May/June 2017Crayfish: the Lobsters of the LowcountryPhotos and story by Michael M. DeWitt Jr.
Whether you call them crayfish or crawfish, crawdads or yabbies, most folks agree these little lobsters are worth the patience of plying ebony waters to catch a pot full. This Lowcountry tale takes us from swamp to table, complete with delectable crayfish recipes.
A morning in "church"
Though the swamp is dark and the way tangled, Tee Murdaugh is guided by spirits. As he weaves the ten-foot aluminum War Eagle around cypress stumps and venomous water moccasins, he talks of how his grandfather knew these woods and waters. Murdaugh recalls one particular night when, with a dead spotlight battery and a boat-bottom full of swamp catfish, the old man navigated home using only moonlight and swamp skills. There may be spirits of a sort in the flask he keeps in his tackle box - I didn't ask - and a smoky spirit continuously escapes the pipe he clenches beneath his well-worn Western-style hat, as he sits bare-chested and barefooted in the stern, but I sense that the spirit guiding us on this trip is old Granddad's ghost.
"Granddaddy could catch fish in a bathtub, if you let him," Murdaugh yarned with a grin. "If you went with him in the swamp, you knew he would catch something. He knew where to go and what to do."
Please forgive us, and don't judge too harshly, for we have skipped church this fine Sunday morning to commune with two of God's wonders, the redbreast and the crayfish, and this swamp is holy ground. Murdaugh had dropped a crayfish trap - handmade by his father - into the swamp's entrance the day before. We will dump our catch and re-bait it on our way in, drown a few dozen crickets and hopefully land a few dozen "rooster" redbreasts, and then check the trap again on our way out.
"That's the beauty of crayfish fishing in the swamp. You can drop the traps and let them sit all day, while you fish all day." As he preached in our swamp church on the virtues of crayfish fishing, Murdaugh hauled up a squirming, snapping wet mess of them and deposited the lot into a bucket, their dark crimson claws and tails flapping. "You got a better chance of going home with something to eat. You might not get full on crayfish, but you won't starve."
You may not hear much about crayfish fishing in most fish camps, but come spring you can often find the bridges and backwater byways bustling with folks searching for the lobster's little cousin. Depending on weather and water levels, the peak season for crayfish fishing is March to July, although they can be caught at any time of year. And while you can pull in the occasional fellow while bream fishing, or even "noodle" one from beneath a rock if you're quick enough, to take crayfish from swamp to dinner table in enough quantities to make a decent meal requires two things: bait and a trapping device. Because crayfish are scavenging omnivores that are highly sensitive to odors and aren't picky about freshness, bait can range from old chicken from your local grocer to rotten fish and even commercial, formulated baits. Once you have your bait, there are generally two methods.
The first method would be homemade baskets or trays about four to five inches deep and made of fine mesh wire or hardware cloth. The baskets are generally shallow and open across the top. Fasten the bait to the center of the basket, find a safe bridge over a swamp run or creek, and lower it to the bottom with a stout cord or rope. Allow the baskets to sit for fifteen to thirty minutes, and then slowly pull them up to check your harvest. A word of caution here: be careful fishing from bridges with heavy car traffic.
There is no closed season for catching crayfish. So if these little lobsters are calling your name, here are a few simple guidelines to get started.
A crayfish trap is a device constructed of coated wire with te opening of the throat or flues not exceeding 2 1/4 inches with a minimum mesh size of 1/4 inch bar mesh. All crayfish traps must be marked with the name and customer ID number issues by the SCDNR.
Commercial anglers must have a commercial fishing license and may fish up to fifty crayfish traps. A recreational angler must have a state recreational fishing license and may fish up to five crayfish traps.
Check regulations on your local lakes or rivers to make sure crayfish traps are permitted.
The second method involves placing a baited trap in a suitable spot in moving water such as a side run or moderately shallow creek, where the trap can be placed on the bottom but easily reached. Generally, traps are allowed to sit at least overnight before being checked, but you can let them sit for a day or two. Crayfish traps range from fancy commercial models (the pyramid trap, a three-sided affair with three entrances, is the industry standard), but any kind of homemade rig that allows crayfish to enter through a funnel–shaped opening and become trapped will work. Again, hardware cloth is the wire of choice. A word of warning about traps: openings must be large enough for a crayfish to enter but not for fish. A trap that catches fish is illegal in South Carolina.
