Crab camp

The Question: How has a mild-mannered boy like me, never prone to guns or fishing or traditional masculine sport in general, wound up each summer on the hunt for crabs near the San Juan Islands on the Washington coast? That’s what I love to do come mid-August, and have done half a dozen times since the summer of 1999: I’ll ride out for a couple miles in a little fishing boat with an outboard motor, help to pull in as many crabs as we can catch, then come to shore and – once they’re killed – pull them apart with my bare hands and send them off to be cooked and devoured, preferably while they’re still hot.

Part of the appeal is familial, which is, perhaps, to say primal. Though my own family, while I was growing up, celebrated outdoor life – camping, canoeing, hiking northern Arizona’s magnificent canyons – we weren’t a hunting family. But I married into one. And although I’ve still never taken up shooting big game, I’ve come to see why my in-laws organize their years around time spent outside, camped-out together, in a common pursuit of some seasonal prey. There’s a fraternal bond at the core – these traditions come down through my father-in-law and his three brothers; the crabbing tradition, similarly, began with my wife’s cousin’s husband and his childhood best friend – but these events have expanded to include spouses, children, grandchildren, and even a son-in-law like me, linked together in common pursuit and pastime, even if not everyone takes part in the killing. Crabbing and hunting in the northwest involve old sets of coastal rituals, though, older than this one extended family. The reminder that our crab camp is set on an Indian reservation brings this point home.

make your reservations early

I don’t remember what I thought about the idea of crabbing the first time I went. I do have a picture of me trying to handle a crab that summer, my arms jerked back, upper body tipped precariously inward as I tried to keep my feet clear in case I dropped it, one hand on the crab, face twisted and looking the other way, eyes-closed, while the crab wriggled and tried to snap back at my fingers and wrists. (In no way does that photo resemble the philosophical moment captured in the one below, wherein I can be seen to ask: “What is the essence of crabness?”) Crabs are unnaturally cute when rendered as cartoon characters; in real life they aim to take off your fingers.

what is crab?

If I wasn’t very good at first at handling the snappy little suckers, I quickly found a place for myself in this tradition by pulling up the traps. I’d ride out with Stephanie’s dad, Jack, who drove the boat, and her Uncle Lynn, who’d do the bulk of the dirty work. My two bits had to do simply with a young back: Once I’d caught hold of the buoy and hauled up each trap, pulling in 60 feet of line until the steel cage rose to the surface, Lynn would reach in – most of the time bare-handed – and pull the crabs out one by one, holding them down so I could measure them to make sure they were the full 6 ¼ inches required to make them keepers. If they were too small – or if they were female – he’d toss them back over the side of the boat and they’d swim to safety below, off the hook, so to speak. Lynn’s job extended to killing them once we’d cleared our half-dozen traps and headed back to shore. He’d pull them from our white, 10-gallon buckets, hold them still and sternum-side down on the edge of the boat, and give them a good crack on the back shell, killing them instantly. He’d toss them back into the bucket, their clacking claws gone stiff, for someone to retrieve and clean.

The Campsite: If finding a place for myself in the fraternal/familial/primal ritual forms the core of crabbing’s appeal for me, the style of camping involved is, like hunting itself, foreign to my experiences as a child. I was used to tents, maybe to a foam pad, sleeping bags on the ground. I grew up with campfire cooking and canoes rather than motor boats and motor homes. I certainly never imagined I’d find myself in the middle of RV America: “Camping” in this context means not only showers, but phones, lights, motor cars – every luxury imaginable, down to a mostly dependable wireless access, cable or satellite TV, and gas kitchens in the campers. RV lifestyles deserve an essay of their own, but I’ll limit my comments here to this: Though most of the people I encounter on these excursions away from New York can hardly imagine paying upwards of $1 million per bedroom (if you’ve got a bargain) for a Manhattan apartment, they will drool when the largest, newest RVs roll into the park. “There’s three quarters of a million dollars,” you might hear someone say, as an RV bigger than a tour bus rumbles by, a collection of Beanie Babies carefully lining the front dash, an Acura SUV in tow. And though you would certainly be better served by pouring that money into New York real estate, which, unlike a motor home, will appreciate in value rather than wear out over time, such thinking misses the point. Mobile homes marry convenience with a premium on mobility, comfort and safety with adventure, American consumerism with Western American noncomformity.

The Hunt: This year was different than our others have been, most notably because Lynn’s recent foot surgery meant he wouldn’t be going out in the boat, and so others – including me – would have to step up to do the handling and killing. I wound up going out two or three times a day, Tuesday to Saturday, pulling up almost all the traps and handling a majority of the crabs – surprised and somewhat pleased that my skills had improved over the years. Stephanie came out in the boat too, traded off with her Uncle Larry, and the two of them would handle and kill the crabs as well.

