Whether you call them crayfish, crawfish, yabbies, crawdads, freshwater (or mountain) lobsters or even (shudder) “mudbugs” there is no doubt that the members of this humble group of decapods are an important food resource all over the world and knowing how to catch crawfish can be the missing chapter in a fisherman’s life book.
This article will look at the value of these shellfish as a food source and methods for capturing them prior to eating. Throughout the article, they shall be referred to as crayfish, for ease of reference, though it should be noted that in Australia the term refers to the ocean going Rock Lobster (freshwater crayfish being referred to as “yabbies”).
Crayfish species are found in many areas of the world– notably Europe (where there are 7 species present), North America, Australia, and Eastern Asia (including Japan).
In many countries, native species live alongside (or in competition with) introduced or “invasive” species: often producing problems for wildlife conservationists in those countries but opportunities for the wild gourmet!
A good example of this conflict is to be found in the UK, where species that were originally introduced to provide for the restaurant trade (notably the Signal Crayfish) have outcompeted the native White Clawed Crayfish and brought diseases, like the so-called “crayfish plague”, to which the native species have no natural resistance.
In many ways, therefore, by removing large quantities of invasive crayfish the wild trekker can congratulate themselves on aiding the conservation struggle!
Despite this fact, the UK government still make it difficult to forage for these beasties by demanding a licence for trapping (not hand-lining or netting though) crayfish and through its prohibitive access laws; virtually every square foot of the UK is owned by someone and permission to access land must be sought before trapping can commence.
In recent times, even the continent of Africa has seen crayfish populations establish themselves, again through introduced species (notably the Red Swamp Crayfish). I am sure it will not be long before large numbers of these miniature lobsters grace the dinner tables of large numbers of people across the southern portion of Africa.
Crayfish habitats vary from species to species – from swamps, ditches and still ponds (the aptly named “Red Swamp Crayfish” will tolerate these conditions) to rivers and large lakes. There is even a species, the Prairie Crayfish, that lives on grasslands well away from any water!
In general, though, you will be looking to target the freshwater species in brooks, rivers, and lakes: the fresher the water the better as they are pretty intolerant of pollution.
Most of the common species do not like frozen water, so when looking for them in areas where this is common, focus on faster-flowing rivers and streams or areas of water warmed by hot springs. Since they like to make burrows in the mud, the presence of soft mud is a prerequisite (and gives them their name “mud bugs”).
It’s also worth knowing that crayfish are most often found where there are large quantities of flattish stones that they can use to hide under and escape predators.
When you are investigating an area for the presence of these crustaceans then it is best to do so at night when they are most active: areas that seem bereft of them in the day-time will be a very different story under a headlamp at night!
Crayfish: Are they Worth it?
For something in the region of 120 million years crayfish (as they shall be referred to for the rest of this article) have provided valuable calories for those willing to put the time and effort into catching them.
|Wild Food Source (Cooked)||Calorific Content (approximate per 100gm/ 3.52oz)|
As can be seen, while the calorific content is low compared to game meats and fish, it is high when compared to collected foods such as mushrooms or blackberries. In addition, they are far easier to catch (in large numbers when found) than game or fish and are a far more reliable source of quick and easy protein than either.
Also, consider the effort and sustainability of many foraged foods: when the berries are out then there is a period of glut (and few ways to effectively store them in the wild), for example, but then long periods must be endured without.
Similarly, fungi can only be collected once (per season at least) – and many of the better edible species will take a little finding too.
Crayfish, by contrast, when found can be relied upon all year round (so no need to preserve) and there is very little chance of you taking anything like enough to influence the local population so are infinitely sustainable as a food source barring disaster.
The “Effort/ Reward” Ratio
Then there’s that all-important equation: effort vs. calorific reward (what I think of as the “E/R Ratio”).
The E/R Ratio is the crucial calculation that must be made when relying on backwoods food sources: and varies greatly from situation to situation (location and season being key factors) and person to person (notably the fitness levels and expertise of the person concerned).
What is for sure is that, despite their relatively low calorific value, the E/|R ratio for crayfish is very favorable: for little effort expenditure a good amount of calories can be gathered on a regular basis using the methods outlined later in this article.
Anyone looking to add crayfish to their wild diet should be reminded of the issue of protein poisoning (also known as “rabbit starvation” as it was in rabbit based diets that the phenomenon was first noticed).
