The boat launch parking lot was practically devoid of life, the campground at Westside Regional Park nearly empty, despite the clear, crisp autumn weather that came with the sunrise Wednesday morning.
But come this weekend, the start of the recreational crab fishing season promises to draw a mob of folks from near and far, eager to get first dibs on the crop of Dungeness crab waiting off-shore.
The increasing popularity of sport crab fishing and its role in providing clues on the outlook for the commercial crabbing season, set to begin two weeks later, makes the Saturday opener pivotal for people in Bodega Bay, many of whose lives are tied to the sea.
"It will be just overrun," said Westside Regional Park camp host Gary Swasey, "and we'll be turning people away who decide spur-of-the-moment in Sacramento, 'Hey, let's go over and get some crab.'"
Kayakers, party boats, aluminum skiffs and larger sport vessels will join the rush to sea — weather permitting — while others can be expected to pack the shoreline with nets and gear for use closer to shore, said California Fish and Wildlife Warden Tiffany Stinson.
Swasey, who was hosting at Doran Park this time last year, recalled counting 25 kayakers with crab traps just off the jetty at one point in the early hours of the 2012 sport season and saw people with flashlights crawling over the rocks at 2 a.m. to get their crab pots dropped.
"It's a pretty big deal," Stinson said.
The season officially starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, at which point licensed fishermen can begin dropping pots targeting the prized crustaceans.
Recreational boats are permitted to take male or female crabs, as long as they are at least 5 3/4 inches from edge-to-edge, measured across the shortest distance just inside the lateral points on each side, Stinson said.
Each person on a boat is permitted to catch 10 a day, though he or she can only possess 10 at any given time, so it would be illegal, for instance, for four people who came for the weekend to leave after two days with 80 crabs.
Peter Kalvass, senior environmental scientist out of the Fish and Wildlife office in Fort Bragg, where the commercial season starts Dec. 1 or later, said the recreational Dungeness crab catch accounts for 5 percent or less of the total — a relatively small amount, though he said Bodega Bay is an especially busy sport fishing port.
The size and quality of the catch this weekend and over the ensuing days will likely be the best predictor of what can be expected when the commercial season starts up along the Sonoma Coast and points south.
Commercial skippers, the source for most crab-lovers, say they're expecting a down year after several above-average seasons, including a banner 2011-12 season in which the statewide catch topped a record 31.5 million pounds, according to state Fish and Wildlife.
The year before was nearly as good, the statewide 27.5 million pounds worth about $13.2 million to the Sonoma County economy, according to the county crop report. Last year's commercial landing of 24.2 million pounds in California more heavily favored the area north of Point Arena by more than 3-to-2. All three years ranked in the state's top five, Fish and Wildlife said.