By lunchtime on this day our yield is roughly thirty red-breast keepers and half of a five-gallon bucket of crayfish, ready for either the freezer or straight to the pot. I think old Granddad would be proud. Another spirit will move in Murdaugh's kitchen as well, but you'll meet her soon enough.
Fascinating little fellows
They are called by many names: crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs, mountain lobsters and yabbies. But most folks recognize that these freshwater crustaceans resemble their larger, more respected cousin, the lobster. Our own Cajun cousins have laid claim to them in both lifestyle and cuisine, harvesting roughly one hundred million pounds a year in Louisiana, but you can find relatives of the Cambaridae family from continent to continent, from boggy bayou to our own Lowcountry backyards. The world is home to more than six hundred species (350-plus live in North America), from dwarf crayfish to Australian monsters that weigh several pounds. They come in colors that range from red to blue and even white, and new species are still being discovered. Because of their global distribution and the ages of the species - their fossils have been dated to 150 million years old - crayfish have been used in studying the "continental shift" and the development of the theory of plate tectonics.
The Southeast United States is home to the greatest number of species in the world, with roughly forty in South Carolina alone. Some species are found in brooks and streams of running water, while others thrive in swamps, rice paddies and ditches. The variable crayfish, Cambarus latimanus, is more abundant in the Piedmont, and the Eastern red swamp crayfish, Procambarus troglodytes, is most common in the coastal plain. Most grow from two to six inches in the Palmetto State and are reddish-brown in color. If there is water, you can find crayfish, but even in the state's upland areas, they have been known to burrow to find groundwater, leaving "mud chimneys" in their wake. Crayfish may travel long distances on dry land during wet seasons (as long as their gills stay damp, they can survive), and it has even been reported that an African species will navigate along the wet footprints of hippos!
Often bottom-dwelling creatures, these omnivores scavenge for living or dead plant and animal matter, but can tear up larger pieces of food with their oversized claws. Females can lay up to seven hundred eggs at a time, depending on the species. The eggs hatch in roughly two weeks, and the young hang out under the mother's tail through two molts before heading out on their own, where they are preyed on by insects and even other crayfish. As adults, they will become prey for snakes, turtles, birds, small mammals like raccoons, and many species of fish. Eaten worldwide by humans, they are also commonly used as bait for channel catfish, trout, largemouth bass and other species of game fish. So the crayfish, functioning as both nature's "clean-up crew" and our freshwater dinner, is a valuable part of the food chain in many ecosystems.
Most crayfish cannot tolerate polluted water - both waterway pollution and habitat loss are concerns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists four species as federally endangered, and several are being monitored in South Carolina. If you want to learn more about these fascinating creatures and how to protect them, read Rob Simbeck's article, http://www.scwildlife.com/articles/mayjune2012/crayfish.html.
From swamp to kitchen
Although the crayfish boil, heavily seasoned and loaded with sausage, corn, potato and onion, has become a Southern tradition and a Louisiana staple, there are many creative uses for this tasty freshwater meat. While crayfish don't have a spokesman like Bubba of Forest Gump fame to expound on the many uses of this shrimp-like protein while scrubbing a barracks floor with a toothbrush - "there's crayfish salad, crayfish burgers" - we do have local angler-chefs like Tee Murdaugh to show us the way.
This swamp-to-table experience was months in the making. After our crayfish expedition in May, our catch sat buried in a deep freezer until the winter months. Now we are in a Murdaugh family kitchen, and it is like photographing a "redneck chef" reality show. Murdaugh is wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt, a hunting knife strapped to his side and country-fried quips at the ready, so I wonder if his culinary skills are a match for his swamp skills and colorful expressions.
But the spirit of Annie Irene, his grandmother, moves about the kitchen, guiding his hands as he cleans the crayfish tails and gathers ingredients. Murdaugh brags about how "Granny" would cook anything a hunter or angler brought to her back porch for cleaning, from rattlesnake and shark to armadillo and raccoon. Like many of his relatives, Murdaugh always had a place at the table.
"Granny could make a boot sole tender," the yarns continued. "She could cook a TV tube, and you'd eat it, and like it! That's how I learned, sitting and watching her cook three meals a day. There was seldom a time when there wasn't a warm meal on her stove. That stove only cooled off when she went to bed."
