When my husband and I visit his hometown, Pacifica CA for a day at the beach, he usually incorporates a little reminiscing, whether that’s driving by one of the homes he used to live in or telling tales about the adventures he had with his gang of friends. These friends, four teenage boys, roamed free atop their bicycles and later inside a 1975 AMC Matador. Bike or car these guys grabbed up their crab nets, slung them over a shoulder or inside the trunk, and ditched their suburban tract homes for a day out on the pier over the Pacific Ocean. I’ve heard tales of the guys dragging up six Dungeness crabs in one day, and bringing the feast home to share with their families.
I grew up further away from the ocean in the San Francisco East Bay. My family would visit the coast, but we never tossed nets in the water to see if anything would crawl in to be our dinner. It never occurred to me until recently that I can give crabbing a try myself. It doesn’t just have to be something my husband did growing up; it could be something we do together…now.
The crab season opened in early November giving us the opportunity to get out over the water with a net and lots of hope of catching delicious Dungeness on my husband’s birthday. Before hitting the pier, we stopped by New Coastside Bait & Tackle to get geared up for crabbing. The store clerk sold us everything we needed to get started, brand new crab net, a gauge to make sure any crabs we caught were big enough to take and attractive bait – frozen blocks of squid and sardines, yum. Other things we brought with us out on the pier were protective gloves for handling sea life, a cooler to store bait and anything we would catch and an always handy pocket knife – used for exposing bait guts.
My parents and one of my husband’s friends from his carefree Pacifica teenage days, Scott joined us for the birthday crabbing expedition. John and I arrived first to stake our spot on the pier. We passed fishermen lining both sides of the wood-planked cement-walled pier. They expertly cast their fishing pole lines yards out into the ocean below, grooved to boom boxes blasting music and teased each other with no concern for political correctness as they waited for something in the depths to take their bait. John picked a spot between fishermen who’d been out there for hours already, near the end of the pier where the structure takes a right turn as our home base.
He took out a few thawing squid and sardines, roughed them up with slits to their bellies, and stuffed them inside the bait cage attached to the inside of the crab net. He tied the end of the crab net’s rope line to a lamp post. We unfurled the full length of the rope, and he tossed the basket over the side of the pier like it a giant Frisbee. When the net landed in the water, it settled directly below us. Then the waiting for a crab to walk into the net began.
Our guests arrived shortly after we put the net in the water. John hauled the net up a few times to find nothing in. We messed around with the bait a little to see if we could make it stink more to attract a crab. The hard thing is, we don’t know when a crab is walking through the net. If we leave it down there for lengths of time, a crab could walk up, eat all the bait and get off the net before we pull it up. After a few hours we got some activity, a cluster of muscles rolled into the net and a small fish but no crab. We put all these back into the ocean. The next time we pulled up the net there was a crab in it but it was too small to keep, and it was a female. I made John bring it up to the pier so I could take a picture and document that we were somewhat successful.
After this, John felt like we might be on a roll and closer to catching a crab big enough to take home. Scott told us a story of how John made him stay on the beach for hours when they were teenagers because John was so excited that he might catch something. Crabbing is like gambling, you may catch a jackpot, but you have to keep spending time to win, at some point you need to pack it up and go home.
We didn’t catch a Dungeness crab dinner, but we did stop by the grocery store and bought a few crabs in honor of John’s birthday!