Rotting fish can wrinkle noses, but the something extra Mike McMahon squirts on his bait appeals to crabs and people alike.
The Discovery Bay crustacean aficionado has come up with a concoction that he says crabs have a hankering for, an oil-based solution containing Mediterranean herb extract.
"That's the nice thing about this -- it smells good to both us and the crabs," McMahon said.
He noted that the product is also nontoxic: "You can actually drink this stuff," he laughed, quickly adding that he's not recommending anyone actually does.
Since March, he's been preparing small batches of what he's calling simply Crab Bait Enhancer and Attractant, and shipping 4-ounce bottles of the stuff to bait and tackle shops in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Oregon and California, where it retails for $9.95.
The 107 bottles he's sold to date also are available around the Bay Area from Santa Cruz to San Francisco.
Judging by the reports he's received from a couple of customers who are serious crabbers, the product makes for a better day on the water, said Joe Cook, manager of The Bite's On, a bait and tackle shop in Coos Bay, Ore., where crabbing is still in season. One of them applied the liquid to the sardines and rock fish carcasses he uses as bait and hauled out twice as many Dungeness crab from that pot as the other, Cook said.
A second customer reported a similar experience: "There were significantly more crabs in the pot
The idea for McMahon's home-based business evolved from a trip he and his wife took to Half Moon Bay last year to catch rock crab.
They caught a handful using salmon heads as bait and, buoyed by their success, decided to try for Dungeness at a public pier in Pacifica that's a popular spot for crabbing.
The couple came up empty-handed using the hoop net they had bought, however, so McMahon did some research and found that snares with their slip nooses that tightened around crabs' pincers were more effective.
They returned with the devices along with sample bottles of the liquid lure that McMahon had made but not yet tested.
He had learned that crabs hunt by smell, not sight, and have a fondness for the licorice scent of anise, a Mediterranean herb that's cultivated for its aromatic seeds.
McMahon decided to enhance its come-hither qualities further with cod liver oil, suspend the blend in vegetable oil and then initially give the product away to see whether people liked the results.
He and his wife arrived to find about 30 crabbers who had caught only two specimens among them that morning.
McMahon squirted the love potion on the squid he was using as bait.
"I caught two in about 30 minutes -- people were looking at me," he recalled.
A week later, he received his first order from a man who had heard about the attractant from a crabber who had been on the pier that day and passed along McMahon's website.
Not only is anise an effective attractant, but cod liver oil can travel a relatively large distance as water currents carry it along, creating a path for crabs to follow, Cook said.
McMahon's product isn't unique -- there are other crab bait enhancers on the market, including some containing anise -- but one advantage is that the user can squirt it on bait instead of applying sticky, gel-based attractants that are designed not to wash off, Cook said.
McMahon, a former information technology professional who's now retired, considers the fledgling business more of a hobby than a second career.
"We're having fun, but if you can make a couple of bucks, that's fun, too," he said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.
For more information on trapping and eating crabs, including recipes, go to Mike McMahon's website at www.crabsman.com