I’m still no expert, but here’s a quick crabbing primer to cover various stages of the game:

1. Pull in the traps.

dinner invitation

I’ve already described the arm-over-arm pulling up of the traps, which will leave your lower back sore if you don’t stand upright and let your shoulders do the work. You find your traps by the red and white bobbers at the end of the line; ours are also marked with pink ribbon to set them apart from the dozens of others floating in the same waters. The traps have four to six doors that swing in but not out. The crabs will come in to get the bait – turkey, chicken, salmon bones and tails, wee little fish that couldn’t go to market – and the bigger ones get stuck inside. You lose a lot of bait to baby crabs that can enter and leave the cages at will, picking the bait boxes clean, but you have to assume you’re fattening them up for another day.

2. Find the keepers and throw back the rest.

size matters

If you’re lucky, they’re big enough that there’s no question about them. You open the trap, catch them from behind, and hold them with your thumb on their abdomen and your fingers squeezing the back. From this position they won’t be able to catch you with their pinchers, but their back legs can still poke you, sometimes hard enough to pierce your gloves. Don’t drop them, though: instead, say something appropriate like “Cut that out, you son of a bitch” and either chuck him hard in your bucket or, if he’s borderline in size, hold him down tight on the seat, not letting up your grip, and measure him. (I say “him” because it’s illegal to take females, discernable by a wider, rounder pattern on the abdomen than arrow-shaped one the males have.)

3. Rebait, drop, head back to shore.

home sweet home

The line of RVs will grow gradually larger in the distance under the ring of trees that surrounds the campsite. If it’s late in the afternoon and the sun’s coming down stronger than usual, you may find that this is the one time in life you find a Bud Lite to be supremely appropriate.

4. Kill the crabs (optional).

If you’re going to kill the crabs and clean them before cooking, you can do it as you ride back in, or take a little break and do it once you’re back at shore. On our biggest catch this week Stephanie decided to do most of the killing on the way back in.

don’t mess with the fist of fury

5. Clean them (also optional). Though many crabbers argue for cooking them live and whole, we’ve always cleaned ours at the shore, throwing the shells and entrails back for seagulls to pick at and to refortify the water with calcium. To clean the crabs, grab a set of legs in each hand, like so:

let’s twist again

Twist your hands in opposite directions until the legs break free in a cluster. Discard the large outer shell; pull off the grey, tear-shaped lungs. Rinse the legs to remove the poop you’ll find on opening them.

 mr. poopy pants

(I’m sure the poop contributes to the superior flavor boasted by those who advocate cooking them whole, but I’d rather not find out for myself.)

6. Steam in ocean water.

in they go!

7. Sit down to eat (condiments optional).

bibs not optional

When your shell bowls look like this

calcium deposit

you know you’re through. Go toss your shells in the ocean.

The repetition of the routine, starting with the twice or thrice daily trips out on the boat and finishing with the steaming crabpot and a fresh meal, is part of the appeal, but each trip out calls for its own subtle variations. Did your traps not yield? Maybe you need to move them to another area. Maybe your bait’s not fresh. Maybe the tides are working against you. Locals offer all sorts of wisdom, and we seem to learn something new each year from our campmates, too: Keep your bait fresh, since it’s the oils released that attracts the crab, not simply the smell. Drizzle bacon grease over your bait, someone told us this year. Everyone has pet theories, and part of the fun – as with any hunting, I suppose – is the tension between practiced skills and sheer luck. If too many traps are empty too many times in a row, especially in the morning, you start to worry that someone’s cleaning them out over night. You watch the other boats a little more warily, guessing who the culprits may be. You might head out more often, or a little earlier, hoping to protect your turf.

The Meals: Food on a crabbing trip ranges from the mundane to the spectacular. Some meals are designed for economy and convenience, comfort foods that can appeal to a wide array of ages and tastes: spaghetti, hot dogs, potato casseroles made with multiple varieties of Campbell’s soup. (All told, our camp totaled 26 adults and kids this year; we gathered as an entire clan for four separate dinners in one week.) Larry’s wife Patsy makes a hell of a crab bisque. Other times you don’t want anything but a heaping mound of fresh crab. For the last three years, Stephanie and I have contributed a mussel pot one evening for the smaller group of her uncles and their progeny: 12 pounds of shellfish, cooked in white wine, butter, thyme, onions, capers, and red peppers. This year we also bought a couple dozen local oysters from a roadside seafood vendor – big ones, named after a local Indian tribe — $6/dozen. But the real feast came on Saturday, when Chefs Donna and John (part of the group that predates my in-laws’ participation in this crabbing trip) cooked an enormous pot filled with potatoes, bratwurst, jumbo prawns, mussels, and crab legs, with separate steaming pots of clams and corn. When everyone’s gathered around they throw it all out on the table for the crowd to serve up; the ritual emptying of these pots is regarded by many as the climax of the crabbing trip.

spilled goods

This year, John, the consummate camp cook, gathered 10 gallons of clams right from the campsite shore:

clam pot

He also served plum tart as dessert, cooked in a tart tin in the bottom of his Dutch oven:


