Mano to mano with a crawdad


by Chef Boy Ari

The rocks at my favorite swimming hole, just out of town, are hot in summertime. While lounging on them one afternoon, I was attacked.

My usual riverside ritual is to ease in and swim around until I’m finally cold. Then I lie on the hot rocks collecting photons. There I was, my left foot dangling in the green flow, when a set of massive claws bore down on my foot, a crawdad in tow. I screamed like a girl. Then I remembered a pact forged during a chilly evening last October. We’d stood on the dewy grass between a bonfire, a grill full of game, and a jug of mead.

Recounting his summer vacation, my friend CW (short for Crawdad Whisperer) got to the part about all the crawdads he’d caught. I was full of regrets for missing the fun, and with the rivers then threatening hypothermia, I knew I’d have to wait for the next summer. At least I had a promise from CW that he’d show me the ropes.

After the crawdad attacked my foot (full disclosure: the crustacean in question was drifting with the current toward my foot), I called CW.

From his house it was 40 minutes to our first crawdad.

Crawdads, also known as crawfish, are basically freshwater lobsters. In most states you need a fishing license to hunt them legally, and you should boil them alive as soon as possible. Then they can be prepared like most any other shellfish, with a few signature moves, like Cajun jambalaya or crawfish boil.

The water at our secret stash was slow and deep, with stillwater eddies between smallish cliffs. We used snorkeling gear to inspect the rocky bottom of the forest-green river. CW caught seven before I had my mask on. Often the first thing you see is a claw or two, with considerable pinching potential. In one hand, carry a mesh bag with a cinch-able drawstring. On the other hand, wear a glove. Don’t forget which hand is which! Reach fast and grab the body near the head, between the bases of the claws.

If the crawfish gets away, the chase is on. Twisting around at some weird upside-downish angle, everything high-speed and nervy, it was possibly the closest I’d ever come to being in a jet fighter duel, or a Kung-Fu fight scene.

The first crawfish I caught had only one claw, which did this crazy yoga move to reach behind its back and pinch my gloved hand. I screamed something that, underwater, sounded like “URGUGUBLU!” Unwilling to either let it go or keep pinching me, I transferred the crawdad to my other hand, whose unprotected fingers felt the spines and sharp edges of the exoskeleton as I yanked my glove from its clamped calcium carbonate claw, which went straight into the yoga pose again, this time upon my ungloved hand.

“URGUGUBLU!” I commented, an octave higher.

With my re-gloved hand, I grabbed the crawfish by its claw, assuming more or less correctly that it couldn’t possibly pinch me that way. Instead, it detached itself from its pincer, leaving me with an empty-handed clawshake, while the clawless crawfish swam off, tail first.

Before I even spotted that one-armed crawdad, I was already out of air and on my way to the surface. After the u-turn, the chase, the aforementioned game of hot potato and claw ejection, my empty lungs were imploding in protest. Reaching into a little-used reserve of emergency whoop-ass, I continued my pursuit of the armless warrior, finally making it to the surface, prey in hand, without blacking out or inhaling river.

Eventually, we emptied our bags into a cooler filled with river water and CW sprinkled some cornmeal in for them to eat – and push whatever filter-feeding crap was in their guts out the other end.

We kept our catch in an aerated fish tank until the next evening. Unfortunately, about a third died and we had to toss them. So take it from me: get yer crawdads straight home and eat them! Boil them for 10 minutes in salted water and some crab boil (a spice mixture available in most stores) until they’re bright red.

At this point, Crawdad Whisperer likes to eat the tails and suck out the hot guts. I tried that but it was disgusting.

I extracted the claw and tail meat – pulling the “backstrap” off the tail and removing the crawdad equivalent of descending colon – and made crawdad scampi by frying the meat with garlic, butter, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Then I made Peruvian ceviche by marinating crawdad meat with lime, crushed garlic, chopped cilantro and red onion, minced jalapeño, and salt and pepper. Even with all those spices, you could taste the river in the sweet flesh. Yum! •



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