By eating only lean meats, such as rabbit, squirrel, and crayfish, with very high protein content without balancing them with carbohydrates and fats it is possible to get plenty of calories and yet still starve to death in a matter of weeks!
Current estimates are that diets made up of 45% or more of protein for sustained periods can lead to the condition – whose symptoms include nausea, weakness (very bad in a survival situation) and diarrhea.
Luckily the condition should quickly abate when fats and carbs are added back in, so it is possible to survive and even operate effectively for short periods (up to a week or two even) on a protein rich diet such as one largely made up of crayfish while sources of fats and carbohydrates are identified and sourced.
The 5 most successful strategies for putting crayfish in the billy-can are, in order from worst E/R Ratio to best:
Catching by hand
A tactic used most often in a situation when you stumble unprepared across a population of crayfish and have few other resources to use.
It scores low on the E/R ratio because it will take some time for you to “get your eye in” – crayfish are surprisingly fast using their powerful tail for propulsion, often aided by the current and, as any spearfisherman will tell you, considering water does odd things to the perception due to refraction (often leaving you grabbing at thin air).
Crawfishing by hand can, therefore, be amazingly frustrating as you lift large rocks only to see your quarry zoom off and leave you floundering in their wake, but persistence will pay off. When crawfishing by hand aim to grab the target crayfish in its middle and don’t be put off when it starts flapping its tail at you.
Although it is armed with pincers these should be of no concern: even a large male crayfish’s pincers will do you no lasting damage, though you will notice their tweaking!
A technique used in the shallow waters, ideally at dusk or by the light of a torch, suffers from the same hand-eye-water issues outlined above but these can be partially alleviated by using a multi-prong spear. One thing to consider is the fact that, because you are fishing in the shallows, you are more likely to be getting (smaller) female crayfish using this technique.
Nothing too fancy is required here: a simple sharpened branch spear will do the job as that impressive looking armor on a crayfish isn’t up to stopping a well-aimed thrust! In choosing a branch for your spear go for one that has multiple offshoots that can be cut down and the stubs sharpened.
If this isn’t possible then consider splitting the spear top into quarters and holding the sections apart with wedges. Another couple of good tips are to harden the tips of the spear prongs in the campfire prior to use and to aim in front of the target crayfish to allow for the refraction by the water.
Using a very similar technique to that employed by generations of young boys to catch crabs off piers and jetties the world over it is possible to use the crayfish’s inherent stubbornness against it. A good fresh bait (see trapping below) is what’s required and no hook (other than to hold the bait if preferred) is needed. In very fast flowing water an anchor stone may be required to hold the bait in place on the river bottom.
Lower the bait into the water (again night is the best time for this) and then give it a bit of time – you will know when a crayfish (or two) has latched on due to the extra weight on the line. Slowly raise the handline, taking care not to snag it on obstructions and pull off any crayfish attached.
Handlining might not be the most cost-effective method on the E/R Ratio but is a useful tool to check an area that you are considering trapping for crayfish.
Using either a handled net (with sturdy metal or wood rim) or a drop net (these can be improvised easily out of any netting material and an old bike wheel for the rim) it is fairly easy to catch good numbers of crayfish.
When using a drop net the most productive technique is likely to be using it as an active trap – baiting the center with some juicy titbit (see below for bait ideas) and lifting the contraption at intervals to remove crayfish who have been lured in.
Using a handled net allows you to become a little more active in your technique. Having identified your quarry position the net slowly behind the crayfish before moving your hand towards it from the front, as if you were trying to catch it. The flight instinct of the crayfish will kick in and cause it to propel itself backward into your waiting net.
Both netting methods are very effective, losing out in the E/R ratio only because they require the active involvement of the fisherman unlike…..
Traps come in many forms, some of the most common being:
With its “set and forget” ease, excellent catch returns (a typical haul might be in the region of 2-3lbs, in some areas a haul of 15lbs is not unheard of!) and the fact that it will tend to catch the largest aggressive male crayfish trapping outscores all the other methods hands down.
Although there are many forms of crayfish trap all work on the same basic principal as a lobster or crab pot (but with a finer mesh of around ¾” maximum), namely by attracting the crayfish through an easy to get through opening using bait and making the return journey much harder (typically using a conical entranceway with overhang).
