Lobsters of the Midwest

By Bill Graham | April 1, 2018
From Missouri Conservationist: April 2018

Missouri’s biggest crayfish is table worthy.

They’re big, bold, and mostly unseen except to devoted followers of an Ozark dining delicacy. Meet the longpincered crayfish. What enables them to rule a watery world — their massive size — also makes them tasty table fare.

A Size Above the Rest

On a summer night, shine a flashlight down into Table Rock Lake’s shallow water and you may be startled by lobster-looking crayfish scurrying among the rocks. Many a youngster and grownup has turned over stones in a stream and carefully grabbed a 2- or 3-inch-long “crawdad” behind the head to avoid the pincers. So, in comparison, imagine seeing the longpincered crayfish that can be 6 inches long from tail to snout, plus its 3 inch pincers.

“I think they’re great,” said Bob DiStefano, an MDC resource scientist who has studied longpincered crayfish.

The crustacean that science knows as Faxonius longidigitus is Missouri’s largest crayfish and one of the nation’s largest. It is found only in streams in the White River basin and lakes such as Table Rock and Bull Shoals. Its long, slender pincers are bluish-green with yellowish knobs. The abdomen and carapace are olive tan with bright red spots.

“They’re a very cool species,” DiStefano said. “They’re pretty, they’re large, and they’re a little bit cantankerous. And they taste great.”

Trapped and Studied

MDC researchers have trapped crayfish for studies, and DiStefano has spent hours scuba diving in Table Rock Lake to watch them. Most crayfish are active only at night to avoid sight feeding predators. But he watched longpincered crayfish active in the daylight hours looking for food on the bottom where they live among the lake bed’s chunk rock.

“It made me think of them as the biggest, baddest dog on the block,” he said.

Studies showed crayfish avoid water with poor dissolved oxygen levels, DiStefano said. Researchers trapping crayfish found a higher abundance in shallow waters.

Longpincered crayfish were identified as a species and given a scientific name in 1898 by Walter Faxon, a bird and crayfish expert from Harvard University. Native Americans and pioneer settlers may have simply referred to them as the big ones that are good to eat once boiled and spiced. How common they were in the White River system and what changes lake construction brought in the 20th century is unknown. Lakes, however, certainly gave them more room to roam. MDC researchers trapping crayfish at Table Rock Lake found them more abundant in shallow waters if water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels were favorable.

“We did better in gently sloping coves than off steeply sloping ledges,” DiStefano said.

The average size of longpincered crayfish collected from lakes was larger than those collected from rivers, he said. Perhaps food is more abundant in lakes, and maybe less predator pressure lets some grow longer and thus larger.

Longpincered crayfish can filter microrganisms from the water with their gills, grab fish or snails with their pincers, gnaw on dead fish or leaves, suck up algae, or perhaps even prey on other crayfish.

“Crayfish eat everything, and everything eats crayfish, ”biologists say of their important role in ecology.

Fine Dining

Everything that eats crayfish includes people. Like lobsters, most crayfish are cooked by dropping them live in boiling water with spices. Twist the tail meat open and you have a bite that’s  like shrimp or lobster. Some people also tear the tail off and suck the juices out of the thorax, “the tamale,” says MDC Education Specialist James Worley. He claims it has a liver-like flavor.

Most Missouri crayfish can be cooked and the tail meat eaten, though they can be small morsels and taste can vary. But a longpincered tail provides a big bite.

“They’re big enough that you can bust open the pincers and get a little piece of meat, too,” said Scott Crain, a Branson-area native and assistant manager at MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, who traps and cooks longpincered crayfish atTable Rock Lake. “That’s kind of a delicacy, eating that pincer meat.”

Crain’s family camps at Table Rock Lake, sets traps for longpincered crayfish, and dines on boiled crawfish they catch. Other Missouri families also trap them, as longpincered crayfish have a small but loyal regional following.

Longpincered crayfish as dining fare does not have a national reputation like the famous Cajun crayfish traditions from Louisiana. Crayfish cooking is also widely popular in the Pacific Northwest, DiStefano said. Scandinavian countries have centuries-old crayfish eating traditions and immigrants brought them to Wisconsin and a few other states.

Visitors from such places are often surprised by longpincered crayfish on display in aquariums at MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center near Table Rock Lake dam at Branson.

“We get people in from Louisiana, and they get really excited when we show them we have crayfish in the lake this big,” said Leah Eden, the center’s naturalist. “The most common comment is that they resemble a lobster because they’re so big.”

To Catch a Longpincered Crayfish

Before you can cook and eat crayfish, you have to catch them, and to do so you must possess a valid fishing license. Some people wade in rivers or the lakes and grab them by hand. Jay Heselton of Nixa likes to take his grandkids to the Finley River, a White River tributary, and catch longpincered crayfish while wading in the river.

“I like to go one on one with them,” Heselton said. But most people who catch enough longpincered crayfish to make a meal or to feed a group, trap them at Table Rock Lake. Most use wire mesh traps with bait inside, either homemade traps or those purchased from outdoor gear dealers. The trap entrance cannot be larger than 1.5 inches wide by 18 inches long, and the owner’s name and address must be attached. Conical openings allow crayfish to easily enter traps but make it hard for them to get out. They remain alive until cooked.

Since crayfish are scavengers and will follow scent to food, traps are often baited with dead nongame fish, raw chicken necks, or an open can of dog or cat food. Crayfish are more active at night, so traps are usually set by day left overnight, and checked the next day. A trapper who leaves a dead fish in a crayfish trap may return the next day to find fed crayfish and the skeleton of a fish cleaned down to bare bone.

