Hunting and Gathering

My uncle Bruce and I have had some exciting adventures in exotic lands like Uruguay, Panama, and Mexico. 

But he now lives in the quaint coastal town of Florence, Oregon.   So, as I pulled into the driveway, surrounded by a perfectly maintained garden and greenhouse, I wasn’t expecting much except a couple of days of long beach walks and good food.

Well, that’s sort of what happened.  We did take some long beach walks with his wife Mai and dog Isabel.  And we ate excellent food.

What Bruce didn’t tell me is we were going to “hunt and gather” for our food!

The “hunting” took the form of crabbing – setting crab pots and capturing Dungeness crab.  The “gathering” took the form of picking berries, beans, and other goodies from his vegetable garden.

Now, we have all probably picked freshly grown vegetables and berries at one time or another.  It’s fun and feels good, but it just isn’t that exciting or unique.  So I’ll mostly skip that part.

But crabbing?   Cool!  My only previous experience with crabbing has been trying to avoid crab pots as I sailed down the California Coast.  Now don’t get too excited, our little crabbing adventure was (fortunately) nothing like what you’ve seen on TV’s “Deadliest Catch.” 

Here’s a short recap of crabbing with Uncle Bruce.

Crab pots are metal cages with gates that swing open only one direction.  Fresh bait hangs in the middle of the cage.  When launched, the crab pot sits on the bottom of the ocean (or river in our case).  A long line runs to the surface, where a buoy at the end of the line marks the pot’s location for easy retrieval.  Our non-industrial sized pots were about 2’ x 2’ x 1’.   We had six of these pots, plus all the accompanying gear. 

Now, licenses or permits limit the number of pots-per-person.  And there are rules about size, sex, and quantity of crabs that a person is allowed to catch in a given day. 

The specific crab we were hunting was the famous and fabulously delicious Dungeness crab.  The law dictates that crabs must be 5.75 inches across the back, and male; smaller crabs and all female crabs must be released.  Unofficially, older crabs, sometimes identified as “moss backs” because of the dark coloration and/or growth on their backs, are typically more meaty than younger crabs of the same sex and size. 

Fueled by a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and coffee, we loaded Bruce’s 15-foot motorboat with the crab pots, bait, lines and buoys, life vests, gasoline, and of course a big bucket to hold our bounty should we get lucky today.  We towed the boat behind his Jeep, and made our way to the nearby Siuslaw River, where we launched the craft. 

It was a foggy, misty morning – typical Oregon Coast.   We motored down river slowly at first, passing under a very cool drawbridge that is being restore by the city of Florence.   We then passed some big sand dunes and a herd of seals on the beach.  It was very scenic, like something out of a movie.

We were about one mile from the Pacific Ocean.  At certain times the tidal current would bring the bright red/orange creatures up river.  This was perfect for us, since we weren’t about to go out in the open ocean in our small vessel, especially not along the unforgiving Oregon Coast.

We maneuvered the boat out of the main channel and headed a bit closer to shore, until we were in about 15 feet of water.  We prepared the pots by clipping the bait and line to each pot.  We tossed the 6 fully-assembled pots overboard, one by one, spacing them out in two different parts of the river.  We made mental notes of the approximate location of each pot, as indicated by the buoys bobbing in the gentle river current.

We waited about 15-20 minutes, and then circled back to each buoy to retrieve the pot sitting on the riverbed below.  At this point, I was driving the boat as Bruce prepared to do the dirty work of hauling up the pots and inspecting the crabs one by one.

Carefully accounting for the current (both tidal and river), I maneuvered the boat upriver, so we would float slowly past the buoy, at which point Bruce grabbed the line and hauled up the pot.  It reminded me a bit of all the person-overboard practice we do in sailing.

Bruce hauled the first pot out of the water.  Jackpot!  It was full of crabs!!  We dumped them into the bucket, measured each one using a special ruler that fit over the crab’s back, and inspected the underside to determine whether the catch was male or female.  We were constantly watching our fingers, too, keeping them clear of the snapping pincers.

Out of the 10 or so crabs in that first pot, only one was legal.  That was ok.  At least we knew we would be having some crab for dinner tonight!

In the second pot, the only right-sized crab was female.  Bummer.  But rather than throw her back in the water, we left her in the crab pot and re-launched the pot, hoping she would attract equal-sized males into the pot. 

And so it went.  For the next hour or so, we launched and retrieved the pots multiple times.  Our “live female bait” did not end up attracting any legally-sized males, unfortunately.  But our fresh salmon bait seemed to work just fine.  We ended up with 6 full-sized crabs – which was plenty for dinner tonight, and probably lunch tomorrow!  

Satisfied, we packed up the equipment and headed back to the boat ramp.  As we approached, the Fish and Game Warden came down to the dock to meet us.  He asked us what time we started / stopped crabbing, where we dropped the pots, how many crabs we caught, etc.  We gave him all the information he required.  He took a brief look at our bucket, and while he didn’t count “6” he could tell we didn’t have substantially more or less than that.  And he didn’t measure any of them.  We weren’t worried since we knew ours were perfectly legal.

Having passed inspection, we loaded the boat onto the trailer, and drove the short 10-minute drive home.  After cleaning and washing down the boat, we then set up a huge pot in the back yard, over a gas burner, where we would boil the crabs.  While the water boiled, Mai and I picked fresh strawberries and blueberries from the garden.  We boiled, chilled, and cleaned the crabs. 

That night, we enjoyed a true hunter-gatherer meal:  fresh crab from the river and fresh salad and berries from the garden, complimented by white wine which was by all means an acceptable deviation.

It was a great day!   Thanks Bruce and Mai!

I failed at squid in Thailand.  Let's see about crabs in Oregon.

I failed at squid in Thailand.  Let's see about crabs in Oregon.

YES!  We caught some crabs for dinner!

YES!  We caught some crabs for dinner!