One of the reasons why crayfish should be on any wilderness menu is that the traps can be very lightweight and easily transported. One of the most popular with wilderness travelers and backpackers (and rightly so) is the “Jackpot” style originally developed in Sweden many years ago.
Folding flat and with a round profile (less likely to get buried in the bottom silt than a square profile) and weighing only around 1lb 8oz (less than 1kg) this extremely effective barrel type trap is readily available for less than $5 each.
How to Trap Effectively
Surprisingly you can catch crayfish using traps without any bait at all – their natural curiosity and wandering nature leading them into the trap – but the addition of a bait, the fresher the better, will vastly increase your trapping potential.
Effective baits have included pieces of leftover offal and even tins of cat food but perhaps the most likely to be available to the wilderness trekker is fish heads/ bones/ guts.
The amount of bait used will have an impact on how long the trap can be left in the water; once the bait is all eaten up the crayfish will become more active in seeking a way out of the trap and many will eventually do so.
Placing your trap
Preparing the area you intend to trap, by clearing any floating weed and moving some suitable flat stones into the area (this habitat creation technique can also be used in conjunction with some of the other catching methods outlined already), is usually worth the extra effort, especially if you intend to rap the area over a longer period.
Traps should be placed in enough water to cover them completely and anchored with some stones inside if the flow is particularly strong. Most also some with an anchor line attached – this should be firmly tied to a bankside tree or rock or pegged down if none are available.
As always you should take a careful note of where you place your trap, especially if you are following a rotation pattern that means you will visit only periodically. It is surprisingly easy to lose your bearings and therefore your trap – meaning that you will be without a valuable food resource and a key bit of equipment.
If you have a GPS or GPS-enabled watch etc. use it: depending on the model, if you are lucky enough, you’ll be able to use customized icons so you don’t get your crayfish trap and your base camp mixed up!
When to Check Your Trap
This is perhaps the most artful part of the whole process: knowing the optimum time to haul your trap(s). There are several variables to consider – bait (as discussed above), season (the mating season, usually April, being the most prolific) and, most importantly, the resident crayfish population: in some areas there are so many that a trap will fill up in 4-5 hours, elsewhere 48 hours may be required for a good catch.
One further consideration when deciding when to check a trap is the local competition: mink and otters, in particular, are not above raiding a trap to get at the contents. Although some trap manufacturers would have you believe that their traps are “otter proof”, I’ve yet to see a lightweight portable trap that an otter wouldn’t shred if it really wanted to.
If you have no choice but to try and trap in areas where these mammals are present (look for signs and avoid if possible) it might be wise to bed down closer to your traps and urinate in the local area: this combination of human presence and smell should put them off sufficiently, but I’d still want to check the traps more frequently than elsewhere.
Like so many other wilderness, foraging and hunting techniques, it is a question of trial and error: I’d suggest initially checking traps every 8-12 hours (after a night) and extending or, if you are lucky, decreasing from there. When pulling your traps up do so slowly and with an eye to avoiding snagging on any potential obstructions, bearing in mind that the trap might have shifted a little.
Fancy restaurants only value the crayfish tails and will discard anything from the legs forward, but true crayfish aficionados will tell you that some of the best bits are the claw meat, though fiddly to get at, and the “mustard” to be found in the head.
Crayfish should always be cooked alive or immediately after killing and not kept dead for later use. If you do have an excess of crayfish, then they can be stored briefly in a coarse sack or other mesh bag in the water for a day or so. You are probably better off using the excess as fish bait though, to try and secure another food source (with less risk of protein poisoning).
Cooking them couldn’t be easier – as kebabs over the fire or griddled is fine, but probably the least fussy and effective way is to boil them (less calorie content will tend to be lost this way too).
Bring a billy can of salted water to a rolling boil and then plunge the live crayfish into the water, cover and bring back to the boil before adding any herbs you may have found or brought (fennel or dill being good) and boiling for 708 minutes.
To remove all the nasties couldn’t be simpler: bend back the cooked crayfish tail fan towards the head until you feel it snap then pull off the head and the buts will come away with the head. The white meat makes a good addition to chowders and stews or can be livened up on their own with cayenne pepper, wild garlic, and/or mustard seed.
So, next time you are packing your backpack for a long wilderness trek, or running over your bug out bags contents give a crayfish trap your consideration: you may not be able to live on them indefinitely but they are easy to catch and prepare, plentiful and make a great fishing bait for trout and bass in particular.