Swan: Do the Dungeness


San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf has a mascot, a tasty one at that, the Dungeness Crab, otherwise known as Metacarcinus magister.

Named for Dungeness Spit in Puget Sound, a National Wildlife Refuge area about five miles north of Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula, Dungeness Crabs are West Coast residents, found from Alaska to Baja, but you seldom see them south of Santa Barbara. (They have recently been found in the Atlantic off Massachusetts, which some biologists are concerned about.)


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This is the biggest crab in the coastal waters. (Alaskan king crabs and snow crabs are found offshore.) Their brown-purple, hard carapace can get to be almost 10 inches across. On each side there are five tan legs with almost white tips, including the front two that have large claws.

Dungeness Crabs like to hang out in eelgrass beds and dine on clams, but will scavenge almost anything, and that's what gets them on your table.

In California, the season for Dungeness Crabs opened November 6 for sport crabbers and reports are coming in that it was good all along the coast; lots of big male Dungeness crabs. South of Mendocino County the season lasts until June 30, and north of Mendo, it goes until July 30, but now is the time to get the most and biggest crabs, and launching ramps are busy in places like Bodega Bay.

In California the minimum keeper size limit is 5 ¾ inches measured across the back of shell at narrowest point. As a sport crabber, you are allowed 10 a day, unless you are in a party boat running from the Golden Gate to the Mendocino County coast, where the limit is six.

From a boat, you are most likely to toss out crab traps, wire cages baited with heads and guts of fish, maybe greasy chicken or turkey parts or bones, or even a can of dog or cat food with a lot of punctures to let the juice out.

Drop it to the bottom with line attached to a buoy and go off and fish for awhile. Right now party boats are running potluck trips -- crabs, shrimp picked up in traps and sand dabs, halibut and stripers caught on hook and line.

"Crabs and dabs" is real popular, and Humboldt Squid will soon fall into the mix so long as the water stays calm. Drop the traps first, catch your fish and pull the traps on the way back home.

Fishing for crabs from piers and jetties, you can use a trap, but they are pretty heavy to haul up. Crab hoop nets with two rings and rope netting that forms a basket when pulled up works a lot better. Make sure your bait is inside a metal or plastic container to keep the seals from stealing it. However, there is a new method that is really getting popular; snares.

Crab snares are small wire bait containers surrounded by monofilament loops. You can cast the snares out with a fishing pole, then just sit back and wait for the end of the pole start moving. OK, there is no big strike, but when you see the pole dip, give the line a good steady pull and reel in consistently.

Any crab legs that happen to be inside loops get caught when you draw the line in. In California you are allowed six loops per snare. Check your state to make sure you are following the regs.

You can buy crab snares for $10 or less in sporting goods stores or online. Personally, I like to make my own. Fashion a small wire bait cage out of metal hardware cloth. Leave a door with hinges to put in bait, and toss in something an ounce or two in weight to keep the snare from being washed around by tides, currents and waves.

I use six pieces of 120-lb test monofilament line about 14-15 inches long to make the loops. I use swivels where the snare line passes through to make the sliding opening for the loop, and tie the end of each loop snare to the cage.

In the San Francisco area, pier crab fishermen head south for the Pacifica Pier, and north to the Spud Point Marina Pier in Bodega Bay. (Fishing on any public pier in California does not require a license, but all other regulations must be followed.)

If you are a surf fisherman, wait until low tide and then wade out and cast your snare into the surf. This is growing in popularity in leaps and bounds, and the folks I've checked so far are getting some nice crabs that no one else can really access.

You want to cook crabs up ASAP. When you pull them out of the water, they stop eating. Even if you keep them alive in water for a couple days, without food, they start to consume themselves, which results in softer flesh that begins to lose some taste. One-quarter of crab's weight is white, flaky and slightly sweet meat -- bring on the melted butter. The bigger they are the more meat.

Drop the live crabs in boiling water for 15-18 minutes. They turn bright red and they are ready to crack. Add beer and crab boil spices to water for extra taste. Break out the cracking pliers and forks or other instruments to get the meat out and you're in business.

Fisherman's Wharf is plastered with signs of Dungeness Crabs and street-side vendors cook them up in big boiling pots and serve them up in heaping piles, but the waters of San Francisco Bay are off-limits as it is a protective rookery.

However, there is no closed season on other crabs and you are allowed to catch up to 35 red rock, slender and yellow crabs from the Bay or ocean. They must have a minimum shell size limit of four inches. Personally I think rock crabs are a little tastier than Dungeness, but don't tell the folks at Fisherman's Wharf.

On both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge there are fishing piers where rock crabs are commonly caught. Another good place is the fishing pier in Berkeley Marina in the East Bay. It juts out into the bay a quarter of mile and can be good for California halibut, too.

San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf may have the Dungeness Crab as its mascot, but the state of Oregon has done them one better. In 2009 Oregon named the Dungeness Crab the State Crustacean.

If you really want to indulge yourself, January 21-30, Mendocino County in northern California hosts a Crab and Wine Days event featuring crab feeds, crab cruises, winemaker dinners, crab cook offs, and dozens of other events all around the county. It's rated as One of America's Top Seafood and Wine Festivals. Check out www.visitmendocino.com for details.

Fresh crab for Christmas is a big tradition out here. You have heard of Santa Claws, haven't you?

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.