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  • October 4th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Another lobster knows the difference; another crayfish knows the difference, but without some scale of reference you wouldn’t. Look at a photo of a lobster and one of a crayfish and you couldn’t tell one from the other. Side by side, yes, but not individually. That’s why you wouldn’t make either a good crayfish or a good lobster.

Basically, a crayfish is just a freshwater lobster, lacking size and gushy press clippings. Big ol’ lobsters are not a big ol’ deal to a Cajun, one of those displaced Nova Scotia lobster country expatriates who long ago forsook the rocky northeast coast for the sullen swamps of Louisiana where the crayfish is king.

Mostly they are crayfish except with the commercial crayfish farmers who call them crawfish. There are multiple species (at last count 42 native species in one state, and three non-native species). For many, crayfish are called, somewhat contemptuously, “mudbugs” but many species inhabit clear, cold water, lurking under flat rocks.

There’s a cruel irony in the only song dedicated to the Little Lobster, irony which hit me one sunny afternoon when I was playing the banjo and singing:

“Whatcha gonna do when the creek runs dry?
Just sit’n watch them crawdads die!”

What a terrible fate for such a cool critter! Crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, you take your pick—they are revered in Cajun Country but often ignored or considered only as prime live bait elsewhere. Even when they are called “mudbugs,” they are eagerly sought after and consumed by the descendants of Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline.”

The crayfish even starred in a memorable episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, some 50 years ago—Jed Clampett, had some crawdads shipped from home back in the hills, proving that someone among the scriptwriters had a southeastern rural background.

If you want to trace the name back and amaze friends while you’re chomping through a heaping helping of boiled crawdads, you can tell them that according to one story the name Crawfish began its life as krabba “crab” in one of English’s ancient Germanic ancestors. It’s also theorized the name comes from Old High German “krebiz” which means edible crustacean and that makes more sense. It was borrowed by Old French and became crevis or crevice “crayfish”. More modern French retuned this word as crevisse which the English promptly converted to a more palatable crayfish. Now, since crayfish crawl, it ultimately became crawfish in some regions. And crawdad is “a fanciful alteration of crawfish” according to one dictionary.

Crayfish are creatures of the wet, from lakes and ponds, to streams and even wet meadows. If it has water it can support crayfish. Some even have adapted to the complete darkness of caves and no longer have eyes or coloration. And, in contrast to sighted crayfish with a two or three year lifespan, blind cave crayfish can live for 20 or 30 years. Other crayfish burrow deep into a meadow, far from standing water, leaving tall mounds of excavated dirt above the tunnel entrance.
While a crayfish can exist out of water for some time, it is aquatic, with gills for breathing. The land-based crayfish who build tunnels, dig those tunnels deep enough to reach the water table and thus they can luxuriate in a subterranean bath full time.

As delectable as crayfish are for humans, they’re equally so for a variety of other critters, finned and furred. Otters and raccoons are especially fond of ecrevisse au naturale, and any angler knows that a soft-shelled crawfish hooked through the tail and drifted down a rocky run in a smallmouth stream is as close to a guaranteed strike as sportfishing gets. Use as bait has resulted in exotic or non-native species being introduced into habitats where they compete, sometimes successfully, with the native crayfish.

Accidental or deliberate introductions have had serious ecological results—the starling is an exotic as is the gypsy moth. Any introduced species does just what introduced people would do—it competes for food and shelter with native species. While crayfish largely are good citizens, their mounded burrows can damage earthen dams, gardens and fields, and some species have internal parasites which can affect humans.

Nationally crayfish farmers produce up to 85 million metric tons of the little lobsters every year—more than a billion pounds, with Louisiana and Texas the major producers. One crustaceans expert says, “Because of their roles as both consumers and prey, crayfishes are vital forces in the flow of energy and nutrients within aquatic ecosystems. Without crayfishes, the health and integrity of freshwater ecosystems would be severely damaged.”

Thus the crayfish is the “canary in the mine,” an indicator of either good or bad things happening to the water. A crayfish’s optimum water temperature is 55-60 degrees, relatively cold and coincidentally close to the water temperature favored by trout. So a healthy crayfish population in a trout stream is a good indicator that the trout are doing well also.

Crayfish are “soft-shelled” when they shed their exoskeleton (human skeletons are inside, while crayfish skeletons are outside). This molting happens several times in the crustacean’s lifetime, a lifespan that usually maxes out at three years. While it defies logic, it’s true that the older a crayfish gets the less tail meat it has compared to head mass, so the best eating size is young-of-the-year. About 15 percent of a crawdad is edible by humans. Some of the leftover can be converted to catfish food which in turn becomes human food.

