I am a Midwesterner trying to earn my Pacific Northwest merit badge. It has been four years since we made the move and while I know I am not the greenhorn I was that first fall, I am a ways off from being a seasoned Seattle veteran. I do not yet have a story of a sunless summer. Our family does not yet own any watercraft. I’ve never been on a stand up paddleboard. We do however own a Subaru and a blue tarp for camping in the rain. Our family does lots of stuff my parents, who are also Midwesterners, call “very Seattle.” We hike in the rain, go sledding on mountainsides in the middle of July and use the ferry as a mode of transportation. Of everything our family does the most Pacific Northwest activity is opening weekend of Dungeness crab fishing in the Hood Canal.
Independence Day weekend turns the calm morning sea five hundred yards off the shores of Seabeck, Washington and surrounding waters into a reflection of a pimply faced teenager. Red and white buoys, little orange flags, a decoy duck or two, all floating in the waning tidal current marking their bounty below. There is a gaggle of boats drifting around, searching for their football sized, individually marked floaters. We are surrounded by boats built specifically for this task. Boats that cost as much as a small suburban home. Last year my friend and I caught our limit in a plastic Coleman canoe. This year we are in an eight foot fiberglass dingy with a trolling motor. Providing a recommended and spacious two person capacity, 307 pound maximum. Just looking at it from shore we are already pushing the limit.
I’d like to be modest but we slayed it. Three days, six pots and fifty five kept crab. The morning of the third day I pulled a pot with 16 crab in it, my limit plus six to put back. Our bait must have been so good that crab in other people’s traps were leaving to crawl across the dark ocean bottom to ours. And after the cheers and high fives of our big haul I started to feel a little guilty. It felt gluttonous. Were we over doing it? We were filling our catch cards honestly and not keeping past our limit, but we were having a hard time finding places to keep our catch after cleaning them. It was to be split across three families, but still I felt just a bit like we had our fair share and not reason to toss the pots, rebaited, into the cold dark water.
We baited the traps one last time and fought the tide back to shore with our under powered, super slow, tiny motor. All and all I made seven trips out to the fishing grounds in that dingy. Rowed in once because of engine trouble. Rowed all the way out and back once for a workout. I pulled and set two pots alone, made other trips to check them with the kids and other times just me and a buddy. Last year in the canoe, on our way in after a successful catch and resetting, the increasingly rough seas flipped our boat. It resulted in a two hour soak and lost catch. We tried to bail the canoe and paddle back into shore, but we would just be thwarted time and time again by large waves. A friendly couple, after having had their fill of watching our comedic efforts from shore, came out to our rescue. We still limited that year.
My two pots were the last of the weekend to be retrieved and I set out with my son and friend to pull them in. We made it about half way before the surf and current started to overpower our now ineffective motor. We were powered, but dead in the water. Back on shore we called a friend to request a pot rescue by “proper” boat. We climbed aboard a hulking aluminum craft that we could have set our dingy inside. Its’ motor was more powerful than a Prius. The trip that we took us an hour to reach the fishing grounds, over and over that weekend, took this boat less than five minutes. We pulled those last two traps, my five year old son pointed out which were female crab to throw back and which were the male keepers. Twenty minutes later, like magic, we were surfing the waves back onto shore. This big boat, while safe, spacious and fast made it all feel so easy.
It was a way to make me appreciate all the work we had done as a group to catch our allotment. We all worked together. We got wet, covered ourselves in fish guts and struggled against the ocean that didn’t want to give up its’ bounty. It was as if being in that small boat, constantly battling the current, tide and surf, evened the score just a little bit. Made dinner taste all the more delicious.