Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Half Moon Bay, California
Visited: December 2017
It’s a warm sunny December morning in Half Moon Bay California. Not too much wind and the seas are calm, perfect kayaking weather. My wife Jaii and I got up well before dawn to make the two hour drive from Monterey to San Mateo to meet our friend Shannon and load up the kayaks and gear for the trip.
Getting the kayaks ready for some crabbing
After a short drive over the hill to the coast, we are now unloading our boats, prepping our gear, and stowing our cold beers for the hunt. The sun is just starting to peek over the breakwater as we push our boats into the still, golden water and set off. The anticipation, and hunger, can be felt by all as we paddle out in search of the most delicious of sea-bugs, the Pacific Dungeness crab.
Paddling the kayaks out of Pillar Point Harbor
The seagulls and pelicans are lined up, squawking along the rocky breakwaters as we make our way out of the harbor. The tiny kayaks are dwarfed by the fishing boats and sea-going vessels in the marina. In fact, out boats are not even designed to be in the ocean, they’re tiny river kayaks not intended for any kind of swell or surf.
The slightest tip and we will be completely swamped in the cold Pacific. Somehow knowing that maybe we’re probably a little crazy for paddling these tiny vessels out into the ocean, less than a mile away from Mavericks Beach - world renowned for having some of the biggest surfing waves on Earth, only adds to the thrill of the hunt.
Commercial crabbing pots in the marina
After a half hour of paddling, we are finally out of the breakwater, and ready to drop our traps. I carefully unstrap the first crab trap from the front of my kayak, and start unfolding it. A little bit of chicken for bait, and into the water it goes.
I carefully lower the trap by the rope to make sure it lands on the sandy bottom face up. It’s important to use bone-in chicken, or the first crab in the pot will just pull the bait right out of the bait cage and eat the entire piece. With the bone, they can only nibble while they wait for more of their friends to join the party.
Dropping the first crab trap
Once the first trap is in the water, we paddle 50 yards or so and drop the second, and then the third. Luckily my initials are carved into the foam buoys attached to our traps, because several other fisherman have beaten us out here, and there are quite a few pots in the water.
Kayaking Half Moon Bay
Now for the waiting game. Truthfully this is the real reason we come out here, there is nothing like floating out in the ocean with some good friends, taking in the sights of the California coastline over a few beers. After 45 minutes or so, or 1-2 beers later, it’s time to check our traps.
Dungeness crabs in our trap
Unfortunately, the catch is pretty disappointing today. In past years, a half-an-hour soak, and we would pull up our heavy pots, packed with Dungeness and rock crab. Today, our first pot has onegood-sized red rock crab, and a couple tiny male Dungeness.
Throwing back a rock crab
In California, Dungeness crab must measure 5 ¾”, excluding spines, in order to be a keeper. Rock crab are legal at 4”. California fish and game take these rules very seriously, so you really don’t want to mess around.
A single fisherman, with a license, is allowed to take home 10 Dungeness and 35 rock crabs per day. In the past, we’ve had days where we were trying to make sure we were only keeping the 10 best crabs, but today after an entire day of floating and drinking beer, we didn’t catch 10 total.
Our haul of Dungeness crab from a previous trip
Still, it was a great day floating on the water. In the end we decided to let all of the crabs live, and we went for super burritos at Tres Amigos Taqueria (which I highly recommend by the way - they serve up some of the best Mexican food in the San Francisco Bay Area).
Taqueria Tres Amigos Half Moon Bay
If you are ever looking for a great way to spend a winter day (crab season runs from November to June) in Northern California, I highly recommend hopping on a kayak and going crabbing. If you don’t own a kayak, Half Moon Bay Kayak Co can help you out. They always seem really friendly, and let us use their beach to launch our boats.
Half Moon Bay Kayak Co
Everything else you need, including traps, rope, gauges to measure the crabs, and fishing licenses can be purchased right at Pillar Point Harbor at Half Moon Bay Sport Fishing and Tackle.
They even charter sport-fishing trips on their boat “The Queen of Hearts”, we did a rock-fishing trip with them a few years ago, and it filled our entire freezer with fish. Oh, you will need to stop off at a grocery store to get some cheap chicken and cans of beer too.
Catching Dungeness crab from the pier in Half Moon Bay
If you don’t kayak, or can’t afford to spend the money for a California fishing license, you can also drop your pot right off of Johnson Pier in the harbor in Half Moon Bay. No fishing license is required for fishing off the pier, but it may take you several hours to catch just one or two crabs.
It’s still worth it though, just drop your catch in salted boiling water for 15 minutes, crack, and dip the meat in melted butter – there really is nothing better than freshly caught crab!