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Family Adventures: Crabbing on San Francisco Bay
By Janis Cooke Newman
First time?" asks the man next to us. He is wearing a baseball cap with a trout embroidered above the brim.
"How can you tell?" replies my husband, looking into the water where the crab net he's just tossed has landed on a piling.
"Try throwing it like a Frisbee," says the man in the trout hat. The man demonstrates, swinging his upper body back and forth like he's doing calisthenics. The man's son, who is also wearing a hat with a trout, twists along with his father.
My husband frees the net from the piling, and imitating the man, hurls it into the bay. It splashes a satisfying foot or two from the dock. The man in the trout hat nods his head.
Appearances to the contrary, this is not our first crabbing experience. Having both grown up on the East Coast, my husband and I spent summers crabbing for blueclaws -- the small, sweet crabs that scuttle around the coastlines of the Jersey shore. Crabs we caught with a chicken wing and a piece of string. This, however, is the first time we've crabbed on the West Coast, and the first time we've tried using the big round nets favored by San Francisco Bay crabbing experts.
We're also trying out the local crabbers' favorite spot on the Bay, Fort Point Pier at the Golden Gate Bridge end of Crissy Field. We've packed the car with two brand-new crabbing nets, a plastic bucket, and our 7-year-old son, Alex. Our plan is to expose Alex to the simple joys of bay crabbing, and score ourselves a free dinner.
"What's that you're using for bait?" asks the man in the trout hat.
"Roast chicken," says my husband, putting a cooked chicken leg into the second trap.
"It was all we had in the refrigerator."
The man and his son move off to check their nets. They are shaking their heads.
Once the trap is baited, Alex squirts big blobs of Powerbait Saltwater Attractant on the roast chicken leg. It smells like rancid Vietnamese fish sauce.
"I'm going to throw this one off the far end of the pier," my husband says. "I have a good feeling about that spot."
He hurls the net into the water, and we check our watches. We've read that we should keep our traps submerged for 10 minutes, which is why we've brought two nets, so we'll have one ready to pull up every five minutes or so.
"Is it time yet?" asks Alex.
"You might want to keep them down there a little longer," advises the man in the trout hat. "It's been a slow day."
"Can we pull them up yet?" asks Alex, one minute later.
Six minutes and 32 seconds after the first trap went into the water, my husband hauls it up. As the net breaks the surface of the water, we see the brown shell of a good-sized crab with red-speckled legs.
"We got one! We got one!" shouts Alex. He dances around on the bag of bait.
"You're going to want to fill up that bucket with saltwater," the man in the trout hat tells us.
I tie a rope to the plastic bucket and toss it into the bay. But I've underestimated how heavy a bucket full of saltwater can be.
"Help!" I shout.
"Just a minute," says my husband, "I'm taking a picture of the crab."
The man in the trout hat grabs my arm and yanks me back onto the pier.
Our crab is 5 inches across the widest part of its shell, an inch bigger than he needs to be in order to keep. We toss him into the bucket of saltwater, squirt more blobs of Saltwater Attractant on the roast chicken, and hurl the trap back into the water.
"Let's check the other one," says Alex.
My husband goes to the far end of the pier and pulls on the rope tied to our net. It doesn't budge.
"The trap's caught under the pier," he says.
"The tide came in," says the man in the trout hat.
"What can I do?"
"Come back in seven hours when it goes out again."
With only one net to worry about, we have time to watch the container ships chugging beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the sailboats skirting Alcatraz. From here we have a perfect view of downtown San Francisco, the rounded dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, and the crooked cypresses of the Presidio. We also have time to watch our fellow anglers. One man, who's got four fishing lines in the water, reels in a small shark.
The next time we pull up our net, we catch two keeper-sized red crabs and a lavender starfish bigger than Alex's hand. The trout-hatted father and son next to us catch an inch-long baby Dungeness, which they have to throw back into the bay. (Because San Francisco Bay is a breeding area, all Dungeness of any size must be thrown back. Not doing so can earn you a fine of upwards of $500.)
Over the course of the next hour, we catch five more keeper crabs, as well as a couple of starfish and a big Dungeness we reluctantly return to the sea. The father and son in the trout hats have their bait (raw sardines) eaten by a sea lion diving around the pier.
"Who can we invite for dinner?" asks my husband, looking into our bucket full of crabs.
"Nobody," I say, thinking about sourdough bread and Chardonnay and leftover crab salad.
We pack up our net and our crabs, and head down the pier to the Warming Hut café for hot chocolate. As we pass the trout-hatted father and son, who are re-baiting their trap, my husband tosses them the half-empty bottle of Saltwater Attractant.
"Thanks," says the man, tipping his trout hat.
What you'll need to catch your own dinner: The net of choice is a round ring trap with rope and harness, which sells for $15.99 at G&M Sporting Goods at 1667 Market Street. You'll also need bait cages, small metal boxes that hook inside the trap ($2.99 each at G&M). Don't forget to bring a plastic bucket to hold your catch. You don't need a fishing license to crab from public piers. Only two traps per angler are allowed. Daily limit is 35 crabs.
Remember, it is illegal to keep Dungeness crabs caught on the pier. The easiest way to tell if you've got a Dungeness crab (named after its favorite coastal hangout, Dungeness, Wa.) is to look at the claws. Dungeness claws are white. Red, brown, and rock crabs have black-tipped claws, but they're equally delicious.
Bait: While some people like to use raw fish or chicken, our bait of choice is roast chicken (either homemade, or pick one up at Bell Market), liberally sprinkled with Powerbait Saltwater Attractant ($4.99 at G&M).
Where to go: We like Fort Point Pier at the end of Crissy Field. It's not too crowded, has a pretty view, and is only steps away from the Warming Hut, where you can pick up hot chocolate, a latté, or sandwiches that run the gamut from grilled cheese to turkey and Havarti. Another popular spot is the crescent-shaped Municipal Pier at Aquatic Park.
Crabbing classes: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) holds two-hour-long crabbing classes on selected Saturdays. Call them at 415-556-1693 for information and to make reservations. The fee is $1.50, which goes toward bait.
How to kill a crab without feeling (too) guilty: If you find it unsettling to listen to your live crabs banging on the side of the pot while you're cooking them, try anesthetizing them on ice before tossing them into the water.
Janis Cooke Newman's memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, has just been released in paperback.