Fort Bragg. After casting the trap out onto a sandy bottom, the angler waits until a tugging of the line is felt, and then they quickly retrieve the bait to shore.
The second popular method is the use of hoop traps, conical in shape and about 2-½ feet across. A bait such as raw chicken is securely attached to the center of the trap, and the trap is lowered onto the sandy bottom of the ocean. A buoy is used to mark the trap’s location on the top end of the retrieval rope. Be sure your rope is long enough for your water depth or the whole rig will sink and be lost forever. Hoop trapping is used from piers and from kayaks in the ocean and is also a good way to catch crabs in the brackish river mouths. Each trap will need to be frequently checked and legal crab removed at least once every two hours.
Finally, a fully closed crab trap is most commonly used when fishing from a boat. These traps also feature retrieval ropes and marker buoys and are deployed in sandy bottomed locations ranging in depth from 50 to 200 feet or deeper. Traps are baited with fish heads, chicken, or squid, and can be left for several tidal cycles. Each buoy must be marked with the ID number on the angler's license, and it’s important to remember where the traps were set. Your cell phone can help with this by activating the mapping feature. Leaving the traps overnight works great, and returning the next day to pull up the ocean’s bounty is a unique thrill.
Crab should be kept on ice and alive until placed in a boiling pot. Bring the pot back to a boil for 15 minutes, then drain and cool as quickly as possible. An ice bath works best for this. Dungeness crab makes wonderful salads and crab cakes, as well as crab bisque. While you can find all sorts of recipes online, like the Baltimore Crab Cakes below from epicurious. com, my favorite is simply covering the table in newspaper and eating the fresh, sweet meat directly from the shells. Enjoy!
Baltimore Crab Cakes
1/4 c mayonnaise
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 T Dijon mustard
2 tsp fresh lemon juice plus wedges for garnish
1-½ tsp Old Bay Seasoning
1/2 jalapeño, seeded, finely chopped
1 pound lump crabmeat, cooked and picked over
1-¼ c panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), divided
1 T thinly sliced chives
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 head Bibb lettuce
2 T vegetable oil
Combine first 7 ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk. Add crab, then stir in 3/4 cup panko, chives, salt, and pepper. Form each into 6 1”-thick patties. Refrigerate for a miniumum of 10 minutes. Cover a platter with lettuce leaves.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place remaining 1/2 cup panko on a plate, then dip the cakes before adding them to the skillet. Fry until golden brown and crisp, 3-4 minutes per side. Arrange atop lettuce and serve with lemon wedges.
Jay Newcomer has lived in Anderson Valley for more than two decades. When he’s not playing with grapes for a living, he enjoys fishing, gardening, foraging and turning all that bounty into delicious meals for family and friends.
Crab drawing by Rebecca Goldie.