Crustaceans are skittering across the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, molting, mating, hiding out in the eel grass and eating smaller fish and mollusks before heading out of the bay to deeper waters. Dungeness are a sweet-fleshed culinary favorite. They are a perfect plate size and their legs and bodies are meaty, and shell breaks easily, so they are not very labor intensive like blue or rock crabs. Dungeness season sets off an autumnal frenzy of crab feeds. These guys are perfect right out of the water-steamed or boiled. The recreational season begins November 1st and the commercial season starts November 15th. The commercial dungeness crab fishery is sustainable due to three main components: Sex, Size, Season. All females are thrown back, and any males under 6 1/4 inches wide so they can reproduce. As well, dungeness shed their shells, or molt which makes them delicate and susceptible to injury, so they aren't fished during molting season. These crabs can only be harvested on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge recreationally and commercially. So people with a boat have an advantage, but many adventurers strap crab pots onto kayaks or surfboards and paddle them out from Baker's Beach in San Francisco or Kirby Cove on the Marin Headlands side.
Yellow crabs, rock crabs, red crabs and slender crabs are plentiful in the waters surrounding San Francisco; these can be trapped within the bay. The limit is 35 a day and the minimum size is four inches measured by the shortest distance through the body, from edge of shell to edge of shell at the widest part. So what's the catch? Their claws are big and strong and hurt if they pinch you. Yet these are the only place on the them that have much meat. You can try to crack and pick the legs and body, but it's a lot of work for not much meat. Due to this, these are great for recipes that call for an "essence" of crab with a small amount of meat like bisque, savory bread puddings, and gumbo.
NOTE: You need a fishing license to harvest crabs recreationally.
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Step 1: Bait Your Pots
Two different types of crab traps are used for recreational crabbing. There's a crab hoop net-pictured with the green mesh, the other is a cage. Both of them should have a bait box in the center. These can be attached with zip ties. Throughout the year, save fish heads, bones, guts or any other part that might be thrown away. Keep them in the freezer, and take them out to bait your crab pot. Chicken and turkey necks, squid, and small bait fish like anchovy work well also. (Though some anchovies may be too small and slip out of the bait box). Make sure you bait cage is secured before tossing your cage into the water.
Step 2: Drop Your Trap
If you are dropping your trap from a boat or kayak, you'll need a buoy on the end of the line. If it's from shore, you'll want something to tie it off to-a rock or railing will work. Hold the line loosely and let it slide out of your hand. When it hits bottom, the line will go slack. Make sure you know if the tide is coming or going. If the tide is coming in, release more line accordingly. If the tide is outgoing, tie it off right where it hits.
The hoop style you should check more often than the cages, as crab can freely wander in and out of it. The traps can be left to soak overnight. But be careful, tides and currents can take these away. I've heard many people swear that when they leave crab traps overnight, "someone steals them". My bet is that they are getting pulled out to sea.
Step 3: Pull Your Pots
You can let traps soak overnight, but for hoops, check every 20 minutes to an hour. When you are pulling your pots in, try to do it in a slow, smooth motion that won't jiggle any crab loose. The boxes have holes in them that small crabs can get free from.
Step 4: Measure Your Crabs and Check the Gender
A dungeness crab must be 6 and 1/4 inches across their shells to be considered legal. The other crabs are legal at 4 inches. It is legal for recreational crabbers to keep females, but if they show signs of eggs, it's ethical to throw them back for conservation purposes. Always have a ruler on you to measure as fines are steep. The rulers also have pictures that show the difference between males and females. The eggs are bright orange and clustered on the belly area of the females-they are obvious.
Step 5: Take Your Crabs Home!
You may want to bring a cooler or burlap bag with you to take the crabs back with you. Some people keep them in the fridge until cooking them. I tend towards killing and cleaning them right on the boat. It's a quick, humane death for the crab and saves having to clean them in your kitchen. I'll post an Instructable on this method and many recipes are in the works.