A simple trap, properly set in a Michigan lake or stream can yield hundreds of crayfish (both native and invasive). Today, crayfish are appearing in many grocery stores as people realize that they are tasty and healthful. If you want to try this unique form of seafood, skip the precooked mudbugs and trap a mess of your own. Anything over a buck or two per pound for cooked and frozen mushballs is far too expensive, especially when most Michigan waters are loaded with fresh, live specimens for the taking.
While they resemble lobsters, crayfish are much smaller, with narrower claws. Their flavor is similar, although some think that crayfish meat is sweeter and more tender than lobster. The old adage that “crayfish is just as good as lobster, when you don’t have any lobster” is both tried and true. Trapping these critters and doing a crayfish boil is a great way to do your part to keep invasive numbers low, while enjoying a traditional meal that has been sadly overlooked in many parts of the country including Michigan.
From a nutritional standpoint, crayfish are low in calories and high in nutritional value. A quarter-pound serving of crayfish tails contains only 82 calories, compared to 242 calories of ground beef. Crayfish are a good source of calcium, phosphorous, iron and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin). They provide high-quality protein and all the nutrients necessary for good health. Crayfish are highly digestible. The fibers of crayfish meat are shorter than those of other meat, so crayfish are easier to digest. Crayfish are also relatively low in fat.
When getting ready to trap crayfish from your home waters, or anywhere else, do your homework first. Be sure the body of water you plan to trap does not have consumption advisories for fish or shellfish (Michigan DNR or local health departments should be able to supply this info). Check all fishing regulations to be sure that your gear conforms to the rules, along with making sure you have any needed licenses, etc. A simple box or cone trap, baited with fish parts (heads and offal from cleaning panfish), hot dogs or dog food pellets will work fine. Look for an area with rocky bottom – all that cover conceals a lot of mudbugs. Simply sink the trap where you want, cover with a large rock or two to conceal it from casual passer-bys, and come back to check on it in a day or two. Bring a bucket or cooler to transport your catch, so you can leave the trap for another haul. No water is necessary for the trip home, but an ice pack can keep them cool if it’s going to be a long, hot drive.
Store the crayfish in a large tank or tub of clean, fresh water. This can work for up to a week. However, as conditions become crowded, crayfish become aggressive and cannabalistic, often tearing up smaller specimens for food or territorial reasons. Feed them sparingly to prevent this from happening, and be sure to remove ALL uneaten food immediately afterwards. This prevents the water from becoming fouled, which can reduce dissolved oxygen levels and cause off-flavors in your catch.
Prepping crayfish for the boil is simple. Pick through the crayfish and remove any dead ones. Wash the live ones by covering them with water, swishing them around, and pouring the water off. Repeat. Purging the crayfish (causing them to expel their stomach contents by immersion in salt water or other solutions) is a topic that draws as many opinions as soaking catfish fillets in buttermilk or vinegar. Some people swear by this, others swear at it. The only rule here is to read up on the process and decide for yourself.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add in the following:
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 6 oz red pepper or crab boil (liquid or powder)
- 2 lemons – cut in half
- corn on the cob, broken in half
- head of garlic
Place lid on pot and bring water back to a boil. Boil for at least five minutes. Add freshly washed live crayfish. Replace cover and when steam appears on edges of cover, begin boil time. Boil for 10 minutes, or until crayfish begin to float. Turn off heat and let soak for 5 minutes. If you want the crayfish to steep in the boil longer, add a large amount of ice to the pot and allow them to soak for another 15-20 minutes. Strain crayfish and other boil ingredients from pot with a large strainer, drain on heavy paper and serve with ice cold beer. Add more seasoning and return the pot to a boil if you want to serve up a second course.
In Cajun country and in Sweden, crayfish are served whole as finger food or picnic fare. If the crayfish are to be used in another recipe, separate the tail from the body. Peel the tail to remove the meat. You can also de-vein the tail by removing the fleshy strip that runs along the outside of the curve. On larger crayfish you can break off the claws, crack them and use a fork to pry out the meat. Inside the crayfish head, on either side, are yellow pockets commonly called fat or Cajun butter. Open the head slightly. Using a very small spoon, gently remove the fat and place it in a separate container for use as indicated in crayfish recipes. It has an unmistakable flavor that adds to crayfish dishes.