Crabbing Tomales Bay

Northern California’s Highway One, its crooks and curves hugging tight to the Pacific coastline, was flooded out in the one-horse town of Tomales. Desperately needed December rains poured down the now verdant West Marin hills, washing onto the road boulders, tree limbs, and thick piles of red clay soils. My old wagon doesn’t float, nor would its pristine chassis appreciate the saltwater bath. With an enormous ration of still warm green tea, wispy crumbs from a wood-fired ham and cheese croissant littering my lap, and the horns of Bach’s Brandenburg Concert Number One sounding its joyful opening notes, I doubled back and took the long way.

The rains had called a temporary truce with the saturated earth, and were replaced by a limp fog, its long fingers lightly brushing the décolletage of the fertile hills; a wizened matador amid the town lovelies. Herds of cows and elk grazed the dewy green vistas and enormous turkey vultures, their eyes the blood red of their road kill treasures, perched atop telephone poles, wings open wide to the sky, gargoyles drying themselves of the weather.

All too soon, I arrived to the Tomales Bay public boat launch. Fifteen miles in length and one mile wide, this long, narrow inlet fed from the ocean is filled with oyster beds, seals, and seabirds, all under the safeguard of California’s Bays and Estuaries Policy, and is surrounded by forests and farms, much of which is protected in perpetuity by Marin Agricultural Land Trust, ensuring its freedom from development. Taking the binoculars from the glove box, I scanned the waters for my ride; a 12-foot, motorized skiff captained by a tall, soft-spoken gentleman several years my junior. While I was being re-routed onto drier back roads, he was laying crab traps in various parts of the bay.

I geared up into boots, an old hunting jacket and a gifted cashmere cap pulled low over my ears. The skies were a patchwork of gray steel, riveted by whitish clouds clinging to the evergreens, which embrace Tomales Bay. Full throttle propelled us across exceptionally still waters, sending gaggles of geese into noisy flight. Near the mouth of the bay, we cut the engine and floated to the trap planted furthest from the dock, marked by a buoy painted New England red and white; the wind and waves of the open ocean roiling against Tomales Point in the distance.

The traps were an assortment of metal cages and rings with mesh rope, each weighted with bricks, and baited with an offering of the severed heads of sea bass, their eyes cloudy and stunned at their predicament. With a long gaff, I snagged the buoy and pulled, learning quickly that hauling up the seemingly endless, thick, wet ropes tethered to crab traps weighted onto the seabed below while garbed in leather driving gloves will immediately and forever relinquish the finely tailored pieces to the pockets of my fishing waders.

Dungeness crab season opens at the beginning of November and every year, without fail, it’s an anticipated meal. One of the most prolific crab in the waters north of Monterey Bay, Dungeness, Cancer magister, are sweet and succulent from their diet of clams, crustacean, and smaller fish. They’re easily identified by the white tipped, saw-toothed pincers on the ends of their claws, or chelipeds. Their last three walking legs boast a hairy fringe, and the tip of the last segment on their body is rounded, unlike the pointed flap on all other crabs. Dungeness, named for the Port of Dungeness in Washington, are one of the largest edible crabs, filling out to a width of 9” across its reddish-brown back.

Like all fisherman, my crabbing buddy had his theories about which area was most conducive to filling our traps. Eel grass beds, shallows, and currents found their way into our conversation. Finally the metal cage was heaved into the boat bearing several angry crabs. Knowing we had a daily bag limit of ten crab per person, (an incredibly obscene amount), and a mandatory minimum size limit of 5.75”, we measured each crustacean with a crab gauge, trying to avoid the flailing claws, a pair of five on each pissed-off crab. Many were missing a large front claw from the completely ghastly but perfectly legal practice of removing one claw and tossing the crab back into the ocean. The claw rejuvenates and grows back during the yearly molting, regaining normal size after many years. Several too-small Dungeness were tossed back into the chilly bay (with all of their legs!), but we kept a couple of Red crabs. Often overlooked by fisherman in favor of the larger, meatier Dungeness, the Red crab, Cancer productus, is colored as billed, with black-tipped pinchers on the tips of their sharp, rough-edged claws. Growing to 8” in length, Red crabs are harvested from Baja to Alaska. Their claw meat is crustacean gold; sweet and firm, with a distinctly briny note.

Both Dungeness and Red crabs are members of the Cancridae family and the genus Cancer, meaning hard shell. Their wide, oval carapace bears a saw-toothed grin, and both crabs are among nine species of this family and genus found in the waters off California, and certainly the most delicious.

By late afternoon, we had hauled aboard enough Dungeness and Red crab for a decent supper. As the winter sky began to contemplate the evening, we decided to return to the dock. I zipped my jacket tight and reclined in the bow of the boat, trying to re-light a damp, hastily rolled joint of Mendocino green bud. My normally taciturn fishing mate, a fine trait in an outdoorsman, began to quietly curse. I laughed mercilessly when told the boat was out of gas. As he hitched the oarlocks and oars into place, a dozen seals surrounded the floating skiff, their heads bobbing just above the surface. Many of them followed us to the dock, a good long mile and a sweaty row away.

A well-used, mid-century-orange stockpot was filled with water and a fistful of salt. With a nod of gratitude, I quickly submerged the crabs into the raging boil. When their shells achieved the bright red of an Yves St. Laurent lipstick, they were fished out and laid to rest on a bed of ice. From a four-finger pile of yellowed Sunday papers kept in a kitchen corner, the table was laid with layers of the newsprint, their sad headlines and beseeching advertisements covered with white linen napkins, crab crackers and picks, dozens of halved Meyer lemons, bowls of sea salt, warm crusty ciabatta, and a bottle of just-pressed Tuscan oil, its vivid green bite lacing every morsel. A slightly misshapen wooden bowl the size of a baby’s bathtub was piled with chopped chicories, thin slices of persimmon, and tiny lettuces dressed in balsamic, their reds and greens heralding the holiday season. The salad, along with a plate of Medjool dates, and a hunk of aged Sonoma goat cheese, its edges beginning to ooze beguilingly, would qualify as dessert. The candles were lit, a twenty-year old Napa Valley Chardonnay was uncorked, and the crabs were placed in the middle of the table, every man for himself-style.