Columnist: I didn’t order the crawdads

Published 9:16 am Thursday, July 30, 2009

Last weekend I was down near St. Louis and ate at a restaurant that specializes in crab type dishes. One item on the menu was crayfish, or crawdads as they’re called in the south where they are most popular.  I opted for a meaty king crab. I’ve been to several crawdad boils down in bayou country and, frankly, don’t quite get it.

They take immense piles of crayfish and boil them in water so spiced up you have no idea what you’re eating. They could save themselves and the customers a lot of work and money by just boiling up cardboard as a medium for the spice flavors. A typical one person serving is five pounds, nearly all of which goes in the shuck pile.

It takes so long to shuck the dumb things for just a miniscule nibble of morsel that you never do get satisfyingly full. I must be a minority, though, for crawdads are the second largest aquaculture crop in North America. Most are raised and consumed in Louisiana.

I’d long wondered if crayfish might taste similar to its saltwater cousin, the lobster, if you swapped the spices for butter. When my son was a lad he and a buddy spent a day at Russ Forest. When we picked them up they proudly brandished a whole bucket full of crayfish they had absconded from the creek. “So what are you going to do with them,” I asked? “Eat ’em,” they replied in unison. That night we had lobster style crawdads. Now I better understand the spice thing for it’s pretty much like eating a lot of nothing.  They don’t even taste like chicken.

There are over four hundred species of crayfish in North America of which eight reside here in Michigan. Depending on the species, they are found everywhere from creeks and rivers to swamps, ponds and lakes. They breathe through gills like fish but many can tolerate quite low oxygen levels. Some species even come onto land briefly to forage for food or change location. They are primarily scavengers but they’ll eat anything, plant or animal, alive or dead. In addition to underwater carrion they catch insects, worms and minnows and relish aquatic vegetation. They can also be a major predator of fish eggs.

I’ve always been curious about their burrows. You’ve seen them, the mud chimneys sticking up six inches or so on dry land along lake and stream shores. Why would a water dependent creature dig a burrow on land? The answer depends on the species. Not all crayfish dig burrows. Some species only dig burrows in the fall for over wintering. Others dig burrows to reach water if they’re pond or creek is drying up.

Then there are species like the devil crayfish, the most common burrowing crayfish here in the upper Midwest, that live most of their lives in burrows. All crayfish burrows extend down to groundwater, which can be up to ten feet under ground. They always extend below the frost line for cozy over wintering. Some are a simple, single tunnel while others are an intricate maze of multiple tunnels. Crayfish dig them using their pincers and tails, pushing the dirt above ground to form the telltale chimneys.   Usually occupancy is limited to one crayfish per tunnel.

Crayfish burrows are the mini equivalent of woodchuck burrows when it comes to housing other animals. The endangered Kirtland’s snake is totally dependant on crayfish burrows for shelter. They are also considered critical for Massasauga rattlesnake habitat. Some species of dragonfly larvae must also have crayfish burrows for their development.

Crayfish are excellent fish bait and this is causing problems. One crayfish widely sold for bait is the rusty crayfish which is native to the Ohio River valley. They are large and aggressive and easily displace other crayfish species. By fishermen releasing them into the water rusty crayfish have now become established throughout the Great Lakes region. They consume a lot of aquatic vegetation, altering the ecosystem and depriving fish, insects and native crayfish of food and shelter. So from now on take your bait home and break out the Cajun spice.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at