Search Party

October 2, 2008

James Sherret’s friends call him the Crab Whisperer. “I just catch them,” he says with a laugh when asked about his nickname. “I don’t make them happy about it.” Along with his pal Chad Brealey, Sherret regularly fishes for salmon and forages for seafood, mushrooms, and berries in and around Vancouver. When it comes to crabs, they don’t use conventional metal traps laden with raw chicken—they hit the water and catch them by hand. “When our friends found out what we were doing, their first response was ‘You’re crazy’—quickly followed by ‘When can I come?’ It’s not an exact science, but we get better at it all the time.”

Both men are in their late thirties and have regular jobs—Sherret is in online advertising and Brealey is a communications director—yet they can be found diving for Dungeness and red rock crabs as often as their schedules permit. “It’s a pretty lightweight operation,” explains Sherret. “You don’t even need a boat. All you need is a mask, snorkel, fins, and a wetsuit.” You’ll find them diving in the frigid North Shore waters in the early morning when the tide is low and the visibility is good. Brealey has a nylon bag with a collapsible opening strapped to his waist for his catch. (“Not for long,” he says with a grin. “When you’ve got a couple of angry crabs in there it’s none too comfortable.”) The red rocks, slightly smaller than Dungeness, have very sweet meat—they’re also particularly nasty, with pincers that can pierce a neoprene glove. “You want to grab them by their hindmost legs and get them in the cooler as soon as you can,” Sherret warns.

Finding your own food conjures romantic notions of living off the land, but it’s not that simple. “Not everybody is prepared to eat something that was fighting for its life in your hands just a few moments earlier.” Foraging for crabs requires a saltwater-fishing licence—easily acquired online—that limits you to four crabs per person per day. Females (distinguished by the wide triangular ridge on the belly) must be put back, along with anything smaller than 15 centimetres—which means the crab calipers are always close at hand. Sherret’s number one rule? Never reveal your secrets. He’ll share his crabs, but not where he finds them.

Wild mushrooms are another delicacy they prize. There are over 200 varieties of mushroom picked for culinary purposes in the Pacific Northwest. Most mushrooms fruit after the summer rains and before the first frost. The smoky white caps of oyster mushrooms can be found growing on dead alder trees on Cypress Mountain in both spring and fall. A trip to the Pemberton Valley after a big downpour will lead you to the wild morels that thrive in the cool, moist climate. (These cylindrical little brown-black sponges are easily distinguished.) The elusive pine mushroom (aka the matsutake) is a forager’s dream. The fragrant, meaty, cream-coloured morsels, coveted for their distinct earthy character, can also be found near Pemberton.

Brealey and Sherret respect the forager’s credo. Leave no trace of your presence. Take only what you need. Always leave a few fruiting mushrooms behind to disperse their spores. Most importantly, bring a field guide, or someone who knows what they’re doing. Many wild mushrooms can, of course, make you seriously ill.

“ We also go berry picking,” says Brealey. “Blackberries are the easiest to find—they grow everywhere, but there are tons of great u-pick spots within an hour of the city for strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.” Sometimes they dig into their bounty on-site; other times they’ll host big dinner parties for friends. “There’s at least a few every year. We put the word out, and people start showing up with anything they’ve caught or grown themselves.” These dinner parties are raucous outdoor affairs that feature a wide range of foraged goodies: fresh herbs, dandelion leaves for salad, berry tarts, crab risotto, sautéed chanterelles, even a little sea urchin. “There are more efficient ways of getting food,” says Brealey, tearing into a big crab claw. “But this is by far the most fun.”


Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.