Crawdads, also known as crayfish, are like lobsters, except they live in freshwater, and they’re smaller. Montana’s crayfish live in rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes—just about anywhere there’s a permanent water source. They like to hide in nooks and crannies along the bottom, between rocks and under logs, but can also be seen prowling about. You need a fishing license to legally take them, either with a trap, or mano a mano, like a man.
Most of my crawdadding takes place in the Blackfoot River. It’s a lazy river in summertime, when the crawdadding is good, and the place I like to go is just 40 minutes from Missoula.
The water at this access is slow and deep, with lazy eddies circling beneath black cliffs. The last time I was there, my crawdad adviser and I used snorkeling gear to survey the forest-green river’s rocky bottom. He’d stashed seven crawdads in his mesh diving bag before I even had my mask on.
We carried the mesh bags in one ungloved hand and wore gloves on our other. The most important rule of crawdad hunting is: don’t ever switch the bag to the gloved hand and grab a crawdad with your naked hand. Those pincers can draw blood. It’s amazing how far the scream of a pinched crawdad hunter can travel underwater.
A claw is often the first thing you see, poking out from some crevice. Reach fast and grab behind the head.
Crawdads will often wiggle free with a violent burst of the tail. This typically happens just when your lungful of air is finally spent. But with prey in sight, scurrying away, you dig deep and give chase, your cells breathing nothing but adrenaline. Many times have I found myself twisting at some upside-down angle, kicking and convulsing and trying not to gulp water. Hunting crawdads is the closest I’ll ever come to being in a jet-fighter duel, or a big-screen Kung-Fu fight scene.
The first crawdad I caught had only one claw, and that’s all it needed. When I grabbed the supposedly safe spot behind its head, it immediately did this crazy yoga move, reaching behind its back and pinching my gloved hand.
Unwilling to let it go, and unwilling to let it keep pinching me, I committed the beginner’s error of transferring the crawdad to my other hand. My unprotected fingers felt the spines and sharp edges of the exoskeleton as I yanked my gloved hand from its calcium carbonate clamp. As soon as I pulled the glove from the maw of said claw, it went straight back into the yoga pose, this time toward my ungloved hand. I panicked at the thought of getting bit, and at the possibility that the crawdad might get away.
When it clamped my ungloved hand, I shrieked appropriately. I used my gloved hand to pry open the claw, at which point the animal detached itself from said claw and darted away, leaving me in an empty-handed handshake with a disembodied claw.
I had been out of air and planning to go to the surface before I even spotted that one-armed crawdad. After a U-turn, the chase, the game of hot potato and the claw ejection that ensued, my lungs were imploding. But, reaching into a seldom-used emergency reserve of whoop-ass, I continued my pursuit of the limbless warrior. Amazingly, I caught it. Not only that, but I made it back to the surface without blacking out or inhaling river.
My crawdad adviser and I emptied our bags into a cooler filled with river water, and he sprinkled in cornmeal for the crawdads to eat. The cornmeal pushes whatever filter-fed crap is in their guts out the other end.
We took our catch home and put them in an aerated fish tank until the next evening. About a third died and we had to toss them, reinforcing the conventional wisdom that it’s best to cook your fresh-caught crawdads ASAP.
Boil crawdads for 10 minutes in salted water and, if you wish, crab boil (a spice mixture available in most stores) until bright red. The crawdad adviser likes to pull off the tails and suck out the hot guts (and eat the tails, of course, where most of the meat is). I wondered whether the guts, filled with cornmeal, might taste like lobster polenta, but they tasted kind of disgusting, like guts. The claw and tail meat were great.
I cooked all my crawdads and then set to experimenting. First I made scampi, frying the meat with garlic, butter, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon. Then I made ceviche by marinating the cooked crawdad in lime, crushed garlic, chopped cilantro and red onion, minced jalapeno, and salt and pepper. I also tried putting them in paella.
They didn’t suck. Montana crawdads may not be as big as lobsters, but they make up for their small size with sweetness. With crustaceans as tasty as these in the mountains, who needs a coast?