Catching crayfish is easy and the catch is delicious. With a nonnative species from Louisiana prospering in the Northwest, fisheries officials have set no limit and require no license to pursue nonnative crayfish.
It’s hard to get mouthwatering excited over a delicacy nicknamed mudbugs.
Thinking of them as cousins to the lobster sounded more appealing.
Thinking of them drenched in garlic and a pound of butter, definitely more appealing.
It’s a winded way of explaining how I’ve become a crayfish fan, and why on a recent afternoon, I was in a canoe, in the middle of a lake, waiting for crayfish traps to be pulled up.
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I wanted to sample fresh-out-of-the-lake crayfish from trap pot to a boiling pot in my kitchen.
Specifically, I wanted to sample the native Signal crayfish. If you’ve had crayfish in a local restaurant, you didn’t eat local crayfish. Those crayfish served in Étouffée and other Cajun dishes are harvested in Louisiana.
What a shame, because our crayfish are bigger than those in Louisiana, and I think they taste better — sweeter, less pungent.
The crayfish man
After a few calls, I had talked my way into the canoe of Julian Olden, the state’s leading crayfish expert, a freshwater biologist at the University of Washington.
The goal was to catch both the native crayfish and the Louisiana variety, to compare. We headed to Pine Lake in Sammamish, 20 miles east of Seattle. This popular recreation lake has both species.
In 2000, after a lab lesson, a local elementary-school teacher released a bunch of Louisiana Red Swamp crayfish into Pine Lake, the state’s first reported case of nonnative crayfish in our ecosystem.
Nonnative crayfish are so pervasive now, even beyond Pine Lake, that state Fish and Wildlife places no limit on how many nonnatives you can catch and take home. (The limit on native crayfish is 10 pounds.)
It makes for a cheap family outing. No fishing license is required for either species. And the crayfish are so abundant during the season — May through October — that by many accounts, it’s easy pickings, especially between now and early September.
Before we hit the water, Olden asked if I’d ever handled live crayfish. I replied yes.
I have, in the sense that I once clumsily knocked over a plastic bag of these critters and heard my 7-year old niece squeal in horror as they crept up her bare feet, with me rushing to sweep them off her.
She never developed a taste for crayfish.
Seattleites, though, can’t get enough of them. About a dozen crayfish-boil restaurants have popped up in Seattle and the South End in recent years, mostly in Asian communities — bags of steaming crayfish served in Cajun spices or a butter-garlic sauce with corn on the cob and andouille sausage. Many Asian grocery stores now carry live crayfish.
Catching crayfish is such a new phenomenon that the state Fish and Wildlife Department doesn’t track its popularity. But if you jog or picnic near a lake, from North Lake in Federal Way to Lake Ballinger in Mountlake Terrace, you’ll likely see folks in sandals lifting rocks and logs by the banks, trying to catch crayfish with their bare hands or with aquarium nets. Others set traps filled with hot dogs, dog food or salmon scraps.
But to catch crayfish, there really isn’t any other place like Eastern Washington’s Moses Lake. The pickings here are so easy that veterans say the biggest rookie mistake is not bringing a big container to haul in the bounty.
Olden, who has tracked crayfish the past six years, has also found high populations in Deer Lake, on Whidbey Island; Lake Samish, Whatcom County; Lake Cavanaugh, Clear Lake, Pass Lake and Lake McMurray in Skagit County; and Lake Washington.
For locals, Lake Washington is such a gem, with so many access points from parks and public boat-launch areas, Olden said, “in an afternoon, you can get a bucket full of crayfish.”
At Pine Lake, Olden had set out traps the day before. Crayfish prowl the water at night for insects and other food.
The next morning, we checked on those traps. One trap after another, Olden found one to three crayfish, all nonnatives. That was no surprise.
Three years ago, Olden found that Red Swamp crayfish outnumbered native crayfish 3-to-1. The ratio now: 12-to-1, and getting worse. The aggressive, nonnative crayfish rule Pine Lake, edging out the natives just as they have in a dozen other local lakes, Olden said.
Finding the locals
I was losing hope we would find any local crayfish.
We headed out to the north end of Pine Lake, the deep end, where Olden believes the local crayfish hide after being edged out of the shallow water.
He pulled up the traps there. Sure enough, a few feisty native crayfish appeared — brownish and blue, with a smooth claw. A Louisiana crayfish is red, its bumpy claw narrower. The natives are bigger, up to six inches long.
Olden caught 30 crayfish that morning, including four natives. He held up the two species . “You can see the difference in the tail,” he said.
The tail of the Louisiana crayfish was more like a pinkie, the native closer in size to my thumb.
He smiled at me. “You can tell these are going to taste good.”
An hour later, I boiled them in a broth of beer, butter and water with some Cajun seasoning. The crayfish tasted better and fresher than those in local restaurants. The native crayfish was meatier and tasted sweeter than the Louisiana crayfish.
It got me plotting my next crayfish trip. Now, who’s got a boat?
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @tanvinhseattle.