The hunt for 10 inch Abalone

The Hunt for 10 inch abalone starts with a bit of thermometer checking, ice cold morning fog!!! We suit up into our dive suits and prepare for a day of diving in mud - 5 inches of visibility. We all have high hopes of bagging some prized and less common 10 inch abalone.

We embark on a journey with three divers on each boat, to the land of the unknown. It was time to investigate the uncharted waters of northern California where massive storms and rain squalls are common place. We must have had the sea-gods with us on that trip, because we were welcomed by flat seas and as the fog faded we were left with clear sky. Not only was the weather perfect but we also found clear water up to 8 feet of visibility. With conditions like this, we were bound to come home with a few big ones!!!

Above - Carl Anderson with a 10.75 inch abalone - A magnificent catch!
Reed from Bucksports Sporting Goods with a 10.5 inch abalone!
Left - Holy Cabazone!!! Nice fish -----Right - Reed from Bucksports Sporting Goods with a limit of 10+ abalone!!!

Dan Silveira with a 10+ inch abalone and 10 inch abalone guage.

And the fish Keep coming!!!
A pearl Reed found in his abalone!!! WOW!!!

End of the day catch for the 3 young guns!!!

Divers of all levels go to great depths to hunt these sweet-tasting mollusks

By Sam McManis
Published: Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011 - 9:43 am

Man vs. abalone would seem as much of a mismatch as Roadrunner against Wile E. Coyote. You always know, with rare exception, who's going to triumph.

These bloated mollusks, inert as a teenager on a weekend morning, lie submerged on reefs and rocks along the Northern California coast, just rife for popping. Their entire line of defense is a barnacle camouflage and viselike suctioning ability – hardly a challenge for a diver with a keen eye, adequate lung capacity and a 2-foot iron resembling a spatula.

"Yeah," said Phil Johnson, a veteran Fort Bragg diver who's caught more than 200 "trophy" abalone measuring at least 10 inches, "friends say I've got to start fishing because, you know, fish move around a lot and abalone don't go anywhere."

So why is it that every abalone season – which begins Friday  (April 1st) and runs through June 30 – reports come of divers who die in pursuit of these bottom dwellers whose sweet meat is considered a delicacy to foodies and whose shells are quite decorative?

And why is it that, often, divers and less-adventurseome rock pickers come away empty-handed after a day's hunt or decide not to even make it into the water?

"It's more a matter of man-against-the elements, not the abalone," said Brad Freelove, a Sacramento resident who's been diving for 45 years. "You learn pretty quick to gauge the ab and pick out what's good. Popping them off? That's not tough. There's no brain power involved. You're just dealing with a snail that eats and reproduces.

"The trick is knowing when you should and should not go out. And, of course, you must be in shape. Most of the injuries I've seen are guys that go beyond their limits."

Mother nature and the limits of fitness, then, help what at first appears a woefully lopsided battle of the food chain. Rough, churning waters and fickle tides can ruin a day for the most experienced diver. For less experienced divers, who may not be cardiovascularly capable of holding their breath underwater for up to two minutes over repeated plunges, a relatively calm ocean can invite peril.

Abalone diving by Dan Silveira

Even experienced ab- seekers sometimes can succumb. Johnson said that over the years he's had to rescue three diving partners suffering from swallow-water blackout. One, he said, was experienced and athletic. He just made an error in judgment, staying submerged too long in search of a "trophy" abalone.

"He's cruising down 30 feet across the bottom for a about a minute, and I'm thinking, this guy's a great diver," Johnson recalled. "So we go deeper and we see a few 10s (10-inch abalone) there, but the visibility was tough. He got down 40 feet and could see another six feet and he keeps going down.

"You know, a little trigger in your head says, 'Hey, you need to breath,' but he started ignoring that. He was working on a big abalone. He got it. But when he came back up and hit the surface, he passed out. Fortunately for him, I was right there. If I were 10 yards away, he might have died."

Risks aside, abalone diving is an accessible sport easily learned, said Greg Fonts, a veteran diver who hosted a seminar last weekend at his West Sacramento dive shop. Those in attendance spanned the decades (20 to 70 years old) and shared two common traits – good cardiovascular fitness and a connection to the ocean.

"More than anything," Freelove said, "it's the hunt. You never know what's going to be over the next (reef) down there."

Tom Fiene, a diver from Portola Valley, said abalone diving is almost primal in its lure, touching upon what he calls man's "hunter instinct."

(Above picture of Tom Fiene with an 80 pound Pargo Snapper)

"The moment you start doing ab hunting, you just get focused and driven," he said. "Everything else in your life goes away - all the trouble, all the stress. When I come out of the water, I'm so relaxed. It's a natural high. There's a sense of adventure. You don't know what you're going to see down there."

