Little Lake Lobsters
Sea Lobsters are delicious beyond description, but their high cost in restaurants and stores can also leave you gasping for words.
by Richard North
So, why not go catch your own?
True, landlocked Idaho is a long way from the sea, but our warmer streams and reservoirs are literally crawling with "little lake lobsters" - the common freshwater crawfish, crayfish, crawdad, or "mudbug." Call them what you will, only a few Idahoans realize these miniature crustaceans are not only edible, but an outright delicacy. Even fewer sportsmen know how to catch enough 'dads to make a meal. How to prepare crawfish for the table is yet another stumbling block for many.
Numerous crawfish sub-species are creeping across lake bottoms all across the United States and in other countries around the globe. Louisiana has long been the state with greatest interest in catching, commercially raising, and eating crawfish, owing largely to that area's Cambarus clarki, an especially big form that supports the famous Cajun dish "crawfish pie." Our Pacific Northwest has a large stream-dwelling crawfish, Astacus trowbridgi, which has been served as a delicacy for decades in Portland's older restaurants. Here in Idaho our crawfish run a bit smaller, but I've personally caught them up to about six inches in length. Such dark, big-clawed critters may be powerful ugly to some, but no better eating exists in fresh water!
Far greater interest would prevail in "lake Lobsters" if they weren't so doggoned small. A large pail filled to the brim with Idaho crawfish will produce only about a pound of pure white tail meat. It also takes considerable time and patience to separate this meat from the rest of the crawdad. If you have access to a passel of enthusiastic kids, you might sic them onto the job of both catching and cleaning a mess of supper crawfish. (Trouble is, they'll also eat most of the catch and then whine for more.)
Where do you find crawfish in Idaho?
Pretty much from one end of the state to the other in reservoirs, rivers, ponds, irrigation canals, and tiny creeks - in a word anywhere there's water of a relatively warm temperature. (We catch ours in Brownlee Reservoir.) Beyond this, the key word is rocks.
Idaho crawfish are vulnerable to all sorts of predators unless they take daytime shelter under rocks, sunken logs, or aquatic weeds. Smaller rubble-rock provides more hiding crevices than do large boulders. In my wading and skin-diving experience, crawfish seem to frequent shallower waters up to six feet or so deep, but some anglers catch literally hundreds of these bottom-grubbing crustaceans in deep-water traps.
As barefoot kids, most of us have enjoyed the experience of wading lake shallows or small creeks while turning over rocks to catch the scary claw-waving "mudbugs" lurking beneath. Most of us, too, have discovered those claws are just as dangerous as they look. Let a big one get hold of your finger and he'll draw blood, not to mention considerable terror while you try to pry or sling him loose. If you want to hand-grab crawfish, approach slowly from behind and then quickly grab the 'dad with finger and thumb just behind the claws, about where their "ribs" should be - and hang tight!. This approach is for the youthful and devoted, however, since most crawdads will back-scull beyond reach just before you make your grab.
Some advantage in hand-grabbing crawdads can be gained by hunting them at night. Like their saltwater relatives, light-sensitive crawfish are mainly nocturnal bottom scavengers which abandon their lairs mostly in darkness. They also move into lakeshore shallows at night where they can be seen and approached with a flashlight. As in nocturnal frog hunting, crawfish are mildly "hypnotized" by a strong light beam and can be grabbed with greater ease. Just don't move your hand fast in nearby water, since those long, ever-waving antennae are as sensitive as they look.
Day or night, a more effective way of gathering crawfish is to toss out a piece of fish or other meat on a string, leave it a while, then slowly draw it to the surface. One to several crawdads will usually be clinging to the bait and are easily caught by slipping a long-handled net under them. With this method you can "pot-shot" individual crawfish you've spotted as effectively as you can "fish blind" in deeper water.
Commercial crawfishermen usually employ traps of one kind or another. You can either make or buy crawdad traps, and you'll need several if you want to gather lots of mudbugs in a hurry. One trap form is a cylinder or cube of ¼" wire mesh with a screen "funnel" leading into the interior, which is baited with a fish head or other meat scrap. As long as the crawfish can't get at the food directly through the screen, he keeps poking around till he finds the funnel, crawls through, and then can't find his way out again. Such traps are simply lowered into deep water, buoy-marked, and picked up after an hour or so.
Another crawdad trap is a small version of the popular "crab rings" used in the ocean. This trap consists of a wire mesh or cloth net strung on a rigid square or circular metal frame a foot or two across. Folding or collapsing sides a few inches high are tied to a line which leads to the surface. The trap is baited in its center, lowered to the bottom, buoy-marked, and retrieved later by the attached line. Since crab-ring traps aren't enclosed as are funnel traps, it's important to haul up pretty fast so crawdads won't have time to crawl or swim over the sides.
Euell Gibbons, the late wildfoods forager extraordinaire, agrees freshwater crawfish are an unsurpassed inland delicacy. He caught hundreds of mudbugs for his own table wherever he traveled and for a time was a commercial crawfisher here in the Northwest. He used about a dozen of the crab-ring traps described above and regularly took 20 to 50 crawdads per haul. He claims 1000 crawfish per day wasn't uncommon, and his commercial success was limited only by a lack of market for his tiny delicacies.
(SEE: Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons)
Whatever method you use to catch crawfish in sufficient numbers to eat, you still have the task of cleaning them. Basically, all the meat is in the tail. You can quickly twist the tail off upon catching the crawdad and feed the forward half to enthusiastic fish. (This saves you worrying about "escapees" or getting pinched by a bucket full of bristling claws.) Or, you can bring your entire catch home alive and dispatch them by brief submersion in boiling water, at which time you still must twist the tail portion free. It may or may not be more cruel, but I prefer the former method.
In any case, once you have a couple hundred crawdad tails still in their shells, boil them in lightly salted water until they turn slightly pink. Cool them down for handling. Then the more tedious cleaning portion follows, since you must shell out the meat with fingers and thumbnails. Depending on how finicky you are, you may also want to scrape and flush out the "mud vein" (actually the 'dad's lower intestine), which sometimes, though not always, gives a muddy flavor to the meat. After that, you're pretty much home free. You can boil the meat further and serve it with a butter dip, or you can flour, batter, and fry it.
Crawfish tails are so good, it's nearly impossible to cook them wrong. I believe you could eat them raw, maybe with a bit of salt, and still enjoy one of the sweetest meats in fresh water.
Oh, yes, if you haven't discovered crawfish as bait, you've been missing one of the most effective fish attractors available. Be sure to use them within the same waters you found them, as per Idaho Fish and Game Rules. For bass or larger catfish, try fishing crawdads alive, particularly in their soft-shelled molting stage. Alternatively, you can twist off the tail, crush the shell to allow fish-attracting juices to leak out, and catch nearly any fish that swims in Idaho.
Maybe Idaho's gamefish know something about superb crawdad flavor that most Idaho anglers have yet to discover!
Other fishing articles in Idaho Rod & Reel:
Idaho's Trophy Waters
Best Bassin' of the Southwest
Ice Fishing in the Gem State
Copyright 2000 by Spring Creek Communications