August 01, 2022
By David Johnson
Crawfish live in streams throughout much of the West, and if you’re not dropping a crawfish trap or two on your next fishing trip, you’re missing out on some of the best and easiest-to-get wild food nature has to offer.
Here’s how to go about getting yourself a meal of miniature lobsters as streams warm from spring into summer.
METHOD NOT MADNESS
Using traps is the most efficient method for catching crawfish, as they allow you to go trout or bass fishing while the traps fill up. Just come back at the end of the day and reap your reward. Even on catch-and-release fishing trips, you go home with dinner.
If you are on a two-day fishing trip, even better: Set your traps the evening before you leave and pull the traps in the morning. Crawfish are most active at night. Most traps are cylindrical or rectangular wire mesh cages with funnel-shaped openings on both ends. The entrances of the funnel openings are off the bottom of the trap. This makes it difficult for crawfish to find the openings and leave the trap once they’re inside. In fact, as long as the bait holds out, crawfish won’t even try to escape. Traps have a door on top for placing your bait inside and taking the crawfish out. Tie one end of a long rope to your trap, throw the trap in the creek and tie the other end of the rope to a rock or tree to secure it. Retrieve the trap with the same rope at the end of the day.
As for what bait to use, I prefer fish carcasses and heads (the oilier and fresher the better) wherever dead fish is legal to use for bait. If you don’t have easy access to raw fish, canned cat food is a decent alternative. Punch a few holes in the can, drop it in the trap and you are good to go. Cat food gives off a smell that attracts crawfish and is neither messy nor expensive.
WHERE TO SET UP
Crawfish are widely distributed. If a river or lake supports bass, it likely will support crawfish. Drainages with trout or salmon and steelhead (the spawned-out corpses of which provide crawfish with a huge food resource), will likely support crawfish in the lower, warmer elevations of the drainage. If you see one crawfish, there are probably dozens more nearby.
Because crawfish are invasive in many drainages, state wildlife agencies often have maps of where crawfish are found. A quick search of the appropriate state website will often provide you with lots of ideas.
Once you’ve determined there are crawfish in a river, place traps in areas with rocky or vegetative bottoms—crawfish use rocks and wood as cover. Crawfish food is typically abundant in shallow water, so you don’t have to set traps out in the deep. A stream that has 2 or 3 feet of water in rocky pools will provide the habitat crawfish are attracted to.
Keep in mind that scent is what brings crawfish to the trap. You are effectively “fishing” downstream of where you set your trap. Crawfish will travel some distance to get to food, but to get there they must crawl upstream against the current. That means you should avoid placing your trap immediately upstream of a rapid or in a section of stream with a series of plunge pools. Find a rocky, slow-moving section in a stream and place your trap at the upper end of this area.
Try to make sure the bottom of the trap is flush with the stream bed. If there is space under the trap, some crawfish will go under the trap, rather than into it, to get at the bait.
I prefer using at least two traps set well apart from each other to increase my chances of catching dinner.
As a matter of common sense, keep in mind that crawfish are bottom-dwelling foragers. The cleaner the stream or lake you are fishing, the better the chances that the meat of the crawfish you catch will taste sweet rather than muddy. Do not, for example, set traps in rivers near domestic livestock crossings or in water holes where they drink unless your palate is open to a somewhat wider range of taste sensations than most people prefer.
RULES AND REGS
Exact crawfish limits vary from state to state, but are typically quite liberal. Because introduced invasive crawfish damage habitat, in many states it is illegal to transport live crawfish. That means you must dispatch them before heading home. Pushing a knife through the top of the carapace just behind the eyes will do so humanely.
Crawfish have a vein in their tails, and like shrimp they often taste better if the vein is removed. Deveining a crawfish is very easy. They have fin-like structures at the end of their tail. If you grasp the middle fin and gently twist and pull it away from the tail, the vein will pull out of the tail along with the middle fin. Ice your crawfish immediately and cook them as soon as possible.
Movable Feast: An easy way to enjoy your catch
Crawfish are usually cooked with other foods to make a meal. A classic is a crawfish boil. In a large pot, put baby potatoes and andouille sausage cut into bite-sized pieces, then add water to a level above the food.
Cooking a boil is not an exact science. Feel free to adjust ingredient amounts according to how many folks you’re feeding. Put in an appropriate amount of seafood boil seasoning. I prefer either Louisiana Fish Fry Products’ Crawfish Shrimp & Crab Boil or Zatarain’s Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil mixes. For amounts, follow directions on the packages.
Boil until the potatoes are almost done, then add some ears of corn that have been husked and broken in half. Put in whole crawfish. Depending on how much other food is in the pot, boil three to five minutes, being careful not to overcook the crawfish. Like crabs, crawfish will turn a brighter shade of orange or red when they are cooked. When the crawfish, corn and potatoes are all cooked, drain the pot, dump the food onto a large platter (or a paper-covered picnic table) and serve with melted butter and your choice of hot sauce on the side.
To eat the crawfish, hold the thorax in one hand, grasp the tail with the other, twist the tail and gently pull it away. Peel the shell away from the tail and eat the meat. Most of the meat is in the tails, but in large crawfish the claws might have enough meat to be worth opening.
If you don’t have enough crawfish, simply augment with shrimp; dump them in the pot at the same time as the crawfish. Crawfish boils are eaten with your hands. A roll of paper towels is required.