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Crayfishing in Western Washington

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(To the victor go the boils? Crayfish Boil photo by Giovanni Handal via Wikimedia Commons)

Some affectionately call crayfish—or crawfish—or crawdads “freshwater lobster,” and in Washington State, they abound! This often overlooked culinary treat is ripe for the taking about half the year.

From the first Monday in May through Oct. 31 of each year, crayfish may be harvested in Washington State. The daily limit is a whopping 10 pounds per day (in the shell), and no shellfish/seaweed license is required. That’s right, they’re free for the taking! Washington has only one native crayfish species, the Signal crayfish (Pacifasticus leniusculus). These can be identified by its uniform brownish color and smoothly textured claws. There are other invasive species of crayfish: the non-native Northern, Rusty and the Red Swamp (Louisiana) crayfish, among many more. These greatly differ with the bumpy details on their claws, and their color is not as drab as the local crayfish. Locals will tell you the size (up to six inches from nose to tail!) and sweet flavor makes the native Signal crayfish superior to the non-native, smaller varieties. Side note: Once cooked, the Signal crayfish reddens right up just like a lobster.

(From drab to fab: the Pacifastacus leniusculus aka Signal crayfish, cooked and ready to be eaten. Photo by Joonas Lyytenen via Wikimedia Commons)

Crayfish are found in lakes, streams, and rivers. Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish, and Pine Lake provide great Western Washington recreational outlets for crayfish harvesting, and all are right in King County. Some have the best luck catching crayfish in pots at night, but people can limit in an hour in daylight, too. Rock pilings and grassy areas where crayfish feed lend themselves to successful trapping. Day crayfishers tend to cruise the shadier spots to increase the success of catching these “mudbugs.”  Remember the term “leave no stone unturned?” Maybe it exists because crayfish usually are found in areas where they can seek cover:  rock piles, boulders, and weeded areas.

 

(Full length shot of a Signal crayfish.  In Washington State, these slow growing natives reach six inches in five to six years. Photo by David Perez DPC via Wikimedia Commons)

Although owning a boat is not a prerequisite, it can certainly help get to craggier lake areas where crayfish like to snack on insects, fungi and more. Gear wise, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife allows five units of trap gear per person per day (a star trap, a ring net or a pot is considered one unit of gear). Unlike crab and shrimp, crayfish pots have no required mesh size or buoy color requirements. Many crayfish pot types are found online and the most popular is a modified minnow trap (a mostly cylindrical, galvanized metal trap with ¾-inch screening), but with an enlarged opening. These are often baited with fish scraps, cat or dog food, and the occasional hot dog. Options for gear and modifications are nearly overwhelming, and crayfish have voracious appetites so baiting is easy.

Most importantly, when crawfishing, follow state harvest rules. Signal crayfish must be at least 3.25 inches from nose to tail to be harvested. Because the non-native species have become so invasive, there is NO LIMIT or minimum size on these varieties. The catch: the nonnatives must be killed before leaving the waters where they were collected. Also, to preserve the native stock, female Signal crayfish with visible eggs (see photo) or young attached must be immediately returned to the water, a more common occurrence in late fall. More crayfish harvesting information can be studied here at the WDFW website. A state-provided crayfish ID guide is found here.

(Female Signal crayfish with eggs. If you happen to inadvertently trap these, return them right back to the water. Photo by David Perez DPC via Wikimedia Commons) 

The best part of crayfishing is bringing this bounty home to cook! The native varieties can be boiled whole and later disassembled while eating.  Throw a crawfish boil using savory seasonings and a mix of corn, potatoes, and sausage. The Food Network’s Alton Brown has an easy recipe online here. Do what most of Washington State does NOT: catch and enjoy these abundant and delicious mudbugs!