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Bernie Kuntz: Winter king crabbing

It was at this time of the year in Southeast Alaska when we'd hook up Laurie's 17-foot Boston Whaler and make the 15-mile drive to Amalga Harbor to go crabbing. The water was calm, cold and clear and no one else was around.

We motored quietly with the 7-1/2 horse Evinrude kicker 200 or 300 yards off shore, and tossed "crab rings" attached to a buoy. Wait 20 or 30 minutes, and haul each one to the surface in hopes of landing a male king crab that had a shell or carapace of six inches to make it legal to keep.

I should first describe the crab ring, which is nothing more than a length of steel cable bound into a circular shape about five feet in diameter. We tied a shallow net across the circle, and a 3/8" nylon line to four places on the steel ring. The four lines met a few feet above the ring where a small buoy is attached, keeping the lines off the netting. The main line runs upward from this, and at the end of 100 feet or so of line is attached the larger buoy, usually an empty bleach bottle or something similar.

In the center of the net we would tie a frozen salmon head, saved from the previous summer, as bait. (If you don't tie it down, crabs will drag it off the netting.) Laurie also tied a 24-ounce cannonball sinker in the center of the netting to help the whole affair sink more quickly.

That's all there is to it. Heave the ring into the water, let it sink as you play out the line, tie off the line to the large buoy, toss that into the water when the ring settles on the bottom (usually in 30 to 80 feet of water), go set out another one.

We used to operate four rings—any fewer and it involved too much waiting, any more and one person (me!) would wear himself out pulling rings up from the bottom.

I learned quickly that it is important to maintain a strong, steady motion when pulling up the ring. Slow down or stop and the crabs will crawl off the netting, and you will see them sink in slow motion like some sort of space creature in the clear water.

Most days we were lucky to catch a single legal king crab along with a few tanner crabs. The latter are the ones they sell you at "all the Alaskan crab you can eat" places, but usually they are so small that you spend most of your time shelling rather than eating. An exception was a fancy Kodiak Island resort Laurie and visited a half dozen years ago. The tanners, all you could eat, were twice as big as those Juneau-area tanners!

One winter day almost 35 years ago at Amalga Harbor we had the most fantastic crabbing either of us had ever witnessed. In just a few hours we caught 18 king crabs, 11 or them legal males. One was a barnacled old monster with a 9-1/4" carapace and measured 50 inches across the legs!

Ben and Katrina were along on the trip. Poor Katrina, who must have been four or five years old, huddled up in the bow of the boat and whimpered, "uh, uh" as the evil-looking crabs marched around the boat, their claws opening and closing. Laurie quickly got into action and one at a time, grabbed them and used bungie cords to fasten them to boat rails. I don't know how many crabs we could have taken that day, but eleven was enough. We headed for the ramp and home.

Laurie taught me the simplest way to process a king crab—whack each one with an axe in the middle of the carapace, throw away the shells, boil them in a big pot of seawater 18-20 minutes, then cool them in cold water. (Cooling in a refrigerator is said not to work as well and may result in bacterial growth in the meat.)

We worked all that evening and past midnight, boiling, shelling, eating, packing crab meat in big Zip-locks and freezing them. I ate the rich, sweet meat until the sight and smell of crab meat began to nauseate me—a condition I have not experienced since.

I had some exciting times in Alaska hunting brown bears, Dall sheep and barren ground caribou, and fishing for salmon and halibut. But there was something magic about pulling those crab rings...almost like a treasure hunt, and I never will forget it.