Catching Crayfish in Southeastern Ontario
We spent the Canada Day long weekend catching crayfish in Brennan's Creek in front of the house. It's a good, wide, shallow creek full of mud, rocks, minnows, and crayfish. Locals talk about how crazy full of crayfish the creek is, and you can easily see them from the water's edge, fighting each other with their claws and moving like lightning by whipping their tails... but no one eats them and a few old timers laughed at me for saying I was going to. I picked up a minnow trap from the hardware store and cut the openings a little bigger with small wire cutters and then Alex tied a long nylon cord to the trap's clip.
We looked up the legalities of catching them for food before we got started trapping. You can catch crayfish to eat without restriction or the need for a license as long as you are cooking them on site or taking them home to cook and eat right away. It is illegal to use crayfish for bait in any body of water they weren't caught in, it is illegal to transport them alive over land (if they're not for eating), and it is illegal to catch crayfish and put them in a different creek or lake then they were caught from. Crayfish can be very invasive, hence the restrictions, and the local government seems to encourage eating them. So if you catch them, but end up not cooking them - put them back where you found them and it's all good.
At sunset Alex tied the cord to the tree on the stream bank, baited the trap, waded out into the creek and tossed in the trap. The cord lets us slowly pull out the trap in the morning without having to go into the creek again. Crayfish are most active at night so we checked the trap in the mornings and found a nice haul both times with some minnows mixed in.
We tried baiting the trap with a can of fishy cat food punctured many times with a sharp knife and then the next night with chopped up minnows from the creek, wrapped in tin foil with holes poked in it so the crayfish could get at the meat, but the meat wouldn't float away in the creek. Both worked equally well and caught the same amount of crayfish. The crayfish don't do well once removed from their habitat, so it is best to cook them within an hour of taking them out of the trap.
How to Process Crayfish for Freezing
Rinse the live crayfish in fresh water a couple times before cooking. They are garbage-eating, muddy bottom-dwellers and are therefore covered in mud. I used a metal colander to strain the water out of the bucket so there's no need to touch the snippy little buddies at all. After the last rinse of fresh well water is strained they are immediately slid into a big pot of salted boiling water for 4 minutes. Then I took them out and put them into ice water to stop the cooking process. Pull them out of the ice water as soon as they are cool.
Then Alex and I sat at the kitchen table with cutting boards and bowls fittingly listening to CCR's Bayou Country on vinyl while we dissected the piles of crayfish with paring knives and our hands.
Some crayfish are a nice size and some are teeny. For the biggers ones, it is worth it to get the claw meat as well as the tail meat, but for the teeny ones just grab the tail meat and move along.
If you are the kind of person who likes to suck the delicious, golden, soupy brains then save the heads or squeeze out the yellow goo into a small container just to make a naughty butter or add to a bisque. Otherwise separate everything into three categories: meat, shell for stock, and poop veins (to throw out).
Pull off the legs and then pull the head and tail like a christmas cracker and they will easily come apart. The head is huge but there's no meat in it --just toss it in the shell bowl. Split the tail open with the top of a sharp paring knife and then crack it open with your fingers to get out the tail meat. De-vein the tail meat just like a fresh shrimp and get rid of the line of crayfish poop. For the claws that are big enough to be worth it, pull the opposable pincher out and take any meat off that stuck to the cartilage and then split open the big claw with the knife and carefully pull out the meat with the knife's tip.
I ended up with two medium sized freezer bags of crayfish shells for making a good seafood stock and maybe one pound total of tail and claw meat. They will keep for 2-4 months in the freezer. It seems like a lot of work for such a little bit of meat, but if you only do it a couple times a week for a month or two you can build up a nice stash of meat in your freezer for cooking with and it's essentially a free shrimp/crab/lobster substitute right at your finger tips and far inland away from the ocean.
What can you make with frozen crayfish meat? Anything you want: crayfish bisque, crayfish risotto, fried crayfish cakes made like a crab or fish cake, steamed pork and shrimp siu mai, crayfish fried rice, "shrimp" spring rolls or dumplings, or even coquilles st-jacques with the crayfish instead of scallops. It can be substituted in pretty much any recipe with shrimp or crab. I also recommend Hank Shaw for his impressive crayfish bisque and crayfish salad recipes and his post on hunting crayfish in the mountains of California.
Crayfish are beautiful when freshly cooked. The shells are are such a potent orange-red. If you don't want to waste their natural beauty, try cooking up a traditional crayfish boil for friends or family where they are left whole and poached with large chunks of vegetables and eaten with your hands. You could also make a beautiful crayfish paella and garnish it with freshly boiled, whole crayfish.