Most waterways, ponds and lakes in Montana are home to this cousin of the lobster, the crayfish. They are also called crawfish, crawdads, and mudbugs. This is not going to be about biology except according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks there are two predominate types of crawdads that make their home in Montana, the Virile Crayfish and the Signal Crayfish.
We’ve all walked along the shores of lakes, ponds, and rivers and seen the bleached out remains of crawdad shells and legs as leftovers from some critter’s tasty meal. As we consider crawdads tasty morsels, they also are near the top of the menu for mink, raccoons, skunks, and large birds that wander along the shallows looking for a meal.
According to the Louisiana Agricultural Marketing Center, their state accounts for over 90 percent of all crawdad production in the United States and live ones or frozen tail meat can be purchased from several Louisiana producers that you can find on the Web. But with the cost of shipping, including refrigeration, this gets to be a costly option. Crawdads are now seen quite regularly at the fish counter in many of the big box stores in Montana and most all are imported from China. With both options you will be getting farm-raised crawdads so I’m guessing that the taste-fade would be similar, for example, to the difference between true wild salmon and farm-raised salmon, in other words, just no comparison.
So, if you’re really interested in trying out some crawdad recipes, why not get the real thing, wild crawdads from pristine Montana water. Some people who are into crawdad cuisine trap their meal, and others catch them by hand, which in some cases is done by scuba diving. There are some lakes, McGregor Lake (about midway between Kalispell and Libby on hwy 2) being one, where divers gather each summer to dive, catch crawdads, and have a big crawdad boil. I’m only familiar with the trapping method, and I don’t like to be underwater so that is the method we will address here.
During the day crawdads hang out under rocks or logs or in the aquatic plant growth at the bottom of ponds and lakes and it is at night they are most active and eating. They are scavengers and eat most anything but seem to have a preference for any meat that is a little smelly. Although dead fish, fish guts, or chicken livers are popular bait, an open can of cat food seems to work well and is a lot less messier to deal with. I find no regulations pertaining to catching crawdads in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks literature, but satisfy yourself to that before you head out with your traps. Commercially made traps similar to the one in the photos can be purchased from Cabelas, Sportsmen’s Warehouse, and Bass Pro Shops for from $10 to $22.
Crawdads, like all crustaceans, must be kept alive until they are cooked as some of the naturally occurring bacteria within them will cause deterioration of the meat very rapidly if they are dead but not cooked. The boiling process kills that bacteria and the critter at the same time eliminating the problem. So, take a bucket or something with you to put a little water in to bring them back alive. Crawdad season for the most part is from when the water starts to warm up in the spring until it starts to cool down in the fall which in Montana that usually means from sometime in May to sometime in September. Accordingly, during this active time traps are set out in the evening and gathered in the next morning.
See the sidebar on the next page for steps on purging, cooking, and harvesting the tail meat. It can be frozen and used later if desired. For cooking use the size pot and amount of water to completely cover the crawdads and then some. Add a cutup lemon to the water and bring to a rolling boil. Be sure to discard any that are dead before submerging in the boiling water. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes after the water has resumed the rolling boil. If you’re going to do a traditional crawdad boil then you would go right to that procedure described after purging them. As far as harvesting the tail meat is concerned, you may think the ratio of effort to satisfaction is a little skewed but actually that is what beer is for. Nothing goes better with a crawdad boil than downing your favorite beer as you peel and eat.
To harvest the tail meat
1. Wash off the live crawdads with a hose, then put in a tub of salted water for a couple of hours, then dump out the water, and repeat a time or two until the water is very clean. Discard any that are dead prior to cooking.
2. To cook, drop the live crawdads in boiling water for three or four minutes.
3. Remove the tail meat by breaking the tail away from the body and with your thumb remove the first couple of rings of shell then pinching just above the tail fins and gently pull on the meat. After you’ve done a half dozen you’ll be an expert.
If you have a lot of patience you can harvest good meat from the large claws as well.
In Louisiana they would be called beignets, but we have added some corn and call them fritters.
1 – heaping cup of crawdad tail meat
1 – cup flour
½ – cup yellow cornmeal
1 – cup canned creamed corn
1 – egg
2 – tablespoons canola oil
1 – teaspoon salt
2 – teaspoons sugar
Milk to make a stiff batter
Finely chopped jalapeno pepper to your taste
Mix all ingredients together except the crawdad meat. When you get a smooth thick natter then gently fold in the crawdad tails. Drop large tablespoon of batter into 350 degree vegetable oil and turn until golden brown on all sides then remove and drain on paper towels. Garnish with chopped scallion tops.
2/3 part mayo and 1/3 part ketchup, a little lemon juice and cayenne pepper powder to your taste.
Crawdad and smoked venison hot beer sausage pot pie
This is my Montana take on a Cajun classic, crawfish pie
4 – tablespoons of butter
1 – cup chopped yellow onions
1 – cup small diced celery
1 – cup small diced green bell pepper
2 – heaping tablespoons flour or corn starch
1 – cup chopped tomatoes
½ – teaspoon cayenne pepper or more or less as you like
2 – cups of crawdad tail meat
2 – cups of smoked venison hot beer sausage sliced thin. (you can substitute any well-seasoned sausage)
½ – cup chopped green onion tops
Pie crust for the top
Melt the butter in a fry pan then add the chopped onions, bell peppers, and celery and stir until they are soft. Then add the salt and cayenne pepper and stir while simmering for a couple of minutes. Mix the flour or corn starch with a little water in a separate container and mix thoroughly until smooth, then add to the pan along with the crawdad meat, sausage and the tomatoes. Pour into your pot(s), cover with a pie crust and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes.
Crawdad and salt pork soup
Enough cooked crawdads to harvest two cups of tail meat and save a
couple of handful of shells.
1 – qt. water
2 – cups 1 inch diced salt pork
Simmer the crawdad shells in water until it reduces by about a third. Strain
to remove all solids and reserve in a saucepan.
In a frypan, render the salt pork until the pieces are as crisp as you like.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.
Reheat the broth to a simmer the pour in a bowl then add the tail meat and
salt pork and garnish with chopped green onion tops and a sprinkle of the
cayenne pepper powder to suit.