Crawdaddin’ In the Northwest By Josh DeBruler
Some of my fondest memories from my childhood bring me back to the early 90’s, when my brothers, cousins, and I would seek refuge from the hot August sun by wading in the cool, trickling waters of the Dechuetes River, which ran behind my mother’s old house in rural East Olympia. Here, we would make our first feeble attempts at learning to swim, we’d pick ripe and juicy blackberries from the river’s banks-where the vines would creep down from the bush, and we’d hang just inches from the water. It was here that I would have my first experience harvesting wildlife to bring home and cook- namely, crayfish.
I think that today I owe much of my love and propensity for catching and cooking fish and wild game to those experiences that I had way back then, in that little river behind our house. Though my days of snorkeling in 3’ deep water and snatching little mud-bugs by their backs till I’m blue in the lips may be a bit behind me, my love for the flavor of crayfish and for the environments that they are found in certainly is not.
Before we get too far into the how’s and where’s of catching crayfish, let’s establish a bit of the “why” aspect. For me personally, diversifying my range of knowledge surrounding the collecting and harvesting of wild foods is not only gratifying in a self-sustainability sense, but it also gives me additional reasons for venturing out into our natural landscapes; oftentimes placing me in streams, rivers, and lakes that I otherwise wouldn't likely have pursued. Aside from the phenomenal flavor of their meat, which we will circle back to later, there’s also an interesting ecological benefit to crawdaddin’ in the Northwest. In Washington, we have one native crayfish, and that’s the signal crayfish. We also have a handful of other non-natives (refer to WDFW website for identification) that have been introduced through various mechanisms, with the three main culprits being aquaculture practices, anglers using live crayfish as bait, and grade school classrooms goodheartedly, yet naively, releasing them into our waters. Crayfish are ecosystem engineers, and this means that they can create or alter ecosystems through their own natural behaviors. For example, crayfish like to feed on different aquatic plants. Once these plants are removed, competing algae will begin to thrive. Eventually, bodies of water that were once clear and healthy, with various forms of plant life, end up having increased turbidity and decreased plant diversity. Aside from these bigger picture effects that cascade down from something as seemingly benign as a ferocious appetite for aquatic plants, non-native crayfish also outcompete native crayfish. They eat fish eggs, and they put a lot of pressure on frogs and other amphibians, eventually leading to more problematic effects on biodiversity. The food webs these non-native invertebrates effect when left unchecked are vast and can ultimately affect the quality of different fisheries, so it’s important to keep these species in check through various methods of removal. Luckily for us, one of these methods is recreational harvesting. There are no limits on nonnative crayfish in my home state of Washington, so Washingtonians can have at the invasives to their heart’s content. For our native signal crayfish, as of May of 2022, harvesters can collect up to 10 lbs. per day.
If you’ve yet to partake in a Louisiana style crawfish boil or have never boiled these critters in a small pot balancing over a fire next to the river, as my brothers and I did back in our days, so heavily clad in Huck Fin reverie- then, my friend, you are in for a treat. Crawfish resemble tiny lobsters, and, as fortune would have it, they also taste a bit like lobster (a contentious debate amongst the serious crawfish enthusiasts). The flavor of the meat is savory and a bit salty, like a combination of lobster, crab, and shrimp. You can eat them in a similar fashion as you would eat crab; cracking the claws and pulling the meat out with a crab fork. The tails yield a nice chunk of meat as well, and they are what many consider to be the crux of the crayfish experience. However, if you were to ask someone from the South what their favorite part of this little crustacean is, there’s good chance they’ll depict a ghastly story of sucking the yellowish brains or “crawdad butter” directly out of the critter’s head. The yellow substance which they are referring to is not, in fact, brains, but actually a gland called the hepatopancreas. Sure, yellow gooey glands from the head of a mudbug might not sound appealing, but what if I was to tell you that this hepatopancreas is actually a digestive gland that is responsible for moving digestive fluids, particularly those heavy with toxins, out of the crawfish’s digestive tract? If this hasn’t got your mouth watering, well, I don’t blame you. But imagine this yellow goo as a rich, buttery concentration, with all the crayfish’s most savory flavors, and the sharp heat and toasty bite of the spices and herbs often associated with a crawfish boil (cayenne, paprika, black pepper, garlic, thyme, oregano, etc.) all coming together to congregate in a burst of flavor. Now you might be looking at a delicacy worth tapping into!
So, it’s established that crayfish are tasty, and there could be a positive ecological impact by harvesting non-natives, but how and where do we find them? Thankfully, in the Pacific Northwest, crayfish can be found in just about any of freshwater location. They’re so prevalent in our waterways that, to me, it’s truly a mystery as to why they are not celebrated with even a fraction of the enthusiasm that the folks down south seem to express towards these culinary delights. Most rivers, brooks, lakes, ponds, and sloughs hold at least some crawfish. For a head start, try Lake Washington, Lake Samammish, Pine Lake, or Lake Chelan. The Columbia River, Snohomish River, and the sloughs connected to them are also popular amongst crawdad harvesters. You can likely drive less than an hour in any direction from home and find a body of water that holds crayfish. Look for underwater structures where crawfish can find protection from larger predators. Shallow lakes with rocky bottoms or rock piles, rivers with submerged logs, and areas of water that have a good amount of vegetation all create good crayfish habitat.
You can catch crawfish by hand quite easily. Of course, this is suited for hot temperatures when cooling down in the water might be just as rewarding as collecting some of these mud bugs. Typically, this involves no more than moving rocks in a shallow river or stream to expose a crawfish, then pinching it on its back- being careful to keep your hands and fingers outside the range of its small, yet unforgiving claws. You can also catch crayfish on a string, like how blue crab are caught. Simply fix your bait to the end of the line, throw it in the water, and retrieve once the crawfish has attached itself. Use a dip-net or bucket to scoop the crawfish just before it reaches the surface. These methods certainly hit the mark when it comes to providing fun for an adventurous family, but if a real dinner is what you’re after, then you’ll be much better off using a trap. There are all sorts of different traps available for these crustaceans, and it’s likely that you already have one in your garage and just haven’t realized it. Shrimp pots, minnow traps, and even homemade mesh cylinder traps with funneled ends have all been known to get the job done. Essentially, you just need a set up that allows crawdads to get in, but will not allow them to get out. Most local sporting good shops will carry traps ranging anywhere from 10-100 dollars. For bait, any carcass of a fish that is local to your area should do. You can also use chicken, hot dogs, or cans of cat/dog food. For lakes, scout out a good spot and soak traps overnight, being sure to attach a line and buoy for next morning retrieval. If trapping in a river, soak traps and tie your line to a nearby rock or tree. It’s always a good idea to camouflage your line if you are going to leave it overnight, as this can help avoid unwanted attention from other river-goers.
May is generally when the season kicks off here in Washington, but wait for the weather to warm up, as this is when the crayfish become more active (my empty trap in the photo is testament to this). Get creative, have fun, grab the corn on the cob, potatoes, and spices, and have yourself a Louisiana style crawfish boil! Don’t be hesitant about sucking the guts out of the heads; it’s where the flavor lives!