Crab country

In Pacifica, neting your fill is easy, fast, and fun
Ann Marie Brown

Delectable Dungeness crab costs $4 to $9 a pound at the grocery store. But if your luck is right at Pacifica Pier, the succulent shellfish will volunteer itself for your dinner table. That's what brings scores of crab devotees to Pacifica's 1,100-foot pier, one of only a few open-ocean fishing piers in Northern California.

You don't need any experience to crab. As for equipment, all you need are a crab net, a rope, some bait―typically sardines, mackerel, or squid―and a fixed crab gauge for measuring the crab's length. And you don't need very much time: it's not unheard-of to catch a Dungeness in a mere 15 minutes.

You'll need a crab (or ring) net―a basket made of two metal hoops and nylon mesh―available at bait and tackle stores. The crabber attaches a 100-foot rope, casts the net away from the pier, and lets it drop to the ocean floor. Unsuspecting crabs spy the bait and crawl in.

Crabbers often cast their nets, tie their ropes to a railing, and walk away. After strolling to the pier's Fog City Java for a cup of coffee, they return to haul in their spoils.

Although small Pacific rock crabs or red crabs are often caught, most crabbers return them to the sea and wait for the coveted Dungeness. With a carapace (body shell) of up to 9 inches wide, two or three large Dungeness crabs could feed a family. Just cook, clean, and crack them (see "Cracked-Crab Details," below). And don't forget the butter and garlic.

CRACKED-CRAB DETAILS
To transport your live crabs (it's crucial that they stay alive until they're cooked), wrap them in a gunnysack, keep them in a cooler, or put them on ice. They'll stay alive as long as they're kept cool.

1. Keep live crabs loosely covered in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours. 2. Grasp crabs carefully from the rear end, between the legs, and put them in a pan large enough to allow about 4 inches of clearance below rim. Fill pan with enough water to cover crabs by 2 to 3 inches, then remove them and bring water to a boil. 3. One at a time, grasp crabs again and plunge them headfirst into the boiling water. Cover pan and, when water resumes boiling, reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-pound crabs for about 15 minutes; cook 3-pound crabs for about 20 (shells will be bright reddish pink). Drain. 4. When cool enough to handle, pull off and discard triangular flap from belly. Turn crab over and, pulling from the rear end, lift off back shell. 5. Pull off reddish membrane that covers the center (if it hasn't come off with the back shell), head and rear pieces, and any loose bits. Scoop out golden butter. Pull off long, spongy gills from sides of body. Rinse body well with cool water. 6. Twist legs and claws from body. Using a nutcracker or wooden mallet, crack the shell of each leg and claw section. With a knife, cut the body into quarters. 7. Serve warm or chilled. Break apart legs and claws. With your fingers, a small fork, a pick, or the tip of a crab leg, remove the meat. Pull body sections apart and dig out the pockets of meat.

Go crabbing
WHERE: From southbound State 1 in Pacifica, take the Paloma Ave./Francisco Blvd. exit; turn right and drive 1/4 mile to Beach Blvd.; turn left and park near the pier. From northbound State 1, take the Clarendon Rd./Oceana Blvd. exit; drive 1/2 mile on Oceana to Paloma, turn left onto Beach Blvd. and toward the pier. Crab nets can be purchased at Rusty Hook Bait & Tackle in Pacifica (closed Wed; 2120 Palmetto Ave.; 650/355-8303).

WHEN: This year's crabbing season runs Nov 9 to Jun 30, 2003.

FYI: No fishing license is required on Pacifica Pier. Two lines (nets or poles) are allowed per person. The legal limit is 10 Dungeness crabs per day; the body minus the legs must be at least 5 3/4 inches across.