It’s over. For most areas in Western Washington, crabbing season this year ended on September 4. And though it has its smelly challenges at times, I’ll really miss doing it until next year’s crabbing marks the summer season again. Which means a lot to come from a city girl who learned how to crab only ever since she moved to the South Puget Sound area.
I wouldn’t know that my mother country Germany’s North Sea or its Baltic Sea hold any crab at all. If they do, I’ve never seen any. The only crustaceans I remember are North Sea shrimp: ugly, little gray creatures that are tough to peel, but hold immense flavors. There is no recreational shrimping, unless you count going out on a crab cutter with a professional crew. You may watch them sink the net, drag it up again, boil the loot, and then taste one or two. The rest are for sale. Those tours, sold as two-to-three-hour-cruises often with a look at seal colonies, are mostly booked up by city people vacationing by the North Sea and trying to find something authentic. If it is authentic to gawk at a cutter crew hauling shrimp.
Moving to Western Washington, introduced me to recreational crabbing, of course. Every small town on the Sound seems to have their own public fishing dock. With the beginning of crabbing season, which usually coincides with the beginning of summer, entire families start flocking to those docks, sometimes equipped with chairs and umbrellas, even full picnic baskets. It can get pretty cramped on these docks, and it becomes almost a friendly kind of competition as to who has already caught how many crabs. One of the most intriguing questions is that about bait – turkey tails, salmon heads, chicken legs, or rather some special item from one of the marinas around? Some people swear by what they are using. So far, my husband and I have been trying out pretty much everything, even rank stuff that would make you shudder, in order to catch crab. Meanwhile, I’m almost sure it’s more about location, time of day, and tidal circumstances than what bait you cram into the bait basket inside your trap or net.
These days, during crabbing season, we are rather operating from a small boat. I toss our single trap net overboard when my husband tells me we are at the perfect depth. We check the surroundings for landmarks, so we are sure to find our trap again, and then we head off for some exploring. Usually, coming back from a turn through some quiet bays or from beaching the boat on an island, we immediately check on our trap again. That means that my husband steers the boat near the marker buoy, and I lean overboard to grab it and haul it in hand-over-hand and as quickly as possible. More often than not the crabs are too small, and I set them free again. We also agree that we don’t want any females, even when legal. In 2016, we didn’t catch a single crab of edible size all summer long. This year, we were quite lucky.
I would never have believed that I would ever be nimble enough to disentangle live crab from netting without getting nicked by their strong prongs. These beautiful creatures then end up in a wet and iced towel in a cooler and get transported home as soon as we have finished our crabbing trip. Now, here comes the part that is probably the most humbling for a crabber: the coup de grâce. In order to appreciate my food to the full, I wanted to learn to do it myself. A quick, hard blow to the head seems to be more humane than throwing them into boiling water alive. Still, before I kill shellfish, I apologize to them. Hosing out the guts and cleaning the barnacles off with a knife, leaves a carcass that doesn’t yield anything disgusting into the steamer on the BBQ. The meat from the body, by the way, is a flaky delicacy, stunning to eat, and easily doubles the amount from the prongs and legs. Have it with clarified butter or turn it into crab cakes – it’s a culinary experience. For someone never having dealt with crab before, I think I have adjusted to this part of Western Washington life pretty well.
For whatever reason, we have always only caught red rock crab in our trap, by the way. Not bad either – they are scrumptious. The legendary, sought-after Dungeness crab has managed to elude us, so far. But one has to have a reason to eat out sometimes, too, don’t you think?