Crabbing on Nehalem Bay, Oregon
From California to British Columbia, Dungeness crab is king of the northern Pacific Coast. Prized for its high yields of sweet firm white flesh, fresh Dungeness crab is easy to find during the commercial season, from December into the spring months. I can purchase crabs at local fish counters and farmers markets whole, cooked or as crabmeat, picked and cleaned. But the act of crabbing, as enthusiasts commonly refer to it, reminds me of the source of one of my favorite regional foods. Being on the water, observing the tides shift and the inlets populate with crabs in search of food, tossing out and then pulling up crab pots: these are foraging skills that require sea legs, if you will.
Crab pots stacked up around boat yards are a common sight along the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. Major ports for commercial crabbing, like Newport and Astoria, boast multitudes of pots while smaller sleepy port towns that rent day boats to recreational crabbers have fewer. Crab pots can be baited with anything from raw squid and fish heads, to calves liver, chicken or turkey, before they are plunged into shallow saltwater inlets. Ideally a boat does the heavy lifting, carrying three to five baited crab pots at a time, working in rotation to drop and check the pots at regular intervals.
In order to be harvested legally, crabs must be male. Males are identified by a slender flap the length and shape of your index finger in the centers of their bellies called aprons; females have a slightly wider apron. The diameter of the crab’s top shell must measure 5-3/4 inches to be considered a keeper, and a limit of 12 crabs per day is permitted. Crabbers over 12 years of age need a shellfish license to crab, a bargain at $8.00 for an annual permit. Each outing seems to have its own unique and unpredictable outcomes, but “limiting out” is unusual.
Most commercial crabbing takes place far out in the ocean, where yields—and risks—are high. Closer to shore, crab pots can be dropped off docks and jetties, and Dungeness crabs can be found in the tide pools created by the ocean as it recedes. The crabs get caught in shallow seawater pools, where they await high tide, which eventually returns them to sea. Claiming these surf side crabs can involve a risky harvest by hand, which I have done: Use a sturdy rake to bring the crabs up to dry sand, capture them, and hold them in buckets filled with seawater. This method has its risks, like very active claws in constant motion, and rewards, including the chance to observe how quickly a crab’s ten claws move back and forth in rapid succession to propel them over the sand, not unlike a highly skilled break-dancer!
The crabs should be cooked within a day, preferably on the day that they are harvested. Many coastal marinas keep large pots of water boiling for cooking the crabs, which allows crabbers to clean their catch dockside and leave the excess shells for seagulls to consume. If you find yourself near a marina that provides this service, I’d recommend using it, and requesting a specific amount of time you want to cook your crabs. Crab boilers are set to cook at an aggressive boil, and the workers who tend them usually set a timer for 20 minutes, regardless of the crab’s size. If a crab weighs less than two pounds, which is usual for most recreational catches, six to seven minutes per pound in boiling seawater—12 to 14 minutes total—is plenty. You can also take your crabs home to cook in court bullion, a flavorful poaching liquid made with a little white wine, carrots, onions, celery, aromatics of your choosing, and salt. (See Poaching in the Techniques section.)
Cleaning crabs for a crab feed is fairly simple and not overly time consuming, but cleaning and picking them for the meat takes some time and patience, hence the $40/pound price tag for cleaned crab at the market. (See Techniques for cleaning crabs.)
My approach when harvesting, cooking and eating the crustaceans all in the same day is to end the day with a casual crab feed. Make sure you’re armed with crab shell crackers, small cocktail forks, and lots of napkins. Add melted butter or fresh garlic mayonnaise, a big green salad and crusty bread and you have a meal from my 10 Best List, well worth the efforts of the day.