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Crawfish season begins in late January and is all but over by late July. Crawfish love cold water and hate hot weather. When the temperature of the water begins to rise in summer, crawfish begin to bury themselves and hibernate until the next year. The end of the season is also marked by the hardness of their shell. By mid summer the crawfish shell is hard and is hard to peel. But when late January arrives again, the crawfish unearth themselves and begin life anew.
Crawfisherman begin setting their traps in late January for the annual running of crawfish. In crawfish ponds and where ever the bayou water is flowing is where these fisherman set their traps. It is usually an anticipated event for all of us Louisianan’s.
Crawfish, or ‘mud-bugs’, as they are sometimes referred to, start out small in size and their shell is usually quite soft. Since their lifespan is only a year or two, they do all their growing, feeding, and multiplying in these few early months of the year.
There are basically three kinds of crawfish in Louisiana, pond crawfish, basin crawfish and swamp or river crawfish. Pond crawfish are just that. They are raised in landlocked ponds where the water height is controlled by pumping water in or out of the pond. Another use for these ponds when crawfish season in finished is to harvest rice.
Crawfish ponds generally have rice paddies growing in them. While the rice paddy is growing, crawfish are being caught. When crawfish season is over, the pond is drained and then the rice is harvested. So crawfish owners can grow two cash crops in their ponds, crawfish and rice.
Spillway or basin crawfish, on the other hand, live in any body of water that is not man-made. The bayous of Louisiana are the spillways of the rivers and streams that flow through Louisiana.
Swamp or river crawfish, are almost clear or white in color. The location of these crawfish are usually deep in the swamps and forest of Louisiana and not easily accessible. So for the most part, pond and spillway crawfish are the only two types that are commercially harvested.
Another nice thing about pond crawfish is that their season can usually be manipulated into lasting longer because the water depth is controlled by the pond owner and not by the rise and fall of river and bayous by rainfall.
What do crawfish eat? Anything that they find in the water! Most pond crawfish owners stock their ponds with Brim, a kind of fish, to feed their crawfish. Crawfish are like scavengers or bottom feeders of the water. They will eat almost anything, live or dead.
The first crawfish to be bought when the season opens are pond crawfish. They are small and usually have more mud in them. Most Cajuns can tell by looking at the crawfish on whether they are pond or spillway crawfish. Pond crawfish tend to be darker in color. This may be because in ponds the water is not flowing fast enough, to keep them from absorbing mud. Ponds use agitators to move the water around. This mud like with all crawfish must be purged before you boil them.
When crawfish are caught in the traps, the fisherman empties his trap into a trough on the boat with different size holes in it, from small to large. The crawfish are spread over this trough and fall through the holes that matches their size. This is how they are graded, small, medium, large, and select. Select, which is the best (and most expensive), is the largest the crawfish will ever reach in size, about ten inches long. These are about the size of a small lobster. These crawfish fall through this trough and fall into mesh bags (like the mesh bags you find potatoes in). When these bags are filled, they range in weight from 34 pounds to a maximum of around 40 pounds.
The Crawfish Trap
The crawfish trap is usually constructed either of meshed-wire or of wood. The commercially built meshed-wire trap has a one-way entry opening for the crawfish to enter the trap, but can not exit. The meshed-wire has enough opening between the wire to let smaller and young crawfish to escape, yet small enough to keep the larger crawfish inside. These traps are rectangle in shape with a place inside to place the bait.
The bait that is used is called blood bait, that is commercially made with fish blood and other unmentionable parts. This bait attracts not only crawfish, but other water creatures as well. Ells and snakes are also caught in these traps.
One of the most unwanted guests that are caught in these crawfish traps are Water Moccasins. Water Moccasins are poisonous and deadly to humans. They are also quite abundant in the waterways of Louisiana.
These traps are well designed for not only catching crawfish but also releasing Ells and snakes. They are designed to catch crawfish. So they are unique by capturing crawfish but allowing all other occupants to exit through the openings of the trap.
