Looking for coastal fun without a long drive or risking ocean and river waters that may be too cold and dangerous for newbies in winter and early spring? Try the ultimate local watersport and do a little crabbing. Calmer bay waters and sheltered ocean coves used by recreational fisherman provide great access for the less experienced looking to enjoy a day on the water.
Dungeness crab are the prized crustaceans you see on local restaurant plates. Dungie season opened Nov. 1, 2014 and runs through July 30. Commercial fishing boats are stacked high with heavy, cumbersome metal crabbing pots. Don't be intimidated. For the recreational fisherman crabbing off a public dock, a smaller, affordable crab ring (also called a basket or hoop) is all you need to pull in a catch.
If you're along the US Highway 101 corridor near Eureka, there are a number of outdoor and fishing shops with $25 crab rings. If you're near Trinidad, you can stop into Salty's Supply Company, which rents crab rings for $15 a day. Crabbing off the Trinidad Pier is allowed, but be mindful of the commercial fisherman working there. It's a private pier, so unlike the municipal Eureka piers, it will require a fishing license. You can get one along with your bait at Murphy's Market, right next door to Salty's.
There are five public docks in Eureka that allow crabbing without a fishing license. (See map below.) You will also need a ruler and bait, and we recommend careful review of the 2014-2015 California Department of Fish and Wildlife Ocean Sport Fishing regulations online at www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/oceansportregs.asp.
Since crabs eat small fish and scavenge on the ocean floor, fish heads are the best bait, but raw chicken thighs work great and are easy to pick up at any grocery store. Get one or two thighs per ring. If you plan to keep any crabs for dinner, grab a small cooler and some ice, too.
Unlike with the large commercial crab pots, crabs can crawl in and out of the rings as they lay flat on the bay or ocean floor. Check with the sport shop folks about how your particular model works. Throw the trap into the water and let out enough line for the basket to sit on the bay floor, then loop the extra line around the dock's tie downs. Water in the bay fluctuates with tides, so you may feel the water pull the basket with some force. Just keep hold of the line. Then sit back and take in the view for about 20 minutes. Humboldt Bay is home to sea birds and seals, and if you're on the Trinidad Pier you should keep watch for sea otters.
When retrieving your basket, pull in the line as quickly as possible. This forces the crabs to the bottom. Smaller crabs may be able to squeeze through the woven mesh and escape, but larger crabs will be stuck.
Once on land, the crabs move quickly, so picking the crabs from your basket can be a two-person job. Carefully lower the basket to the dock, holding the final ring slightly above ground to keep the crabs trapped. A second person, ruler in hand, picks up each crab from behind, carefully keeping his or her fingers away from the claws, and measures the width of its shell.
Dungeness crab have a purplish color and can be taken if they measure at least 5 ¾ inches. Rock crab, which are bright red with black-tipped claws, can be taken at 4 inches or more. Both are good to eat. Bury the crabs under ice in your cooler and throw the basket back into the water. Subsequent throws can be hauled in after only 10 or 15 minutes.
Of course, if all the measuring is too much for you or your hotel doesn't have a kitchen, just toss them back in the water and grab some crab at one of many local shops that sell them live or cooked.