Northern California divers anticipate the opening of abalone season much like children anticipate Santa. And, for good reason, since this tasty mollusk can only be caught by sport divers in California. Each year the hunt is joined by new divers, and the question is always the same, “Where should we go?”
So what makes a good beginner ab spot? Certainly, the abs must not be too deep—20 feet max. The adventure must not involve long swims, long hikes, steep cliffs or repelling gear, and no boats. The entries must be well protected from the predominant northwest swell, and it does not hurt to have proper accommodations nearby. Some would say there are no sites that totally fit this description, but I have a few that come pretty close. You will not find trophies at any of these sites, but seven to eight-inch abalone are there for the plucking.
Van Damme State Park: Located at Mile Marker 48.03 in Mendocino County, this dive site is one of the most popular in Northern California. The broad, gravel beach is well protected from the swell because it is south facing, and a pair of offshore rocks, Top Hat and Key Hole, break much of the swell that turns the corner.
Abalone may be found in shallow water on the east (left) side of the beach. Dive through the layer of palm kelp to find abs in plain sight. You will have to hunt a bit to find legal abs, since there are so many shorts. Measure your abs carefully so you do not pop shorts.
If you are in a bit better shape, or have access to a boat or kayak, then by all means check out the offshore rocks, or swim around the west (right) point. At both locations you will find 8-inch abalone in plain sight in less than 20 feet of water.
Van Damme has showers and toilets on the beach, and there is a well-maintained campground, an easy walk to the water (800-444-PARK). Groceries, restaurants and hotels are found up the hill in Little River.
Salt Point State Park: This beautiful park is a bit north of Fort Ross at Mile Marker 39.89. Follow the signs to Gerstle Cove and park in the large lot. On calm days you can enter off the point to the west, but normally you schlep your gear down the paved trail to the cove. The south-facing cove offers a calm entry on most days.
Gerstle Cove is a reserve and no game may be taken, but if you swim past the reserve boundary (marked by a pair of white posts on the bluff), there are plenty of abalone in reasonably shallow water. Make sure you are outside of the reserve prior to taking game. The abalone in the cove grow big and fat, and the dumb ones wander outside of the protected area.
There are restrooms adjacent to the parking lot, and there are many campgrounds in the park (800-444-PARK). More accommodations and groceries may be found a bit south of the park.
Fort Ross State Historic Park: Located 12 miles north of Jenner at Mile Marker 33.00 in Sonoma County, this restored Russian fort is a wonderful place to visit. Divers must park in the paved lot at the top of the bluff, but may drive to the beach on a dirt road to drop off their gear. Alternatively, you may follow the short, but steep, trail to the north cove.
Look for abalone in 10 to 20 feet of water within the large bed of bull kelp; you may have to dive through a layer of palm kelp as well. Spend a few dives enjoying the underwater terrain as you look for the bones of the SS Pomona inshore of the wash rock. There are restrooms and a museum next to the parking lot. Do take some time to enjoy the restored fort.
As you prepare for opening day (April 1), remember that you need a fishing license and punch card to take abalone. Abs must be at lease seven inches, and the possession and daily bag limit is three. Remember, the early season weather is unpredictable and can be very rough. Be safe, and there is no shame in having a picnic on the bluff when the surf is up.