I love seafood, particularly shellfish, but living in the mountains makes accessing fresh-caught creatures of the sea somewhat difficult. Although fresh seafood is readily available in many Tahoe and Reno restaurants, I often feel guilty about the time and resources it takes for a sea-to-table dinner in the mountains. However, thanks to Tahoe’s invasive population of crayfish, satisfying that craving for shellfish may be more environmentally friendly than I thought.
With the nickname “mud bugs,” these little creatures aren’t often thought of as a delicacy, however, thanks to Tahoe’s clean, clear waters, local crayfish have a sweet flavor and texture that some have compared to the flavor of Maine lobster. With populations in the millions in Lake Tahoe, the crustacean has started to make an appearance on restaurant menus in the surrounding region. Besides being an adventurous new item to try for dinner, eating crayfish also helps cut down on the population of the invasive species that have a negative impact on lake clarity.
“Thanks to Tahoe’s clean, clear waters,
local crayfish have a sweet flavor
and texture that some have compared
to the flavor of Maine lobster.”
Introducing Tahoe crayfish
Between the 1880s and 1940s, public agencies sanctioned the introduction of a number of nonnative species, including brook, brown, rainbow and lake trout. Shortly after, Signal Crayfish were introduced as a food source for the popular sport fish. However, the introduction of new species had unintended consequences and it’s likely the introduction of lake trout contributed to the extinction of the lake’s native Lahontan cutthroat trout.
By the 1960s, Lake Tahoe’s food web changed drastically. Mysid Shrimp were introduced in a last effort to bolster sport fish populations. With fewer predators than ever, crayfish began to thrive in Lake Tahoe. At the time, it was believed that crayfish improved clarity and a ban on commercial fishing for crayfish was enacted in the 1970s.
More recently, studies have show drastically declining populations of lake invertebrates that are a crucial piece of the ecosystem. While scientists researching these populations don’t know for certain what caused the rapid decline, they believe the trend is partially attributable to growing populations of crayfish who continue to graze on native bottom plants that provide habitats for the invertebrates. Additionally, researchers believe that crayfish excrete nutrients that contribute to algae blooms that negatively impact lake clarity. However with millions of crayfish thriving and few natural predators, it was unclear how to best reduce populations. It turned out that the solution was an entrepreneurial one.
Lifting the ban
Despite the ban, researchers agreed that commercial fishing for crayfish may be the best solution to cutting down on the invasive species. In 2012, Sudeep Chandra, an associate professor of biology with the University of Nevada, Reno, began working with the Nevada Division of Wildlife to create a plan to introduce responsible commercial fishing of crayfish. In 2013, both Nevada and California issued the first permits since the initial ban. Today, several commercial companies operate on Lake Tahoe including Tahoe Lobster Company and Tahoe Crayfish Company. However it’s to soon to tell if commercial fishing has had an impact on crayfish populations and lake clarity.
Get ‘em yourself
Turns out, catching crayfish is something anyone can do during an afternoon on the beach. Some people have luck with a fishing rod with bit of meat on the end of the line, but I prefer to use a trap. Crayfish traps are relatively cheap and available at local hardware and outdoor stores. If you’re fishing with a fishing rod, you’ll be limited to shallower waters. With a trap you have the option to paddle out to deeper waters and drop the trap.
What you’ll need
• Trap or fishing pole and line
• Bait, cat food or meat
• Bucket or cooler for transporting
Be sure to attach the trap to a buoy with enough rope so the trap reaches the lake bed. Crayfish tend to hide in dark crevices near rocks and boulders, so opt for a rocky bit of shoreline instead of a sandy beach. Bacon, lunchmeat and canned cat food are all suitable choices for bait. Once you set the trap, you’re free to kick back on the beach and enjoy the sun. Check the trap every hour or so and collect the crayfish in a bucket or cooler filled with cold water.
I recently attempted to catch crayfish when the winds were blowing and the waters were rough and I came home empty handed. I recommend setting traps when the waters are calm.
Chef Smitty shares his recipes for crawdads prepared four ways
How to prepare and eat crayfish
Rinse the live crustaceans well and boil them in a large pot for 3 to 4 minutes or until bright red. To eat, remove the tail from the body by twisting it away. Use your thumbs to break the top of the tail in half lengthwise and remove the meat. Remove the insides before eating, just as you would with shrimp. If the claws are large enough, they can hide a sweet bite of meat, as well.
I like to pair crayfish with a jambalaya-style rice dish or pasta with vegetables for a complete meal.
1 C rice
¼ small onion, diced
½ red bell pepper, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 Andouille sausages, cut into rounds
Cajun seasoning to taste
Live crawdads, rinsed
Cook the rice according to directions on package. I added Cajun seasoning to the water for extra flavor. In a skillet, brown the sausage rounds. Add vegetables and garlic; simmer until soft. Stir in cooked rice and keep everything on low heat while crawdads cook.