Twelve years in the restaurant industry certainly didn't hurt his cooking skills any, added Murdaugh, and it is evident in the deft skill and quiet efficiency in which he swirls his skillets, twirls his pasta and garnishes his dishes. Occasionally reaching to pour in a secret ingredient (I suspect it's some sort of fat or drippings), Murdaugh forgoes the typical, almost cliché, crayfish dishes like gumbo, étouffée and crayfish boil and instead produces five-star-restaurant quality pasta, crayfish cakes and even crayfish boudin.
Fork in hand and weary from the Nikon shooting close-ups in his face, our chef is ready to get down to business. "Well, we enjoyed ourselves collecting crayfish, and now we are gonna eat 'em. So turn that dang camera off!"
Murdaugh agreed to share several of his recipes. In this dish, anytime you can cook wild boar hunted in the swamp, and combine it with freshly caught crawfish from the same waters, someone is going to eat well.
10 pounds of pork, with excess fat trimmed
1-2 pounds cooked, cleaned crawfish tails
4 medium yellow or white onions
2 large bell peppers
2 bunches celery, chopped large
3 bunches green onion, finely chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
10 cups cooked rice
2 tbsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp black pepper
4 tbsp cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes
2-4 tsp minced garlic to taste
1 package Legg's Old Plantation sausage seasoning, to taste
1 package sausage casings (optional)
In a large stockpot, combine pork, garlic, celery, whole onions, half of the green onions and the whole bell peppers. Season with all spices except the sausage seasoning. Cover the contents with water and boil until the meat is done and separates from the bone. Remove all meat and cooked vegetables and set aside to cool. Save the stock, or "pot likker," for later.
With a meat grinder, blend together the meat and boiled vegetables. You may grind in one additional onion raw, if desired.
Dump the ground mixture into a large bowl or tub for further mixing. Mix in the crawfish tails. Add the finely chopped green onion and parsley along with the cooked rice, mixing by hand. Pour in the stock from the pot until the mixture has a slightly wet consistency and mix well. Add sausage seasoning to taste, mixing and tasting the boudin until it suits you. If it not spicy enough to suit you, then add more red pepper or Cajun seasoning to taste.
Once mixed and seasoned to your liking, the boudin can be stuffed into sausage casings or rolled into balls, dipped in egg wash and seasoned bread crumbs, and pan fried. Boudin balls are excellent with spicy brown mustard.
Coosawhatchie Craw Cakes
You will never look at crab cakes the same way again after you try these craw cakes, says our chef.
1 cup cooked, cleaned crawfish tails
1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp each finely chopped green onion, bell pepper and celery
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tsp concentrated basil paste
1/2 tsp concentrated oregano paste
Soy sauce, salt and black pepper to taste
2-3 tbsp cooking oil or bacon drippings
Chopped parsley for garnish
Pour 1 tablespoon oil or bacon drippings into a skillet and sauté the peppers, onion and celery, cooking until tender. Remove from heat. Add garlic, crawfish and spices. Once cool, transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in egg and enough bread crumbs to bind. Form into 3/4 inch thick patties, then roll in remaining bread crumbs. Heat the remaining oil or grease in a sauté pan and pan fry cakes on both sides until brown and crispy. Garnish with parsley.
"Who's Your Daddy?" Crawdaddy Pasta
Our chef claims that this pasta and a bottle of wine are all you need for a romantic evening. Oh, and maybe a date.
1 1/2 pounds cooked, cleaned crawfish tails
2 (8 ounce) packages angel hair pasta
6 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup of butter (or bacon grease)
1 cup chopped green onions
1/4 tsp concentrated basil paste
1/4 tsp concentrated oregano paste
Soy sauce to taste
Seasoning salt to taste
Garlic to taste
Pepper to taste
Olive oil to taste
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook angel hair pasta until al dente. Drain and drizzle with olive oil. Then, in a large sauté pan, melt butter or bacon drippings over medium heat, then sauté the green onions and garlic (being careful not to burn the garlic). Stir in the spices and heavy cream. Cook until the sauce is reduced by almost half. Finally, stir in the crawfish and heat thoroughly. Serve over hot angel hair pasta.