If you crave lobster, your Missouri fishing permit won't help you obtain a meal. However, you can catch a close relative of the lobster that is just as nutritious and has its own distinct flavor.
Crayfish are popular as food in a handful of southern states, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
Those states have a growing number of crayfish farms where the crustaceans, raised in ponds and rice paddies, are sold on the open market. The estimated harvest of crayfish for food in the United States is said to be close to 100 million pounds, and most of that comes from Louisiana.
Crayfish are also popular in Scandinavian countries, especially Norway. That country has intensive fisheries for crayfish and resource managers devote a lot of time to them.
Missouri isn't usually regarded as a crayfish state. We do have 33 species of crayfish living here, but most of our crayfish are too small to attract attention as a food item, even though Missouri anglers can legally harvest 150 of them daily.
At least one of our crayfish is big enough for the table, and they are numerous enough to provide a feast. In fact, our longpincered crayfish is the largest crayfish in North America. This species can have a body six inches long with pincers and claws almost as long as its body. The longpincered “crawdad” is believed to be indigenous only to the White River basin of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, which includes Table Rock Lake.
People who live near or visit Table Rock are finding that the reservoir holds an excellent population of large crayfish, and more and more anglers are harvesting them—and having fun doing it.
“The Table Rock Lake crayfishery is unique in the state, if not the nation,” says Bob DiStefano, a Conservation Department resource scientist whose specialty is crayfish.
“Only a few other places in the country have an intensive fishery for wild crayfish,” DiStefano said. It certainly is one of a few places where the number of people catching and eating crayfish is growing.”
I'm one of that growing number of crawdad fans on Table Rock, so is my friend Wayne Williams. Until he retired and moved down to Table Rock from Kansas City, he never tried to catch crawdads to eat.
“I saw a trap on the dock of a friend of mine,” Wayne said, “and I decided to try catching some. I baited the trap with some canned dog food and, to my surprise, I caught more than a dozen that were two or three times larger than any I had seen. They were huge!”
Wayne said he soon learned how to clean and cook them and has been crayfishing ever since. “My family and friends have had a lot of fun catching and eating the crawdads,” he said.
Most of the crawdads are taken from under boat docks on Table Rock. However, that appears to be just a matter of convenience. The big crayfi sh are found almost everywhere in the big reservoir.
There is no season for catching the crayfish. Anglers legally can take them year around, but the most productive months are May, June and July. September and October are also good for crayfishing.
Crawdads can be trapped from the wild, but not sold. The daily limit is 150. A Missouri fishing permit is required.
The most productive way to catch crayfish is with a baited wire-mesh trap. Regulations specify that the opening or entrance to the trap cannot be more than 1.5 by 18 inches and the owner's name and address must be attached.
The crayfish is a scavenger and will eat almost anything. Many people bait their traps with canned dog food (open just one end of the can) or dead, non-game fish. Meaty chicken and turkey bones, such as the backs and necks, also attract crayfish.
Crayfish are primarily nocturnal. They spend daylight hours in holes or under rocks.
Male crayfish mate with females in late fall and winter, and the eggs develop inside the female. In May and June, she lays the eggs and gathers them under her tail. She holds them in place with a glue-like substance she produces from glands under her tail.
Later, the young attach themselves to small tabs, called swimmerets, under the mother's tail. The young stay on the tail for a couple weeks before becoming free-swimming larvae. The females with eggs or young remain close to cover.
Crayfish periodically outgrow their shells and shed them. Before their new shell hardens, they are extremely vulnerable to predation and usually hide themselves. It takes about a day for the new shell to harden.
Although the longpincered crayfish of Table Rock is one of the state's best-known and most-used species, crayfish densities in some Ozark streams are among the highest in the world, said Conservation Department resource scientist Bob DiStefano. Many animals, including our sport fishes, feed on adult crayfish and their young. Researchers are studying the role of crayfish in aquatic food chains and determining the status of several of Missouri's rarest crayfish.
To learn more, you can purchase “The Crayfishes of Missouri” by William L. Pflieger. It is available in softcover for $10, plus tax, at Conservation Nature Centers and regional Conservation Department offfi ces. You can order electronically at online, or by calling toll-free (877) 521-8632. Ask for item 01-0250.
Most of the crayfish taken in traps are large. DiStefano says this because the longpincered species is so aggressive. “The little ones just can't compete with the big ones in getting to the bait,” he said.
Although longpincered crayfish dominate the catch, other species also find their way into traps. These include the smaller Ozark crayfish, the virile or northern crayfish and the ringed crayfishes. These usually top out at about 3.5 to 4.5 inches in body length.
Handling big crayfish can be a challenge. If one latches onto your fi nger, you probably will emit a few words of despair. It's best to shake them through the trap's door into a bucket, then you can handle them with cooking tongs.
My friend Dick Burroughs says he enjoys the Cajun method of cooking crawdads. Dick moved to Kimberling City from Mississippi, but discovered crawdads at an early age in Louisiana.
“Down south we found them in muddy ponds and rice paddies,” Dick said. “Not only are the ones we catch here two and three times as large as the ones we got down south, they are also very clean. We always put the ones we caught in Louisiana in a tub of salt water for about a day to let the mud vein (alimentary canal) clean out. We don't believe we have to do that here.”
Dick is a real expert with the “mudbugs” as he calls them. He and his friends have a number of crawdad boils every summer.
He cooks the crayfish in a 5- to 6-gallon pot with a basket in it. He fills the pot about half to two-thirds full with water spiced with Cajun seasoning and brings the mixture to a boil. He then dumps in whole crawdads, along with some small red potatoes, small onions and whole mushrooms, and lets everything boil for five to six minutes. He'll then add some ears of corn and let the pot simmer for another five minutes or so. When the vegetables are done, the crawdads should be bright red.
To serve, he spreads newspaper or butcher paper on a picnic table. He lifts the basket out of the pot to drain it, then pours the contents on the paper and lets everyone dig in.
His buddy, Tony Root of Lampe, regularly reaps the rewards of Dick's Cajun catfish boils.
“We all pitch in and set our traps so we have a bunch for a cookout,” Tony said.“Needless to say it's hard to keep from pigging out when you have all those crawdads. It's an impressive feast.”
My method is simpler. I soak the tails and claws in salt water for an hour or so before rinsing them and popping them into a pot of boiling water spiced up with a tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning for every 2 cups of water. I stir frequently for about 10 minutes until the crawdads or pieces turn a bright red, indicating they are cooked.
If you don't relish the thought of sucking up the fat and juices after popping the tail of a cooked crawdad, you can devein the tail before cooking. Simply snap the pincers off and twist the middle tab, called the telson, on the tail fan back and forth and then gently pull on it. The attached vein or alimentary canal should come free of the tail. This procedure also works after the tail is cooked.
Try dipping the pieces in melted butter or cocktail sauce for even more flavor.
It takes about a dozen medium to large crawdad tails and pincers for each serving, but that guideline depends on how they are served. If eaten by themselves it might take two dozen. If used in a stir-fry, a salad or casserole a half dozen per serving will be enough to provide the distinctive flavor of crayfish.
Shucking the tails and cracking the pincers to get to the flesh is a bit of a challenge until you get the hang of it. Having a veteran crawdadder show you the ropes is the best way to get started enjoying them.
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