It might dim the appetite of the would-be crayfish eater, but it’s fact that the little mudbugs are scavengers, often feeding on dead meat. They are omnivorous, though, and vary their diet with all sorts of juicy goodies in addition to the occasional defunct and grossly bloated catfish. Most of the diet (80 percent) is vegetative but worms are the preferred entrée.

For humans, eating a crayfish is similar to eating unpeeled shrimp. In common with other shellfish, the exoskeleton surrounds all the edible stuff. Break off and peel the first three shell segments of the tail. The “vein” (the creature’s gut) should pull free as you tug at the tail fin. Dip the tail in hot sauce and enjoy. Cajuns also suck the “fat” or mustard-yellow liver out of the head portion—a practice it’s better for non-Cajuns not to think about. One commercial species, the White River, has green fat which turns most folks off, but might be appreciated on St. Patrick’s Day.

As food crayfish are as good as it gets. They are high in protein, low in saturated fat and they are tasty. They are high in cholesterol, but also contain various vitamins, iron, calcium and phosphorus. It would take more than six ounces of crayfish meat to exceed the American Heart Association’s accepted daily cholesterol limit (300 milligrams). For the mathematically inclined, a three-ounce serving of crayfish tails contains 178 milligrams of cholesterol and would be slightly less than an average serving.

And a 3.5 ounce serving contains only 75 calories for those who count such things. Of more concern would be anaphylactic shock for those allergic to shellfish. Anyone with a shellfish allergy should stay far away from cooking or eating crayfish or even using any utensils or anything else used in the preparation of a shellfish meal—it’s the most common food allergy and a reaction can range from mild to fatal. While it’s not common, such allergy can occur anytime, even if the victim never before has reacted.

But allergy and cholesterol whim-whams aside, many thousands of Cajuns and apprentice Cajuns gleefully dive into a heaping mound of crayfish, a crayfish etouffe, jambalaya or any of the many recipes where the mudbug flourishes with no more serious repercussions than a need for bicarbonate of soda.

The simplest recipe is boiled crayfish. Drop live crayfish in a rolling boil of seasoned water (crab boil or any of the many seafood seasonings will do) and rescue them when they float to the top, now a bright orange color.

It takes about seven pounds of crayfish to produce one pound of tail meat and the average serving is between three and four pounds of whole crayfish or five or six ounces of tail meat per person per meal. Obviously the serving depends on the appetite of the person. In 1991 a fellow named Steve Luman ate 30 pounds of crawfish in 30 minutes. The contest was co-sponsored by Weed Eater.

The easiest way to collect a meal is to buy the meat (you can buy live crayfish on the internet for between $5-$6 per pound) but if you want to get them yourself, a bait seine with two energetic youngsters, one on either end, is the weapon-of-choice. Someone upstream kicks over rocks and the disturbed crayfish drift into the net.

A slower and less ecologically-intrusive method is to carefully lift rocks in the shallows of clear streams and either hand grab the crayfish hiding below or position a dip net just behind the little fellow and feint at his upraised dukes. He’ll flip backward, right into the net. Put the rock back where it was, haven for the next resident.

And if you do collect your dinner from the stream or pond, refrigerate it immediately, but not below 38 degrees or the crayfish can die. Make sure they have oxygen and either eat them within 24 hours or freeze them cooked. Discard any dead crayfish before cooking.

Given that it takes a bunch of crayfish to feed a hungry horde of shellfish lovers, it is necessary for the little lobsters to practice crustacean love often and productively. A female crayfish will lay from 400 to 800 eggs.

Crayfish love occurs in fall and winter. The mating is both conventional and peculiar in that the male, after depositing sperm in the female, plugs her receptacle which serves both to keep sperm in and other males out. After the female lays her huge clutch of eggs, she fastens the egg masses to her swimming legs, called swimmerets, and hides until they hatch in a few weeks.

As is true of all prolific creatures, mortality is high—just about every fish that swims relishes a juicy crawdad, not to mention four and two-legged predators and even the occasional winged one.
Crayfish are largely a creature of the eastern half of the country—almost all of the estimated 350-400 species (no one knows for sure how many species there are) exist east of the Rocky Mountains and more than 90 percent of those are in the southeastern United States—oddly there are no crayfish in Africa.

But you’ll find them in every corner of Missouri, dukes raised, ready for a fight, ready to help you catch the smallmouth bass of a lifetime, ready to indicate the health of your favorite river, ready to grace your dinner plate with a heap of their peers—all-around good fellows.

“You get a line and I’ll get a pole
And we’ll go down to the crawdad hole….”


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