Crayfish by any other name 

by Dallas Cross

Issaquah Press, July 30, 2008

         While pondering the lack of a sockeye salmon season in Lake Washington this year, I reflected on past summer protein sources and realized that I had not fished for crayfish in Lake Sammamish for a long time.  Summertime is a good time to gather this invertebrate delicacy and it quite easy to do so.  The rules for fishing them are simple: No license is required,  you have to have your untended trap buoys marked with your name and address, the limit is ten pounds per person, and the minimum keeper size is 3 inches from snout to tail.  See the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) regulations for all rules.

            These creatures have many names including crawdads, crayfish, mud puppies, yabbies (Australian), and crawfish as preferred by WDFW. Their name evolves from the ancient German “krabba,” through old and new French to become “crevisse. ” The English converted this to “crayfish” and from its crawling locomotion came “crawfish.”  Crayfish are really fresh water lobsters. Our native crayfish, Pacifasticul leniusculus, or signal crayfish, is one of the largest of the hundreds of species in America. It generally has a smooth brown covering. Crayfish mainly consume plant material but will eat virtually anything organic, including other crayfish.

            There are several species of invasive crayfish in our lakes.  Notably, Pine Lake harbors red swamp crawfish from Louisiana who compete with the signal crayfish. Most all the non-native species have bumps around their claws and shells and should be removed if caught.  It is ironic that our signal crayfish were introduced in England and are considered a nuisance because they eat eggs of game fish.

            Crayfish live in streams and lakes where they are commonly found up to forty feet deep.  They may live for twenty years but three year old crayfish are most prevalent.  You can fish for them from a boat or from shore with any variety of traps which are simply cages allowing them to enter easily, and from which escape is difficult. Baited nets and tangled fishing lines also are used. 

            Our crayfish have an affinity for salmon, or any oily fish carcass, having feasted on spawned-out salmon during their life. Other crayfish fishers use hot dogs, chicken parts and freezer-burned goodies; but the key to an attractive bait is that it should be fresh.  The largest crayfish I have caught were nine inches long; most are 4-5 inches long.  Only 15% of the crustacean is tail meat so you need a lot for a boil.

            What do you do with them after you have caught them?  My suggestion is simply to clean them and eat their tails and claws.  To clean you break off their tail behind their shell. Then grab the two small center fins on the tail and pinch the rear vent with a knife or your thumbnail, twist until the fins break off, then pull removing the gut. Now boil them in seasoned water for two to three minutes until they turn red.  Shell the tails and claws and eat them (butter sauce with garlic does well here);. You can reserve the morsels for dishes such as you would prepare using lobster or shrimp meat.  Their flavor resembles mild lobster so do not over season.  The Southern crayfish usually have a muddy taste and are more palatable in highly seasoned dishes and gumbos.

            About ten years ago I regularly fished for crayfish in Lake Sammamish and discovered  a wonderful cycle that supplied our family with piscatorial protein.  We caught and ate the larger crayfish and saved the smaller ones for steelhead bait in the local rivers.  After catching steelhead I would reserve their heads and carcasses for crayfish bait.  Thus, the summer cycle of catch, devour and re-bait provided regular sport and sustenance for our family and friends.

            I recently revisited the lake intent upon reviving the summer cycle with repaired shrimp traps. I was accompanied by my buddy with whom I am occasionally a professional fishing companion.  After setting the traps and buoys per Washington regulations, we discovered a sheared a pin in the outboard prop.  Not to worry we had oars.  However the park ramp would close in about an hour and we were about two hours away from it at rowing speed.  Hailing a passing speed boat we gratefully received a tow towards the dock with the young driver speeding up as we got underway.  After broaching off of a plane, almost overturning and watching my cell phone sink, the speed was reduced and we rowed in the last hundred feet.  

            Returning to the traps we were able to retrieve only two dozen crayfish, many less that I had caught years earlier.  However, from their tails my wife made a wonderful fresh water lobster bisque; and my buddy also got his steelhead bait.