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BODEGA BAY — It’s like Old Home Week at Doran Beach Regional Park, where hundreds of people lured by the prospect of fresh Dungeness crab have converged for the recreational season opener Saturday, an annual tradition that’s part feast, part reunion, part camp-out — what one local fisherman called “a hecka big party.”

Friends and families who for years have made a special holiday out of the opening day began claiming their campsites early in the week, despite the rain in Friday’s forecast. That left plenty of time to ready their boats, lines and crab pots for the pleasurable work that will consume the days ahead.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Kathy Sanders, of Lincoln, near Auburn, said as she and her family settled in to their campsite.

The Sanders are among dozens of multi-party groups who know where they’ll be on the first Saturday in November every year, when the coastal waters open to sport fishermen in search of the meaty crustaceans that round out Thanksgiving and Christmas time meals for some, but, for purists, come no better than when they’re caught and cooked mere hours later on the beach.

Pots will be boiling all through the campgrounds come Saturday night, and many fishermen will to head back to the water for another haul Sunday.

“It’s fun,” said Rob Anthony, 49, of Petaluma, who has been coming for crab with buddy Dallas Barret, 76, for nearly two decades.

“We have a big potluck dinner on Saturday. People come from town with food. One year, we had like a hundred people show up,” Anthony said.

The growing popularity of Dungeness crab attracts thousands of sport fishermen to the North Coast each November, arriving in such large numbers there’s guaranteed traffic for the opener, if not ensuing weekends, on land and in the water.

The two-week head-start on the commercial season means recreational crabbers get first crack at the fishery after a four-month closure. Commercial vessels account for more than 90 percent of the catch each year, Fish and Wildlife officials say.

The season officially opens at 12:01 a.m., and some of those already assembled recalled previous years when dozens of lighted boats could be seen out in the bay laying or pulling up pots.

By 6 a.m., Saturday morning trailered boats were expected to be lined up almost back to Highway 1 waiting to launch off Doran Beach and Westside Park across the harbor.

But scores more typically embark on kayaks and other small water craft, or line the shore on foot using nets to catch some the pincered crustaceans.

“You’ll see 50 kayaks right off there,” Sebastopol resident Matt Dubois, 59, said waving a hand toward the water off the Doran Beach Jetty.

“This whole bay, by Saturday morning,” said Kathy Sanders’ husband, Dave, “you can walk across here because of all the buoys.”

After a few potential showers Saturday morning, the weather should be fine though a bit windy, with gusts up to 20 knots on Saturday and slightly higher Sunday, pushing 8-to-10-foot swells, the National Weather Service said.

A phalanx of state Fish and Wildlife wardens were at the ready to begin working Friday night and through the weekend, ensuring those flocking to the coast abide by crab size and catch limits, agency spokesman Andrew Hughan said.

The crab fishery “is not especially abused, but it is abused,” he said.

“Every opening day of every season —whether it’s turkey, dear, crab, lobster, bear, whatever — we always have extra wardens out the first couple of nights for maximum enforcement,” Hughan said. “It’s a resource that people sometimes get a little too enthusiastic about...and we have to educate people.”

By law, Dungeness crabs must measure at least 5 ¾ inches across the body, from shell edge to shell edge, directly in front of and excluding the lateral spines. If they’re too small, they must be put back in the water.

Sport fishermen can keep up to 10 a day but may not possess more than that at any one time. Anyone fishing on a licensed party boat south of Mendocino County can keep six. They must measure at least six inches across.

If you eat enough at night, you can catch your limit the next day.

Rich Morec and Rod Crick, who made the five and a half hour trek to Doran Beach from home in Minden, Nev. on Thursday, said they look forward all year to arriving early so they can enjoy the fisherman’s stew at Lucas Wharf before they move onto crab.

They said the mob scene is part of the fun, the community and camaraderie a large part of why people come.

Crick, who is retired from PG&E, came up to catch crab in Bodega Bay for the first time in 1979 with co-workers, a trip spearheaded by his late friend Erv Joseph, who died a few years ago.

“We always have our first beer for Erv,” Morec said. “We give him a salute, and then he looks after us.”

Sebastopol residents Earl and Linda Sheridan, both 65, camp out every year with a large party of neighbors. Their spot for next year is already reserved.

Catching and cleaning the crab is hard work but worth it, Earl Sheridan said. “You don’t check your cholesterol during crab season,” he added.

A lucky few don’t even need to be in the hunt to get a haul of crab.

Bruce and Chris Glass of Rohnert Park, regular campers at Doran Beach, were there this week — like most years — for Bruce Glass’ 66th birthday on Friday.

Somehow, he said, “we always end up with crab,” either because they’ve loaned the right person pepper, use of their computer or done some other minor favor.

“It’s a tough life,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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