Dungeness crab season has historically started in mid-November, and it’s a local holiday tradition in the Bay Area. But the season has been delayed for at least the past five years — due to toxin scares, fishermen strikes, and marine mammal protection. This year, we’re waiting for sea turtles to swim further out to avoid getting tangled in gear. But while the commercial season won’t start until November 22 at the earliest, the recreational season started promptly on November 6. In short: If you want crab for Thanksgiving, it’s time to take matters into your own claws.
Eater readers tend to be more competitive about catching reservations than catching crustaceans, so for anyone who could use a primer or refresher on the noble sport of crabbing, we called in a pro. Former sushi chef and San Francisco native Taku Kondo worked at Roka Akor and Hinata, before shifting to focus on fishing and foraging, and launching a popular YouTube channel called Outdoor Chef Life. Half a million subscribers now watch him paddle out on his kayak to catch local salmon, crab, and uni, then fire up his stove to make nigiri and ramen. Kondo says anyone can enjoy the sport, even beginners. “It’s definitely fun,” Kondo says. “Crabbing is actually pretty simple.” So according to a chef, here’s the scuttlebutt on crabbing in the Bay Area, from the best gear to the best spots — and an important reminder to never forget to pack beer.
When is the recreational crab season in the Bay Area, exactly?
The recreational crabbing season for the San Francisco Bay Area is open from November 6, 2021 to July 30, 2022, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Do you need a license to go crabbing around San Francisco?
Anyone 16 years or older is required to have a California fishing license, available online for $54. The exception is that it’s legal to fish without a license off a public pier, including Pacifica Municipal Pier and Torpedo Wharf in SF, which are both crabbing scenes. “But I recommend getting a license, either way,” Kondo says. It will give you the most flexibility to find the best spots, and “it supports the fishery.”
What kind of gear do you need to go crabbing?
Choose your own adventure from three options:
- A rod, reel, and snare with six loops are Kondo’s equipment of choice. You can cast out from the shore and hang out on a beach.
- A hoop net made of two or three rings is what this writer grew up dropping off the edge of a dock with her old man. But you have to pull up promptly or the crabs will scuttle off.
- A crab trap looks like a box with circular openings. They are the most secure and you can boat out and leave them dropped overnight But there is some fine print this year: Currently, the use of crab traps is temporarily restricted, so check back for an update. And whenever they are allowed, you’ll need two buoys, and in addition to the fishing license, a special stamp for an additional $2.50.
Either way, you’ll also need:
- A gage for measuring your crabs.
- A bucket for bringing keepers home.
Here’s where to get your gear:
- Gus’ Discount Tackle is an institution and kind of an experience going back more than 60 years in the Outer Richmond. Kondo got his first gear there and remains a fan: “Stephanie is super nice, very lovely, she’ll take care of you.” (Stephanie Scott is the longtime owner, who famously does not fish.)
- Hi’s Tackle Box in South San Francisco is another local favorite.
- West Marine is a larger chain with locations in Sausalito, Alameda, and San Carlos.
What do you use for crab bait?
This was a silly question because of course Kondo catches his own bait. He uses mackerel, herring, or another oily fish. But both Kondo and Gus’ also recommend squid, which you can grab at the tackle shop and throw in the freezer until ready to use.
Where are the best spots to catch crabs in the Bay Area?
Now this is the million dollar question. Finding a good crabbing spot, “that comes with time, I guess,” Kondo muses. “You’ve got to be lucky and keep trying.” He recommends testing a few spots and chatting with other fishermen to see what they’re pulling in. Here are the crowd favorites with Kondo’s recs:
- Pacifica Municipal Pier is a popular spot for catching Dungeness without a license, and it can be a scene, with camping chairs and carne asada on the grill. But Kondo can’t in good conscience recommend it. “That spot is crowded. You’ve got to fight people to fish. It’s shoulder to shoulder,” he says. “The only time I was successful there was when it was pouring rain, I was out there by myself, and I got three big Dungees in a couple of hours.”
- Torpedo Wharf in the Presidio is a popular spot for catching rock crab without a license. But likewise, it’s busy, and because it’s located just within the Golden Gate Bridge, that means that you’re only allowed to catch rock crab.
- Kondo prefers Baker Beach just outside the bridge to get away from the crowds with his rod and reel, and likewise, Ocean Beach will give you more room to space out.
- Half Moon Bay is a popular hub to head out on in a charter boat, if you want to pay for a guide (see more below).
Is Dungeness tastier than rock crab?
That’s a matter of personal taste. Kondo loves both: He says rock crab has a firmer texture and thicker fibers, and yields less meat — you might get a big claw but those legs are little. While Dungeness releases big lumps of milky-sweet meat. (In a blind taste test, the sushi chef could taste the difference every time.)
What are the best times to go crabbing?
Different fishermen will give you different advice, some checking the tide tables for low and incoming tides. But Kondo says he pays more attention to the weather and the swell. “As long as you can cast out the bait and let it sit,” he says. “If the swell is too big, your bait is going to get thrashed.”
How long do you usually have to wait to catch a crab?
Speaking of which, you do need to develop a sense of timing. Using his rod and reel from the beach, Kondo casts out and waits at least 10 minutes before checking his bait. Depending on how much the crabs are nibbling, he’ll shorten to up to 6 minutes or extend to up to 20 minutes, refreshing the bait as necessary, or trying a different spot. This is a great moment to eat a doughnut or crack a beer. Then test the line to see if it feels heavy, and reel in like you mean it with steady tension.
How do you measure and check gender?
Oh my god, you caught a crab! Now pull out that gage: The Dungeness minimum size is 5¾ inches, and the rock crab is 4 inches, so throw back the little guys for next season. Surprisingly in California, recreational crabbers are allowed to keep female Dungeness crabs, but Kondo and other ethical fishermen always throw them back to sustain the fishery. It’s really easy to spot the difference — flip a crab over and the female has a much wider triangle on the abdomen.
How many crabs are you allowed to keep?
Oh my god, you caught lots of crabs! The Dungeness daily limit is 10 crabs, should you be so lucky, and rock crab is 35 crabs, which would be a serious haul.
This sounds tricky — can I hire a guide?
It’s so easy! It’s so fun! But yeah, of course, you can hire a guy, just like Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton like to do. “If you’re willing to pay for a charter, there are lots of local charters around the area who will take you out there and you will most likely get crabs,” Kondo confirms. He recommends Gatherer Outfitters at the Berkeley Marina or New Huck Finn Sportfishing out of Emeryville, just to name a couple. Devastatingly, you can’t go out with Kondo, who doesn’t have a guide license. But hey, if you’re inspired by his videos, you can always paddle out with your own kayak.
What’s the best way to cook and eat crab?
Other than simply boiling crab and drowning it in melted butter, the sushi chef has a favorite black pepper crab recipe, which he’s going to be posting to his YouTube channel soon. In a wok, he combines oyster sauce, butter, lots of black pepper, and a splash of water. Then he tosses in crab quarters or legs, and simmers it all until the meat is firm and the sauce coats the crab, about 10 minutes. Then he showers fresh scallion and cilantro over the top.
Above all, “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t catch them on the first try. Take some friends, take some beers, have a good time,” Kondo says. “Crab is the bonus, if you get one.” And my old man would also tell you to always bring a raincoat.