Doin’ the Crawdad Crawl

Posted on 12 February 2010 by Cork Graham

Never a dull moment with my buddy, Dan Caughey. Last time we went on a canyon jaunt was two years ago, during the heat of the California A zone deer season. I almost died from heat exhaustion and dehydration—and the Columbian blacktail buck we thought from a long distance was a legal forked-horn, ended up just being a non-legal spike as we drew close.

When we found a spring at the bottom on that death march, I sucked up all the cold fresh water I could, straining through the dead branches and leaves, thanking my stars later than that I didn’t get anything into my system, like giardia.

Dan Caughey flipping over a rock to see a crawdad

This time we were after monster crawdads, which meant we’d be walking the creek 90 percent of the time. Still, I filled my Blackhawk Camel Bak and carried it comfortably on my back, as we made the first initial leap off canyon road to the stream below. It’s very comforting and relaxing to be sucking refreshing water as the day heats up.

It would be a hell-crawl on hands and knees through thick underbrush on our way out, but for now, it was almost an idyllic hike through tall redwoods. I already knew I had picked the wrong footwear to use on this trip—slip on sneakers.  I should have used some Hi-Tec-type sneaker boots or at least a pair of lace up sneakers with thick soles.

Though my feet were feeling every small rock and pointy object as we walked, it was my knee that was giving me problems. Heavily traumatized during some very high-impact events in Central America during my early 20s, all injuries were now making themselves known. Twisting, and pounding as I jumped from a high embankment to creek, the knee felt it the most—the next day I wouldn’t even be able to bend, or walk on it, without extreme pain, but for now, the promise of crawdads as big as small lobsters drew me forward.

Pacifastacus leniusculus, generally known as the Signal Crayfish, was our target. Signal crayfish aren’t indigenous to Northern California. A 1912 Department of Fish and Game experiment gone wrong (they just dumped the crayfish into the local San Lorenzo River of Santa Cruz County when they were done investigating the depredatory effects of crayfish on small trout), they’ve overtaken the coastal streams from Monterey to British Columbia, and made their way into all rivers feeding into the Sacramento Valley their home.

With the drop in populations of the endangered steelhead, I consider it every steelheader and salmon anglers responsibility to take as many of these small fish and fish eggs eating freshwater crustaceans they can…and even if you’re extremely lucky, you might make a tiny dent. They’re just all over and they’ve pretty much taken out not only a number of small fish and the offspring of larger sea-run trout and salmon, but are endangering the much smaller indigenous crawdads in the waterways they’ve overtaken.

Is it any wonder that there’s no limit on signal crayfish in California?

With this in mind, I wanted to get as many as we could. Caughey’s record was 400 in a day’s haul. That’s what I call a feast on a great scale with what I endearingly call the “Po’ Boy’s Lobster”!

Look at the size of those sweet meat claws!

Though a much larger haul can be got with crayfish traps, Caughey enjoys more the hunting and fishing-like activity using his normal bass and trout fishing rig, with a steak as bait; a dip net for actual capture: Remember to not have any fishing hooks in your possession, because the warden will cite you if you do so on rivers and streams closed to normal fishing—such as coastal steelhead streams during the summer.

Finding a pool that was only about four feet deep, and crystal clear (many think it’s because of the voracious appetites of the overpopulated crayfish that eat frogs, fish and vegetation), Caughey stopped and said, “Let’s try this one.”

From one of the two 5 gallon paint buckets were carried with us, he grabbed the cheapest, pot-roast I could find at the supermarket the night before, and sliced off a steak.

“See what I’m doing?” he said, as he began slicing out from the center of the steak in a daisy-wheel pattern. “This gives them something to hold on so they don’t let go before we can get the net under them.”

He tied it on with a few wraps of the fishing line lengthwise and then crosswise across the meat (going in between the cuts), ending with clipping the line with the swivel. With a short cast, the chunk of meat was in the water and it didn’t take long…

A steak for a Po’ Boy Freshwater Lobster…

Three minutes later it was covered in five crawdads and the pool seemed alive with crawdads crawling out of their holes and from under rocks, excited by the scent of fresh meat and blood in the water.

“Ready?” Caughey asked.

“Yep.” I pulled up on the rod as I had been told, working the meat straight off the bottom and toward us, making sure to keep constant drag, but not so fast as to make the steak pinwheel: pinwheeling sends the crawdads flying, and sudden stops and sinking back, cause the crayfish to let go immediately. The key is to keep them holding on.

“Keep it coming,” Caughey said as he slipped the long-handled dip net under them. Bringing the crawdads and meat up in one lift, we had six big, fat signal crayfish—what a great start to the day!

The next four hours was spent walking up the cold stream, sometimes deep enough for us to have to remove our wallets and keys from our shorts and carrying them above water. When we got to Dan’s girlfriend Vivian’s home, where she would prepare them in the style of her Norwegian heritage, we counted 286 of the feisty little buggers, many not little at all: the largest was 9 inches long from end of tail to tip of claw!