John’s cooking skills unsettle what could too easily become an exercise in gender essentialism, with the men going out for food and the women standing on the shore, waiting to see what sustenance you’ve brought home. Same goes for Stephanie’s willingness to ride in the boat and kill the crabs, though most people who know Stephanie realize she’s never been one to go in for gender essentialism. I admit there’s something refreshingly masculine (maybe it’s just Melvillean) about the feel of crabbing – the fraternal ride out and back in the boat, the hunt for the traps, the physicality of hauling them up, the combat of wills with an animal that would break your finger or draw blood rather than let you take it in. I like the feeling of riding out in a boat with my father-in-law and his brothers, of finding a place in their world. Certainly they’ve taught me a lot over the years, from navigating motor boats to handling crabs, from dealing with a disappointing haul to the timing and delivery of a mildly ribald rejoinder. More than anything I appreciate the pace and the patience they and these trips have helped me cultivate, welcome respite from hectic summers and a pause before heading back to even more hectic autumns. In the silence that settles when you turn toward shore, you may, if you’re lucky, see a sea lion lift his head above the surface, turn his neck side to side, then slip back below saltwater waves.

17 responses to “Crab camp”

  1. Dave says:

    Awesome post. That food looks spectacular.

  2. JJP says:

    Hey, its Andrew Kelleys rommate….

    Absolutely amazing dude…I try to chase Blue Crabs in New Jersey when I get the chance…..Not as exciting, but crabbing is just so fun!

    Do you guys use chicken wings?

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Great post prof., it makes me wish I was with ya’ll. I just learned that male crabs are called Bucks and females are Jennys; interesting name for the females, huh?

    PS: You gotta come up to “Elk Camp”, and we’ll get you hooked on that as well. It’s definitely alot more about the family and tradition, than it is the catch.

  4. Beth W says:

    Great summertime post Bryan! The closest I ever got to crabbing was also a mini-lesson in “gender essentialism.” I was only about 7 years old and my male cousin brought home a load of crabs. My aunt and I cleaned them. I still remember rinsing out the yellow poo, being really “grossed out” and thinking this was not the fun part.

  5. jeremy says:

    I could totally picture you saying, “Cut that out, you son of a bitch!” (Scotty and I had oysters in downtown LB the other night… wish you had been there, but I guess you had other things on your plate…) Great post.

  6. trixie says:

    was that the night that scotty (that pistol!) called us at 2 am?

    great post, bw.

  7. Jeremy Zitter says:

    yeah, that was the same night, i think. i had no idea he was going to call you…sorry for the wake-up…

  8. Trixie Honeycups says:

    no problem.
    as far as phonecalls in the middle of the night go, that one was of the pleasant variety.

  9. 1. Thanks, Dave. The food *was* awesome. The oysters we bought were tasty, too. I’m gearing up for fall.

    2. JJP — thanks for the comment. I’ve never chased Blue Crabs, but I remember old guys dropping traps off the docks at Exchange Place in Jersey City. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’d want to eat shellfish caught in the Hudson. What’s the difference btwn Blue and Dungeness? Also, I clicked through to your cooking/food blog … made me hungry & made me want to venture to Brooklyn more for food.

    3. I’d love to do elk camp sometime, marley, but I think ssw has a monopoly on that trip for the time being. Not sure I’d shoot, though, even if I were any good at shooting.

    4. thanks, beth! poo is always better out than in, i think.

    5. j: was someone hitting on you in my comments section yesterday? and how did you make that comment magically disappear? come have oysters with me and dave and ssw in the fall. and bring scotty.

    6. xo trixie. we miss you. want to come to france with us next week?

  10. Eleanor's Papa says:

    I see my client the Shell refinery in the background of your Fidalgo Bay pictures — are you sure you want to eat those crabs and bud lite? You should have sailed over to our island for some nontoxic salmon and microbrews.

  11. I thought about you while I was there but wasn’t sure how close you really were. Maybe next year. And I’m really hoping that refinery doesn’t mess with those crabs too much. The folks we go with have been going there for 30 years or more, and so far no one’s grown an extra limb.

    So, you work for the bad guys now?

  12. Eleanor's Papa says:

    The house (which is on the next island over from your crabs) was financed by patent disputes during the bubble, Shell’s pipeline rupture litigation paid for the sailboat, Wal-Mart’s employment practices paid for the cars, and now Bank of America is paying for the remodel…. Law firms are all about the little guy.

  13. I had no idea you were up in the San Juans. I thought you were closer to Seattle. Can we boat our way over to you in our little craft next year?

  14. Taryn says:

    Lovely post, Bryan! Made me nostalgic for my former in-laws. If you’re still there, please say hello for me!

  15. Marleyfan says:

    Hey there Buffyfan, it’s been a while, hasn’t it. I hope you are well.

  16. Taryn says:

    Hi Marleyfan! I’ve been enjoying reading your comments here and there on greatwhatsit. I’m sending my love from Vermont!

  17. Marlene says:

    Buffy, What do you mean former in laws? We are a forever group. Write to me. MS