Mostly what divers see are rocks and sandy ocean floors and kelp – lots of kelp. But Fiene, who often hunts off the Sonoma coast, says he's had a few Jacques Cousteau moments of swimming with seals, octopi, whales and ...

"Sharks," he added. "I had a shark swim right under me in Monterey."

In shallower waters, the bigger concern is the pull and churn of the tide. At times, those diving near the coast feel as if they're trying to nab a stray sock in the spin cycle of a washing machine.

That's why divers often elbow each other at popular spots such as Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County or areas off the Mendocino County coast such as Russian Gulch. Such a glut of hunters quickly depletes the cache of allowable-sized abalone (7 inches minimum), which is why experienced divers such as Dwayne Dinucci of Half Moon Bay follow the cove less traveled.

"If you go to a beach where everybody dives, you look that way (to your left) and, yeah, it looks good over there – clear, less kelp, beautiful," Dinucci said. "Look straight out (slightly beyond the surf), not too bad. Look that way (right), and there's a big mud line coming in, looks all sandy and silty.

"So where am I gonna go? That way (right). Go where people don't go. Nobody else might find an ab there. But all it takes is one, and oh my God, sometimes it happens. That's the way you get a 10-incher."

Size matters to veterans. Popping a 10-inch abalone is akin to landing a 15-pound largemouth bass or, in another context, running a four-minute mile. It's the grail for abalone divers. The website "Abalone Ten" ( is a repository of photos of 10-inchers for divers to ogle. At last weekend's seminar, a framed photo of legendary diver John Pepper's world-record 12.31-inch beauty, caught in 1993, was prominently displayed.

Experts says 10-inch aspirants need to work their way up to landing the big ones. Much of the skill has to do with quickly sizing up a line of abalone on a rock bed, gauging the length with a metal caliper and then prying it off with a 2-foot iron, which looks like a combination of spatula and crowbar.

Remember, they are doing all that while holding their breath.

"You need to be patient," said Eric Anderson, who runs the Abalone Ten website. "The longer you stay in the water, the more chances to score a 10. I prefer diving deep, but that can be more difficult with the time and depth involved."

Dinucci said it might take 10 reconnaissance dives before popping a 10-incher. He recommends tying a float line to the iron and leaving it near the spot when a diver needed to resurface to breathe.

"If you're in dirty water, you may never find (the trophy abalone) again," he said. "You make a last ditch effort, you stuck 'em. With a float line, you leave it on the bottom, go back up, take a breath, go back, take your time, gauge it, pop. There's your ab."

Veteran divers worry that many spots have been depleted of large abalone due to overfishing – even though the Department of Fish and Game has strict limits and regulations (see sidebar). It's almost become an unspoken rule for divers to keep hot diving spots close to the vest – or wetsuit, in this case.

"I once dove with a guy who went around telling everybody about it, drawing maps, pointing it out to tourists, putting it in the newspaper," Johnson said, laughing. "If you find a really good spot, zip it. It's like Robert De Niro said (in 'Meet the Parents'), 'Establish the circle of trust. And once you're outside the circle, you can't get back in.' "

Feel free, however, to share abalone meat with family and friends. (Selling abalone meat has been banned in California since 1997.)

"That's the best part," Fiene said. "It's got a unique flavor, kind of like well-prepared squid, but sweeter."


The California Department of Fish and Game has numerous rules and restrictions on abalone diving because of the overfishing of the mollusk.

• Divers and rock-pickers must be at least 16 years old.

• Only red abalone may be caught.

• Minimum size limit: 7 inches.

• Bag limit: Three per day, 24 per year.

• Season: April 1 to June 30, and Aug. 1 to Nov. 30.

• Irons for removing abalone must be smooth with no sharp edges, no longer than 36 inches and at least 3/4 inch wide and 1/16 inch thick.

• Divers must use a measuring gauge to be sure of the dimensions of the shell.

• No scuba gear can be worn.

• All detached abalone must be taken, not discarded and replaced by a bigger abalone.

• For more information, go to

2008 Abalone Report Card Instructions

Stiff fines for poachers

It happens every abalone season: Poachers harvest dozens of abalone in a single day off the coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties to sell on the black market for as much as $100 per abalone.

The state Department of Fish and Game, which sets daily limits of three abalone and a seasonal limit of 24, routinely sets up checkpoints on beach heads near abalone "hot spots." In 2009, the most recent year statistics are available, authorities issued 1,051 citations for possessing too many abalone, too small a size or not having the shell tagged with a state-issued "report card." The fine runs close to $1,000.

Fish and Game enforcement chief Nancy Foley says abalone harvesting from Sonoma and Mendocino is occurring at an "unsustainable" rate. Spokesman Patrick Foy said the agency is not out to hassle divers, just to keep the abalone population healthy.

"Be patient with our tagging requirements," Foy said. "Those report cards have helped us make more than a few cases (against poachers) than ever before."

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