Our rains have returned. After 4 months of no rain, in the last 10 days, we’ve had more than 5 1/2 inches. That’s a sure sign that our so-called summer is officially ended. Oh, we’ll still have some nice days – but the rain spells the end of the good garden days, as the moisture brings on a rash of viruses and diseases, and heralds a turn in the weather toward colder nights and days too – only the hardier members of the garden will survive.
But for many other things, the advent of rain each fall signals the start of something altogether new. My beloved mushroom season is dependent on the moistening of the soil to trigger the bloom of soil borne mushrooms – I’ve already taken a peek out in the woods, and yes, they are beginning to emerge – next week this time, if the rains have ceased, there should be plenty of mushrooms for the picking.
The fall rains also mark the beginning of the serious crabbing season. Our Dungeness crabs have an extremely interesting life, which is spent moving from the ocean environment into bays and rivers (when the ocean is too rough or cold), or out into the ocean again (when the fresh water from winter storms finally overwhelms the salt content of the bays and rivers). They are highly mobile – the true migrants of the sea.
There are some beautiful days each fall when the absolutely most enjoyable thing anyone could possibly do is to trundle on down to the local dock or pier with your crabbing gear, lawn chair, and a good book, and wait for a few big, fat crabs to crawl into your traps while you sit in the warm sun of Indian summer. On such a day, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to catch a crab or two (would you like to know just how many days I’ve gone home from a crabbing venture empty handed? – far too many to bother remembering!). The value of such a day is the experience itself, and the intrinsic joy it brings.
No, my friends, if it’s crabs you want to catch, forget about the criteria of a beautiful day – look to science instead. And yes, we know enough about the behavior of the crab to be able to apply that scientific knowledge to the task of catching our limit (12) of those delicious denizens of the shallows – and I’ll share those secrets with you now.
A few of these secrets can be found recorded – and an internet search will turn them up (if you doubt me, you may always check) but others are only passed from one old crab trapper to another, lest too many crab seekers learn them, and the number of available crab begin dropping uncontrollably – and we surely don’t want that to happen, do we! So, I’ll ask you to promise not to pass any of these secrets on to anyone, at least not until you get so old it doesn’t matter anymore – and yes, that’s why I’m sharing these secrets.
First, how does one catch a Dungeness crab? There are any number of silly devices out there, but only two basic types make much sense for the recreational crabber who still wishes to catch a few crabs. There is the ring type of trap, which is simply two rings, one bigger than the other, covered with netting – when pulled up with the attached rope, the funnel shaped net traps the crabs which have been eating the bait attached at the bottom. This type is effective and relatively cheap – but since it is open, crabs may come and go as they please, so generally it must be pulled up every 15 or 20 minutes, or sooner, to check the bait and to see if any crabs have been caught.
For my purposes, the second type of trap makes the most sense – and although there are several versions, the most common is a fold up device with a one-way floppy door on each side, which allow the crab to get in (to get the bait), but keep him from getting back out. This is the type (in a luxury version) which the commercial crabbers use – and they know what they’re doing, so I think I’ll use what they do too. Since the crabs can go in, but not out of this type of trap, it can be put into the water and left for a goodly amount of time – even overnight.
What to use for bait? It helps to know that the Dungeness crab, regardless of its high cost in the market, is still a scavenger – and it pretty much will eat anything! But of course, it has its favorite foods, which basically are fish, clams, and other crabs. The problem is that if one chooses to use fish as bait, he/she soon learns that hungry sea lions are always nearby just waiting for the unwary to do so – and will swoop in, super quick like, and steal the fish right out of the trap – yes, even the solid square traps! So, chicken has become the alternative bait, since sea lions seem to leave it alone – most of the time – and crabs seem to love it.
Now for the big secret – when to go?
Of course, you can go whenever you wish. How about a beautiful warm sunny day? Enjoyable, but probably not very productive – unless you were lucky enough to hit those exact times when science tells us the crabs will be hungry and eating. And what exactly does science tell us?
Well research, and experience, has shown that all crabs use the tidal currents to move around – in fact, those currents are usually swift enough to impede the crab from feeding – so the great majority of crabs dig down into the mud/sand in a swift current and wait to feed until about an hour before, and an hour after a tidal change, when the current is still or just slightly moving. So, the wise crabber checks the tides and only bothers going for the few hours around the changing of a tide.
But more exhaustive research -and the experience of commercial crabbers- has revealed that each month, during what is known as the ‘neap tide’, the crabs seem to go into a feeding frenzy (the neap tide occurs twice each month, and can easily be identified by the presence of the quarter moon phase – another instance of the relationship between the moon and the tides!). So now we know we can increase our chances of catching crabs if we pick a time of either high or low tide, during one of the two neap tide periods each month. But wait – there’s even more!
This last secret is not one you’ll likely read on the web – at least not without a good deal of digging – but still, several of my old (even older than I) crabby friends swear by the ‘early morning’ phenomenon – they tell me that if you’re serious about catching lots of crabs, not only should you attend to the above rules, but you should find a high or low tide near daybreak as well. Put all those elements together and you should be seriously productive.
I did all the above on a dark, still, chilly morning recently and arrived at Weber’s Crab Dock in Bandon at 5am to find that I was all alone – this was just a bit surprising, since Weber’s Dock is always jammed with crabbers. I wondered for a minute about the veracity of my old crabbing friends – but, hey, I was here and there was only one way to test their word. I put my traps together in the scant light, put the chicken into the traps, and tossed them into the dark water.
Still no one else on the docks yet – but I needed coffee, and the nearby cafe opened at 5:30 – I headed out in that direction, hoping that the crabs were extra hungry this morning.
An hour later, breakfast done, and with a serious case of anticipation, I retraced my steps back out to the dock and my traps. As I pulled, I knew. A crabber ‘always knows’ as he/she begins to pull the rope of the trap! But even with that hint, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sight before me as the trap broke water – the crabs were crawling all over each other. My only thought was, ‘How in the hell did they all get in there at one time?’.
As I culled out the non-keepers (those under 6.25″ across and all females), I knew I’d soon have a problem – I only had one 5 gallon bucket, and it was already half full of ‘my junk’ – where was I going to put all my crabs? At final count, that trap had pulled up 18 crabs, of which 5 were keepers – that’s about right, ratio wise – and I began to sense that I’d have a short day today, and that I’d meet my limit (12) with just this one pull. A nice feeling!
The other two traps (each crabber is allowed three traps) were also packed with crabs – I didn’t bother counting them. My new worry was that I’d have more than 12 legal keepers – but of course, I could only take 12 home – and I knew I faced an entirely new task for myself; to go through my bucket of keepers and toss the smaller ones in favor of the biggest ones – another nice feeling that every crabber looks forward to.
As I made my last count, and readied to repack my bucket, I knew I’d have to pull some of my ‘junk’ out and pack it along with my traps on my little wheelie cart – next time, I’ll lug along a 2nd bucket, just in case! Upon repacking, the last few keepers were precariously balanced on the top of the bucket, but obediently calm, and as far as I know, they all made it home with me that morning – but probably not as joyously as I.
I’ll spare you the agony of cooking, cleaning, and ‘picking’ the crab. Frankly, I hate that part, and sadly, Sandee does as well. And I’m not going to do any crab recipes either. This post will stand, or sink, as a re-telling of an adventure – a celebration of autumn and all its glories – not the least of which are the crabs of autumn.