Easter and Louisiana Crawfish Boils
Just before Easter arrives the crawfish are beginning to get plentiful and growing in size. It is not uncommon to start seeing crawfish boils all around the area. Since Easter is the second most celebrated religious holidays after Christmas, crawfish are the number one most sought after commodity in Louisiana at Easter.
Most Cajuns have all the necessary equipment and gear to reap this harvest of crawfish. It consists of a large cooler to purge the mud from the crawfish, a propane burner, a 60 to 80 quart pot, a mesh-screen insert, a wooden or metal paddle, and of course a picnic table in the yard.
The propane burner must have a high pressure regulator. A turkey fryer will not work as a substitute. It uses a low pressure regulator. Using a low pressure regulator would take an extremely long time to complete the boil of the crawfish. All your Cajun guests would leave! Cajuns are not known for their patience when it comes to waiting on the food to finish cooking before eating.
The large cooler is used to purge the mud from the crawfish. First the crawfish are dumped into this cooler. Then it is filled with water from the garden hose. Salt is usually used but sometimes baking soda can be substituted. Using salt may kill the grass when the water is dumped from the cooler.
We normally use half of the kitchen size salt container and sprinkle it all over the crawfish in the cooler. We dump this water then refill it again, add more salt and let it sit while the fire is ignited to get the water boiling in the pot.
Depending on how much mud the crawfish have ingested, two or more soakings of clean water and salt may be necessary to purge the mud from the crawfish. When the water is no longer dirty (mud) color after soaking, then the crawfish are clean enough to boil.
The 80 quart pot is an ideal size to boil crawfish. (FYI – my brother uses an old washing machine tub for his crawfish pot). It will easily hold one bag of crawfish (about 40 pounds). Of course you will need room for the OTHER stuff that you will add to this boil, like several whole potatoes, several whole onions, whole carrots, several lemons cut in half, wienies or sausage links, the seasoning, and sometimes cauliflower.
The mesh-screen insert is what the crawfish are dumped into, just before they are dropped into the boiling water. Ideally, it will be slightly smaller in diameter of the pot, and drop into the pot easily. It normally has two metal handles on it to raise it from the pot after the crawfish finish boiling.
The paddle, about the size of a small boat oar is used to stir the pot. This paddle also comes in handy when raising the mesh-screen insert from the pot. My dad uses two paddles for this purpose.
He raises the insert from the pot, then places both paddles on top of the pot then sets the insert on the paddles for the insert to drain the water from the crawfish back into the pot. This works great because if the water is allowed to drain onto the grass in the yard, the seasoning in the water will kill the grass!
Every Cajun has their own formula for how much seasoning to use, what to add to the pot, and how long to boil the crawfish. It is generally a rule that for small crawfish, boil for 8 minutes, turn the fire off and let them sit for another 8 – 10 minutes before removing crawfish from the pot. For larger crawfish add just a few more minutes to the boil and sitting time. When the crawfish begin to float on top of the water in the pot is a good indication they are ready to eat.
The longer the crawfish sit in the water the more seasoning they will absorb. However, just a minute too long with the boiling time will make the crawfish too mushy when the shell is peeled away. Most of the meat will remain in the shell and all you will end up with in your hand is a mushy glob of crawfish.
When the crawfish are raised from the pot all the guest begin getting ready for the feast. We will cover the picnic table with either newspaper or a water-proof tablecloth. The crawfish are then dumped onto the picnic table and everyone starts crowding around the table and start eating.
While the first batch of crawfish are being devoured, the second batch is getting prepared for boiling. We always boil at least two sacks of crawfish. The more guests that show up, the more sacks that will be needed to boil. It is not uncommon to see more than 10 sacks of crawfish being boiled for just one weekend! So you tell me, do us Cajuns know how to eat or what? Like they say here in Louisiana, Cajuns don’t eat to live, they live to eat!