 To  fill up on fresh crayfish and help native steelhead, trout and salmon…you’ll need the following:

  • Fishing license.
  • Stiff fishing rod and with strong line, say 10-15lb strength line is good.
  • Bait net with at least a 5 to 6-foot length handle.
  • Pot roast.
  • Swivel.
  • Knife to cut the meat.
  • Five-gallon bucket, with a few small 1/16 inch holes drilled into the side of the lower half of the bucket to let fresh water in and then as you work you way up the waterway.
  • Burlap bag or material to moisten and lay on top of the crayfish to keep them moist, but not suffocating in still water.

Vivian’s Traditional Norwegian Dill and Saltwater boil Recipe:

This is probably the easiest recipe you’ll find for crawdads out there, and it’s in its simplicity that it lets you really enjoy the sweet, lobster meat taste of the crawdads.

Ingredients:

  • 10 gallons of freshwater
  • 1 pound of Kosher salt
  • 3 full bundles of fresh dill

Steps:

1. Start the fire under the water pot and pour in the pound of salt
2. Unbundle the dill and throw them in whole
3. Once the dill and saltwater is at rolling boil, begin tossing in the crawdads
4. As they finish cooking, the’ll float up to the top bright red.

 

Vivian likes to seal the crawdads in large Tupperware containers for later enjoyment. According to her, the length of time in the freezer, in the saltwater and dills really helps impart the flavor into the meat, and makes them that much more delicious.

9 Comments For This Post

  1. HankShaw Says:

    Nice! That is quite the haul. I’ve yet to go crayfishing in California, but this might be the push I need to go. Maybe up in the high Sierra…

  2. Cork Graham Says:

    Just about every Sierra waterway needs you to take them, Hank: American, Yuba, Tuolomne, Stanislaus, Merced…And the Signal Crayfish is so recognizable with their little white mark on the top of the joint of their clawa and their size.

    They call them signal crayfish because of how they look like little railroad signal men waving their white flags to railroad engineers of past…Love to see what recipes you’ll come up with to give their sweet flesh table justice.

  3. suburban bushwacker Says:

    Cork

    Great post I had no idea that signals were considered invasive in CA. We have them here in blighty too, there was a fashion for them in the 80’s and when the market collapsed; a few were chucked, a few farms were left and a few became a few more…. Now the native crayfish is seriously endangered species – so much so that if one is ever found the environment agency need to be informed.

    SBW

  4. Cork Graham Says:

    Hey, SBW —
    Forget the agency: just build some traps and set about filling your freezer.

    …By the time an agency has done its job, a lot of good meat will be lost. Same problem here with wild pigs. Our agency is supposed to deal with them, and in the process a lot of money is wasted when it could be collected through fees paid by very willing hunters…and the good meat won’t end up buried in a ditch…

    Cheers,
    Cork

  5. BlackSwede Says:

    Hi Graham,

    great story. I am from Sweden and as you might know there is an annual Crayfish Celebration in August. I have live in CA since 1991 and tried to keep the tradition alive by venturing out in various streams, rivers and lake with my kids trying to find them. The best place so far has been the Tahoe area. I had no clue they where this near to Los Gatos.
    So the pictures are from San Lorenzo River?

    Amazing. It would be great if you could give me some hints to go?

    Thanks
    The Black Swede

  6. Cork Graham Says:

    Hei, TBS —

    As mentioned in the article, any clean coastal stream from Monterey to British Columbia will give you the same as my friend’s “secret” stream, which I’ve promised to keep secret (sadly, unlike Sweden, we don’t have “Every man’s land” here, so just make sure you’re not crossing private property, which is easy if you climb down to a stream from the mountain road as if you’re trout fishing)…

    Also, don’t forget to hit the rivers like the Stanislaus, American, Feather. Just make sure to hunt for the crayfish in rivers/streams areas not directly below a town, as sewage escapage can occur, which is not a good thing for eating crawdads. Bra fiske!

    Cheers,
    Cork

  7. TBS Says:

    Hi Thanks for the info. love your passion for it

    Cheers
    TBS

  8. sarah Says:

    Hey – says on here you need a permit to catch crawdads? I’ve heard otherwise, and can’t seem to find the info online anywhere for CA fish & Game.

    I plan on catching my fill for two in Tahoe soon!

  9. Cork Graham Says:

    Sarah — I’d suggest calling the DFG HQ for the actual copy of the regs, but it goes under the clause of taking gamefish/crustaceans/amphibians in California (there’s a lot of info not on the web, but in the hardcopy regs [especially the ‘big book’]). My friend who who taught me how to do it, has been checked for his fishing license by wardens on the coast when only going for crayfish. Good luck!

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