June 30, 2011
Confessions of a crab freak: I enjoy the show Deadliest Catch, in small doses, with its scary premise of fights, dischord, death and dismemberment. But all I really want to know when watching is not who is going to die, quit, get busted for drugs, or fired...but...do the poor bastards get to eat any of the crab they pull from those freezing waters?
Got the chance this past fall to participate in my own junior varsity version of Alaskan crabbing off Kodiak Island, on a deer hunt turned seafood smorgasborg.
Balancing on slick fuel barrels while the ocean rushed by over the rail to the right, I hovered above the deck of the SUNDY, our mothership, as a heavy trap full of at least 50 pounds of live crabs and bait swung aboard. I'd been designated the schmuck to run the top rope/rigging. From there, I scrambled up onto the rooftop of the galley, carefully reaching wa-a-a-a-y out on the free swinging arm of the mini electric boom to loop the rope from the trap sitting on the ocean floor far below over the pulley.
I was honestly as excited about the huge crabs in the pot as I was when I finally cracked a big blacktail buck on that trip. I've been obsessed with crabs, shrimp, crawfish and lobsters in all oceans my entire life. Fresh crab is proof that God really knows how to wow us when he feels like it, and Alaskan crabs are the holy grail for crab queers like me.
The idling, shifting boat had me approaching maximum pucker, 'cause it was a great way to fall in that 40-degree water, lose a finger in the pulley, or have one of the pots smack into you as it swung aboard. The electric motor had died for the pot pulling crane, which normally pulls the rope over a wheel, and we had to use the skiff to pull the pots, a hairy ordeal. We had to get the crab trap line over the pulley on the boom and back to the little boat below, where it would be tied off and the motor gunned on the small boat, pulling the trap up form over 100 feet of water as the skiff sped away.
It was a tense dance that went on for minutes at a time as we fought to keep the rope at the right angle to stay in the pulley, as two boats pulled against each other. It worked, amazingly, and we cheered and yelled with glee as the traps slowly came up full of red and brown Tanner crabs, a kid sister to the king crab that is still one monstrous crustacean. Some of the powerful compact squat-bodied 2 pound dungeness crabs clicked away at us from inside the traps, as well.
GET IN MY BELLY!
We awkwardly wrestled the traps up onto the rooftop, fighting to pull them up and over after emptying them, but I managed to do it with the help of ocean newby Luke Hartle, a stout midwester who looks like a natural for the Bering Sea life.
Deadliest catch? Not really. It was a great opportunity to fall and break a bone, or pitch into the freezing ocean, have a snapping rope swat you, smash a finger...or just get a nasty pinch from those snapping claws.
But the only thing that hurt in the end was my belly, and my feelings cause i couldn't hold anymore. I have a problem. I'm a seafood freak. From fresh icelandic lobster to still writhing longusta caught with my son in the Keys, to scuba-diveing for San Diego Pacific spiny lobster to gorging on giant one-foot shrimp in Indonesia.... to cracking and crunching on more varieties of crabs in more places (let that one go, please) than I can remember, been a crustacean carnivore since i grew teeth. I've even jigged my own squid from the Seattle waterfront. It's what my family does.
But this Kodiak crab thing was without equal.
After hiking the misty mountains of the island all day hunting for deer, and earning that great gnawing hunger only outdoorsmen know, I can say without hyperbole that absolutely nothing I've eaten, even in all my travels as a former golf and luxury magazine editor, compared to that feast.
Nothing fancy. Steam, salt, and beer. The very best were the first claws cracked outside, in the cold, right from the pot, standing on the rear deck.
Would it have been worth a mangled finger? You're damned right. Would I let you cut off a fingertip now to experience it again? I'd actually think about it.
Check my feature story WELCOME TO THE ROCK on that Kodiak Island hunt, on magazine racks this month, to read how me and a buddy had a big brown bear nearly make us drop a big brown load in our drawers. A scary place to be sneaking around! Maybe next time I'll just stay on the boat...