Traps are placed on the lake bottom. Often at Table Rock, they are tied onto boat docks. But Crain also uses floats to mark and retrieve traps. The limit is 150 crayfish per angler per day.

“We typically leave traps 24 hours before we run and retrieve,” Crain said. “I’ll have two or three traps in 12feet of water, two or three down 20 feet, and a couple in between. When you run them, you’ll have a couple of traps that won’t have very many crayfish in them and some with 12 or 15.”

Crain notes locations on the lake at night where lights reveal them darting about on the bottom. “You see them everywhere at night,” he said. “Their little eyes shine like diamonds in the light.”

How to Prepare Longpincered Crayfish

Crain prefers to cook 35 or 40 longpincered crayfish to make a meal for one or two people. However, 75 or 80 crayfish make a better mess when the whole family is at the table. His family often collects crayfish for several days, putting them in a plastic kiddie swimming pool with salted tap water. This purges the crayfishes’ digestive system to provide cleaner taste. Some people do the purge in coolers or some type of aerated container. It’s important to keep the crayfish alive.

Crain brings water in a pot to a boil and cooks corn on the cob and potatoes for about 20 minutes. Then he puts the crayfish in for 4 to 5 minutes. The commercial crab boil seasonings, sold in local grocery stores, work fine for cooking crayfish. Seasonings help dictate flavor. “Some people have a little melted butter with garlic on the side to dip them in,” he said.

Like a Louisiana crayfish boil, the cooks often spread some paper on a table and dump the crayfish, potatoes, and corn out in a pile. Diners dig in. Crain likes to have small forks and a tool to crack the pincers open. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Longpincered crayfish are one of nature’s miracles. They are a unique species, evolved over millions of years, and capable of growing twice as large as the next biggest Missouri crayfish. They are an underutilized fishery available to outdoor enthusiasts, especially in the lakes, DiStefano said.

“I have no qualms whatsoever that the population could withstand greater harvest and not be affected,” he said. Among their many talents, “crayfish are very prolific breeders as long as we maintain good water quality and habitat.”

Crayfish: Variety in Missouri’s Waterways

You want variety? Check out Missouri’s 36 species of crayfish. These crustaceans help clean our waterways by eating dead things and serve as a key food source for fish and other predators. They come in assorted sizes and colors and their quintessential pincers come in different shapes. For example, the Neosho midget crayfish only tops out at 2 inches long but has broad, powerful pincers, while the longpincered crayfish has slender 3-inch pincers. Some crayfish blend into their surroundings with camouflage color patterns, while the red swamp crawfish is dark red. Eight species are unique to Missouri and another dozen only share limited ranges in other states.

Crayfish have sci-fi movie-worthy bodies with walking legs, front legs with little pincers, protruding eyes, long antennae, and muscular tails with fans that can flip them quickly from one spot to another. Some species only live in specialized habitats, such as caves or mud burrows. Others prefer ponds, lakes, or rivers with specific water qualities. They’re part of both prairie and forest ecology.

Some crayfish species, however, are rare in Missouri due to a limited range or threats from pollution or invasive species. Twenty-one species are of conservation concern. Don’t dump or move live crayfish — it is illegal to transport and release crayfish into another water body. That regulation protects native crayfish species from being displaced by invaders. MDC offers a free publication, A Guide to Missouri’s Crayfishes, with tips on crayfish conservation and ecology, and color photographs of common or interesting species. To request a copy, call 573-522-0108 or email pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov.

A guide to Missouri’s Crayfishes

For more on Missouri crayfish, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZTt.

Hot or Cold, Crayfish is a Delight

Missouri’s crayfish, also called crawdads or mud bugs, can be cooked and served in a variety of ways, hot or cold. But some preparation steps are common to all dishes.

Use only live, freshly caught crayfish. Some cooks keep them in a container of clean water, or perhaps lightly salted water, prior to cooking for a few days to purge their intestinal system. Keep cooked crayfish chilled until used. The tail meat is what is used in most recipes. Even Missouri’s smaller crayfish can provide a tasty tail meat bite if prepared well.

A simple way to cook crayfish is dropping them into boiling water along with a crab boil seasoning mix. Peel the tail meat out of the shell and eat them like shrimp. However, there’s more than one way to enliven your crawdad dining. Tail meat can be added to spicy Cajun recipes, mixed in salads, added to a rice pilaf, sealed in a pastry, spiced to personal tastes, or frozen for a future hors d’oeuvre serving.

For crayfish etouffee, saute three large onions finely chopped in one stick of butter. Add crayfish fat from the body cavity and cook over low heat until the fat comes to the top. Add tail meat and season to taste. Mix in enough hot water to bring the etouffee to desired consistency, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add parsley and serve over steaming hot rice. Serves 5 to 6. Scandinavian countries have a long crayfish cooking tradition. Author Bernadette Dryden provided a simple Swedish-style boiled crayfish (kokta kräftor) recipe in her MDC cookbook, Cooking Wild in Missouri. She obtained the recipe from Gunilla Murphy, a native of Sweden and the wife of Missouri Conservation Commissioner Dave Murphy

Bring 2¾ quarts of water, 1/2 cup of salt, and lots of fresh dill crowns to a boil. Add 2 pounds (about 25) of fresh, live crayfish. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Let the crayfish cool in the liquid. The crayfish can also be frozen in the liquid, and when ready to eat, defrost and serve very cold. You’ll find more crayfish recipes at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z3U.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen

Staff Writer - Larry Archer
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler