Montana crayfish are as fun to catch as they are to eat
By DAVID REESE/Montana Living
“These things are gross!” eighth-grader Emma exclaimed as she methodically pulled the body parts from a crayfish.
Finally she hit pay dirt. The small portion of meat tucked under the crayfish’s tail was revealed after much deliberation. She swished the meat through melted butter and popped the flavorful portion into her mouth. No longer were the crawdads “gross,” to her; they’d immediately become a fascination and a delicacy.
“How do you eat the claws?” she asked.
Emma was among a group of about 30 people who each year attends an annual crawdad feed at McGregor Lake. The lake is a hotbed for crayfish hunting, which on this particular weekend was performed mainly through scuba diving.
SCUBA DIVING FOR CRAYFISH
Divers fan out in boats on the southern shore of the lake, anchor out and begin the underwater hunting. Hunting crayfish underwater, whether snorkeling or diving, is an exercise in the predator-prey relationship. About 60 feet down in McGregor Lake, the crayfish are found in open, sandy areas where they breed, or in steeper, rocky areas where they are tucked under rocks and peer out at you with their bulbous eyes and long antennae.
Although they’re equipped with an armored shell for defense and can puncture the skin on your fingers with their powerful claws, the crayfish have one obvious flaw against a faster predator: they only can swim backwards.
Floating just a few inches off the bottom of the lake, breathing on scuba, you’re able to creep up on them, close enough where their long, gangly antennae can touch your swim mask. Often they’d begin to crawl out toward you, curious as to what kind of being you are and what you’re doing down in the depths. Once spooked, they swim backwards in a tight tuck; they look straight at you before they’re overcome by your larger, more powerful fins and a quick hand.
Wearing neoprene gloves for warmth (and protection from the crayfish claws) you can make swift work of catching crayfish by hand. You’ll run out of air in your tank before you’ve filled your mesh bag with crayfish, and you’d likely continue on if you had more air. You find yourself giggling in your swim mask as an errant crawdad that escaped another hunter bumps into your mask or flutters past, backwards through the deep water. It’s not long after you hit the bottom of the lake that the hunt begins, and the silt gets kicked up into billowy clouds from fellow divers chasing the creatures.
Crawdads with all the fixings. David Reese photo
How to catch crawdads in Montana
YOU DON’T have to be a scuba diver to catch crawdads and surely there are less expensive ways to catch the “bugs.”
Crawdads can be caught in a number of ways. When attempting to catch crawdads by hand, a small dip net will help, since they tend to scuttle away as soon as they are uncovered.
You can also use a single hand line, sometimes attached to a pole, that has been baited with a worm, chicken liver or a piece of bacon. Kids seem to love just tying a hot dog on a line and wait for the crawdads to arrive. They’ll cling to the hotdog for dear life as you pull them out of the water.
When you feel one on, slowly raise the bait, and as the crawdad is pulled from the water, use a small hand net to capture it before it releases its grip. While this method can be fun, there are other methods that are more productive. Lift nets or traps will produce larger quantities of crawdads.
A lift net is actually rather simple. Take a piece of lightweight, three-inch mesh screen about two feet long and tie about a three-foot piece of cord on each corner. (Montana regulations dictate that your trap be no larger than 24x12x12 inches). Take the loose ends of the cords and tie them together on a single drop cord about 20 feet long. It's a good idea to attach some type of weight to the center of the screen to help in lowering it to the bottom of the pond or lake.
Now you're all set. The only other thing you need to do is bait the net with chicken, beef or fish scraps and lower it into the water. Wait a while for the crawdads to start feeding and slowly pull up the drop cord. As you retrieve your lift net, the four corners will tend to pull together trapping the crawdads in the middle. Easy enough, and quite productive.
CRAWDAD TRAPS and Montana Crawfish Regulations
Another way to go that is easy and usually quite productive is to use traps. You can buy specially made traps (check out www.neptunemarineproducts.com) or build your own, but remember there are regulations in Montana that dictate how big your trap can be.
Funnel traps are usually made of three-inch mesh wire. Once baited, they are lowered to the bottom of a pond or lake and marked with a float. As the crawdad moves into the funnel entrance, it drops into the inside of the trap and can’t get out. Most commercial and homemade traps have a trap door located on the top to remove your catch.
Crawdads can be taken year-round in Montana. There are no set bag or possession limits for personal use, but a valid Montana fishing license is required. Get information at www.fwp.mt.gov
The best time for catching or collecting crawdads is in the spring, when the water warms, and continues until the temperatures start to drop in the fall. In Montana, this is usually in May, June, July and August and into September. Crawdads can be found all across Montana, both east and west of the Continental Divide.
It’s a good idea to remove the vein and fatty tissue from the meat before eating. The meat of a crawdad will average the same size as a shelled shrimp, but the flavor and texture are more like that of a lobster tail.
That was good enough for Kuehne, a Kalispell Junior High Student, to become hooked on crayfish. After an hour of devouring the “bugs,” a large plate of discarded crayfish shells lay before her, as her mother, Bonnie, watched from a distance.
While the meat is tasty, dissecting them is an acquired skill.
“I won’t eat them,” Bonnie said.
HOW TO COOK CRAYFISH (crawdads)
Crawdads used for cooking should be at least three-inches long, if not larger, from the eyes to the tip of the tail. The tails provide the majority of the meat, but if large enough, the claws can also be eaten.
Cooking crawdads is simple. Taking a large pot filled with water, drop in your choice of herbs or spices. Heat the herbs and spice mix and water to a rapid boil, then drop the crawdads into the pot, head first. The water must then be returned to a rolling boil. Cooking is usually completed eight to 10 minutes after the water has returned to a boil.
Upon cooking, the crawdads will turn a bright red color. An easy way to be sure that the crawdads have cooked completely is to scoop a crawdad from the boiling water and check to see that the tail has coiled under the body. Discard those with straight tails. When straightened out, the tail should curl back to the original boiled position.
After cooking, you can reduce the heat and let the crawdads stand in the boiling mixture. The longer you let them sit, the more they will absorb the seasonings. A good rule of thumb is to plan for about one pound of crawdads per serving.
Crayfish recipe: Homemade Cajun Crawdad Boil
Ingredients: mustard seed, bay leaves, allspice, cloves, crushed red or cayenne pepper and garlic cloves.
Combine these ingredients in a double layer of cheesecloth tied into a bag. Experiment with amounts of each ingredient for personal taste. A starting point is two to four tablespoons of each ingredient per bag. Each bag is sufficient for five quarts of water.