An abalone is a rock clinging, single-shelled creature that inhabits shoreline waters (especially where there are concentrations of rocks and kelp) all along the Northern California Coast. It has a large, fleshy foot and sensory projections on its underside. Most all seaside gift shop browsers have seen an eye-catching display of abalone shells. and those who have ordered it on restaurant menus know how delicious it is. But it’s possible for anyone with some insight and a little luck to enjoy catching, preparing and eating abalone.
There are three basic techniques for taking abalone:
- Rock Picking – searching the rocky shore on foot.
- Free Diving – diving near shore with a snorkel only (no aqualung).
- Scuba Diving – diving with an aqualung.
North of Yankee Point (at Monterey) only rock picking and free diving are allowed. Scuba divers are not permitted to take abalone anywhere along the Northern California coast from Monterey to Bodega Bay to Fort Bragg to Crescent City, near the Oregon border.
Rock pickers operate at low tides – preferably a minus low tide and a calm sea. They start about an hour before the low tide and quit before the incoming tide threatens a soaking or being stranded away from shore.
The basic technique is to comb an area looking for abalone attacked to rocks. Often it is best to feel under water in crevices and cracks that other rock pickers have missed.
Free divers operate in the water. The wise ones in pairs take turns diving down to rocky bottoms in 5-30 feet of water. Abalone are pried off the rocks with a metal bar. Since this can fatally injure an abalone, it is best to be sure the abalone is of legal size before prying it off. Rock pickers must also make this judgement. to pry the abalone off the rock and avoid injuring it, slip the bar under the abalone. Then lift the handle end up, pushing the tip of the bar against the rock. This prevents injury to the abalone’s foot. If it is undersized, hold the abalone back on the spot where it was taken until it grabs hold itself.
Free diving lessons are available at selected locations along the coast. No one should attempt to free dive without proper instructions. Some tips: Dive only on an outgoing tide. Incoming tides create rips that can carry you out to sea. Make sure you are familiar with the weight belt release and the dive area. And dive with an experienced partner.
Where to fish
Abalone can be found all along the Northern California coast from Monterey to the Oregon border. Good areas are scattered all along between Santa Cruz and Fort Bragg. North from Fort Bragg to Westport are the best bets. Check with dive shops and experienced abalone rock pickers and divers for more information.
Tackle and Equipment
The equipment needed for rock picking and free diving are an abalone iron (of legal dimension), a fixed caliper measuring gauge, a state fishing license, a catch bag (or at least a gunny sack), neoprene boots, neoprene gloves and an inflatable buoyancy vest. In addition, for free diving, you’ll need a wet suit, hood, snorkel, mask, fins, knife (for escaping from kelp) and a weight belt.
Cleaning And Cooking
Cleaning abalone is different from most other seafood, but it is not actually difficult. Insert the abalone iron between the meat and the shell at the pointed end of the abalone. Now pop out the meat. Next, trim away the flanged edges and all the intestines. A pot scrubber can then be used to rub off the black skin. Scrape off the suction cups with a knife. Now it’s time to tenderize the meat. Before slicing pound it with a big mallet. Then slice it 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Use the mallet again for a final tenderizing. The end of a bottle may also be used. Some anglers suggest leaving the cleaned abalone in the refrigerator for a day or two before slicing and pounding to allow the muscle to relax, making it more tender and easier to handle.
Most people feel that the only way to prepare abalone is quick fan frying. Tenderized steaks are usually floured, or dipped in egg and sautéed over high heat for less than one minute on a side. Fry only enough to heat clear through and slightly brown.