Let’s Go Crawdaddin’
Mudbugs. Crawdads. Crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters. Your name for these ten-legged crustaceans says a lot about where you grew up, at least according to this computer-generated dialect map. I’ll mix up the names so nobody feels left out.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, when kids ran wild, I spent a lot of time coaxing crawdads out of our suburban creek. I didn’t even know they were edible until much later when I was treated to a family-style Cajun crawfish boil. This is when I learned that my absolute intolerance of spicy food wasn’t so absolute after all. I still can’t eat anything with Taco Bell mild sauce, but give me a tray of mudbugs cooked with Zatarain’s extra spicy recipe? Suddenly, I’m Daenerys, The Unburnt.
Where to Find ‘Em
Of the approximately 600 crayfish species worldwide, more than half of them live in the continental States. With a little luck—or bacon—you can find them anywhere there’s fresh or brackish water.
If you’re on a lake or big river, look near a creek inlet or near the banks in the nooks and crannies under rocks and sunken logs. In marshy areas, they’ll seek cover among reeds, cattails, and toolies. In smaller creeks and streams, look down! There’s probably one hiding under that big stone right there.
Crayfish are most active at night, when they crawl about looking for anything that resembles food—plants, algae, insect larvae, snails, fish and frog eggs. Crayfish spend most of the day hiding from predators, but if there’s something tasty nearby, they’ll check it out. Make do with what you have, and that includes your time.
Choose, catch, or scrounge your crayfish bait
Roughly 40 percent of a crustacean’s brain system is dedicated to processing smells, and crayfish use all their senses to “map out” their territory. Your bait is competing with all the food in their environment! If it doesn’t smell like it’s worth the danger, they won’t make the trip.
My favorite technique for baiting a crayfish trap? When I’m cleaning a salmon or trout, I’ll stuff the skins, heads, tails, carcasses, and guts into a mesh drawstring bag (or a wire bait cage) within a gallon-sized freezer bag. The whole package goes into the freezer until I’m ready to go trapping. The thawing bait works as time-release “chum,” and keeps the crayfish from devouring the bait all at once. If you can only use one part of the fish, the head has the most oil and scent.
Too much effort? No problem. Raw hot dogs, bacon, or chicken wings work well enough for line or trap fishing, and they’re all you really need for goofing off among the rocks. There’s only one bait rule, and it can’t be broken: Never use spoiled food. The crawdads will shoot you down.
The Neanderthal Method: Pick up rock, look under rock
If you wade around and (gently) lift up some rocks, you might catch one as it scurries to its next foxhole. Make it a team sport, with one person doing the lifting and the other ready to scramble. Fine mesh nets are helpful here, as they are with the next step in crawfishing evolution.
Hold them by their abdomens, but don’t squeeze too hard. If you do get grabbed while messing with these little fellas, it’ll hurt and everyone will laugh at you.
The Cro-Magnon Strategy: Improvise with available resources
All you need is enough string (any kind of string or fishing line; I’ve used shoelaces and paracord) to reach the bottom, with a few extra feet. You’ll be dunking, not casting. On the other end, tie a paper clip (good) or a safety pin (better) to serve as a bait holder. These make it easier to hold boneless bait. If you have neither, or you’re using tougher bait, just tie it directly on the line.
Now, drop your bait in a likely spot near some stones or other cover. If the water’s clear enough, you can watch the crawdads come check out their “supply drop.” Is the water too murky? Wait for little tugs on the line and slowly pull up (or in) the line. They’ll let go once they hit the surface, so be ready with a fine net or pail. Avoid casting a shadow over the water—it freaks them out.
The Enlightened Homo Sapiens Approach: Build or buy a crawdad trap
This is my favorite, since I can catch crawdads while doing other stuff. Trapping’s pretty straightforward: Choose your design and your bait; make a marker buoy from a quarter of a brightly-colored pool noodle (or pretty much anything that floats); and drop your trap where it won’t get hit by a boat or a current. In a few hours or the following morning, haul ’em in!
Crayfish traps are ridiculously easy to make. Since multiple traps are never a bad idea, I challenge you to take the DIY option. Then, you can challenge your buddies, your partner, or your kids to make their own and have a derby the next time you go out.
Before you buy or build, though, check your local fishing regulations. There may be restrictions on trap dimensions and entrance sizes, and some require that you affix your name and phone number on each trap or buoy.
These are my favorite traps:
Hardware cloth cylinder: A very easy and effective DIY design. Cylindrical traps snag less than cube shapes.
Soda bottle minnow and crayfish trap: Quick and dirty, and something you can throw together in a pinch. Plus, you get to pretend you’re Les Stroud, scavenging for survival resources.
Torpedo-style minnow or crayfish trap: You’ve probably seen these at any big-box store that carries sporting goods. They’re cheap, effective, and both ends nest together for easy storage. Several brands sell the same design for ten to fifteen dollars. Just be sure to get a trap with dark green or black coated wire for camouflage and durability.
Tips for keeping crayfish fresh
Crayfish use gills to collect oxygen from the water. Non-aerated buckets and cups of water rapidly lose oxygen, so it’s best to keep your crayfish alive in an empty container placed in the shade. They can breathe just fine on land.
If you want your catch to purge their hindguts (the vein-like organ running along the top center line of the tail meat) don’t bother with salt baths. They may be tradition for some, but according to this Louisiana State University experiment, it’s a waste of salt. A good rinsing or soak for a half-hour right before cooking will wash off any exterior debris. Any longer, and you’ll want to use an aerator and non-treated water (chlorinated water will kill them). In any case, the gut is easily picked off the tail.
How to Eat ‘Em
The simplest way to cook crayfish? Drop them into boiling water, and leave them until their shells turn bright red. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, follow these steps:
- Pull the tail flat
- Grip the tail behind the abdomen
- Shove the tail up toward the carapace (shell over the abdomen)
- Chomp the meat sticking out from the tail
- Suck the head (as they say in the Gulf States)
- Bonus: Crack the pincers with your teeth and suck the meat out if you don’t mind the hassle
Confused? Watch this video for pointers. Now, you’re going to have to find your own favorite crawfish boil, jambalaya, or etouffee recipes! Use them in your favorite seafood dish, or just eat them with melted garlic butter or hot sauce. By the way, this is a very easy way to get kids involved with fishing, since they can participate in every step of the process. Just go easy on the extra spicy when you’re feeding your two-legged mudbugs.
Featured image by Stone Wang.