By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Sea Grit, Prolifik, Majestik - all sitting idle in the calm water of the harbor.

Crab pots stacked at least 10 high and 10 deep wait on deck, ready with lines and buoys.

Fishermen pace the docks, climb on and off their boats checking and rechecking their gear.

Its ready, all of it, like a table set for dinner, but the guests havent arrived yet.

Crab season opens Friday but crab buyers and the fishermen havent agreed on a price yet.

Its a cat and mouse game. It happens every year, said former fisherman and current Crescent City Harbor Commissioner Beverly Noll.

Because no one really knows how many crabs will be caught, setting a price is a gamble, according to boat owner Karl Evanow, a crab fisherman since 1977.

It all depends on availability. If we have vast amounts, the big buyers say if you want to catch all of it, you have to take a lower price, Evanow said.

By California law, the price has to be negotiated before the pots can be set. But how do the fishermen know what price to settle for until they know how much crab is out there?

Its kind of a cycle type of game. You dont know how the year is going to be until you go fishing, Evanow said.

Last year, crab brought $1.75 a pound from the buyers. This year, as of last night, the buyers are putting $1.40 on the table.

Word on the docks say the boats wont go out for anything under $1.75.

It may not sound like much of a difference, but say you get a good pull of 10,000 pounds. Thats a $3,500 difference - that can be quite a bit because of gas prices going up and insurance prices, said Evanow.

His boat, The Captain Bradley, is 63 feet long and holds 5,000 gallons of gas. It takes two trips to sea to set his 500 pots.

Pacific Choice is the biggest fish buying company on the entire west coast. They are the eighth largest buyer in the world. So, Pacific Choice theoretically has the most weight in setting the buyers market price.

On the other side, the fishermens marketing association decides whether to accept the buyers offer.

The local chapter of the association met privately yesterday to decide on a counter offer, trying to get the price as high as is reasonable.

It all boils down to whether you agree with the price or whether you strike, said Evanow.

Right now its a strike. Pots could have gone in the water on Tuesday, but the 125 crab boats in the harbor are still idle.

The result, says Evanow, is whats called a derby fishery. No one has a limit. Fishermen are just competing against each other.

When the gun blows, you go wide open, he said. Its a race to get as much as you can as fast as you can.

In that pursuit, crab fishermen run round the clock operations, doing back breaking work with only a couple of hours sleep per night.

Adding to the fatigue, winter seas are often more than 15 feet high and there are several hours of darkness. If a boat is overloaded with pots it can easily capsize.

This time of year the ocean becomes so violent so quickly, Evanow said.

But crab fisherman have little choice but to brave the weather.

Crabs are molting and putting on muscle this time of year, explained Don Kelley of the California Fish and Game Department.

Forming their shells first, the crabs eat heavily to fill the shells with meat.

That process is usually finished by December, Kelley added.

The lure of big money fast attracts many to the hunt for crab. Historically, crew members have raked in $20,000 in two months, according to Evanow.

Or its just in the blood. Evanows father and grandfather were both crab fishermen, but he said, Its hard work, Im in my early 40s, but I feel like Im in my 70s.