Having been out on some smaller lobster boats, picking up 50 to 60 traps at a time, I was curious as to what the differences and similarities would be between harvesting lobsters and crayfish, so when the opportunity came up to check it out, I jumped at it.

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Over the years, I have had a few Tahoe crayfish or crawdads and they are delicious; much cleaner and sweeter than those that make Louisiana famous. For those dinners, a few of my friends spent the day using a string with a piece of bacon tied to the end pulling up one and sometimes two crayfish at a time. We had a couple hundred crayfish by dinner time, but for commercial fishing, this method is not the way to go.

I met up with Fred Jackson and his nephew Justin of Tahoe Lobster Co. around 6 a.m. as it was just barely starting to get light out and we quickly got under way on the “Ellie June.” On the way out to where the traps had been set the day before, Fred filled me in on some of the issues involved in starting his commercial fishery on Lake Tahoe. Due to the fact the clarity of the lake is so important, many of you might have heard how much damage is done by the crayfish and there vast amount of excrement. By harvesting these crawdads, Fred is doing the area two services. First, he is removing one of the many invasive species that had been introduced into the lake only to cause more damage than good, and secondly, he is supplying the area with another phenomenal, local food source.

Trapping crayfish
Some of the questions I had where: How deep do you trap? And, are the crayfish bigger in deeper water? The answers were usually 50 to 60 feet deep for the traps, and, yes, because like many species, the smaller ones keep closer to shore for better odds at survival. As for baiting the traps, there is no bacon involved. Instead, they use the carcasses of Chilean sea bass, halibut, salmon or other fish scraps much like they would put in a lobster trap.

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“Over the years, I have had a few Tahoe crayfish
or crawdads and they are delicious; much cleaner
and sweeter than those that make Louisiana famous.”

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One other thing I noticed that was different than lobstering on the East Coast was there were no lines of buoys marking the traps like you see all around the New England coast. When they slowed down and said the traps should be just off to the left, I finally noticed the small GPS units they both carried. It wasn’t until Justin yelled “20 feet to the left” that I noticed the buoy about 10 to 20 feet below the surface of the water. Fred said they had to be at least 6 feet under the surface. They were just pieces of those long, neon floaty tubes seen in kiddy pools attached to the traps. The traps were set as a row of 10 that are connected so when they caught the line with a grappling hook, they could then just pull up the whole line of traps. It would have made a great advertisement for the accuracy of those GPS units.

The last thing I asked was if there was anything else he would like me to include in the article. His answer was to please tell people the easiest way to eat a crayfish. First and extremely important, is to be sure they are still alive before you cook them. As with all shell fish, as soon as they die they start to emit ammonia that can be harmful if eaten. Once cooked, twist and pull the tail apart from the body. Then place your fingers on the upper shell of the tail, just above the slight overhang that is where the upper shell meets the bottom shell and squeeze the tail, folding it toward the bottom side until you hear the shell crack. Then turn it over, place your fingers along the sides of the tail where the top shell slightly overhangs the bottom and push apart to force the crack you just made to open up and you can then extract the meat from the shell.

Tahoe Crawdads
For each recipe use about 2 pounds of crayfish checking before cooking that they are all still alive

Cajun style
1 T salt
2 T paprika
½ T ground white pepper
½ T ground black pepper
½ T granulated garlic
½ T red pepper flakes
½ T chipotle powder (or cayenne)
1 T thyme
1 T basil
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 T butter
½ C white wine

Mix everything down to the basil well. In a deep sauté pan or wide pot, place the crayfish with the butter, garlic and wine on high heat. Generously season with spice mix (about 5 T) and cover. Cook for about 4 to 5 minutes tossing occasionally until all of the crayfish are a dark red. You can tell if they are done by splitting open a large tail and seeing the color white in the middle instead of opaque.

Scampi style
4 garlic cloves, diced
4 T butter
½ C white wine
1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Place crayfish in deep sauté pan or wide pot with garlic, butter and wine on high covered. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes tossing occasionally until done. Check by splitting a large tail to see it is white and no longer opaque. Give a squeeze of lemon and season with salt and pepper.

Cocktail or boiled
6 quarts water, or enough in a large pot to easily cover the crayfish without packing them in to solidly
2 T whole black pepper corns
8 bay leaves
1 T salt
2 lemons cut in wedges

Bring water with bay leaves, pepper corns and salt to a boil in a large pot. Have a large bowl of ice water ready before dropping in crayfish. Let water boil for 2 minutes and then drop in crayfish and boil for 3 to 5 minutes until done. Check by splitting a large tail to be sure it is white and not still opaque. Serve warm with drawn butter and lemon wedges or cool immediately in ice water and serve with cocktail sauce.

Cocktail sauce
Combine the following:
12 oz chili sauce
1½ T Worcestershire sauce
2 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce to taste
1½ T lemon add 1 T first and the rest to taste
2 T extra hot horseradish or to taste
Pepper and salt to taste

Crawdad bisque
You can also save the shells, rinsing out the heads, and make a bisque or sauce to be used with other seafood dishes if you want.

Save body and shells from dinner, rinsing out the heads

1 quart water (enough to cover the shells)
1 C heavy cream
2 T Spanish paprika (not hot Hungarian paprika)
1 shallot, diced
¼ C sherry
½ t cayenne pepper
½ T tomato paste
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ sticks butter
¼ C flour

Toss the shells, shallots and 1 stick of butter into a heavy pot and sauté on medium high until the butter is melted and the shallots are starting to sweat. Coat the shells with the paprika and continue to sauté stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, crushing the shells down a little and allowing the paprika to darken a little (just 3 minutes or so). Add the water, tomato paste and bay leaves, and bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Let simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes to 1 hour. With the other half stick of butter, make a roux with the flour. Thicken the bisque a little at a time in a separate bowl, returning it to the pot after each thickening until it is at the desired consistency. Strain through a fine strainer and add the cream. Add the cayenne, sherry, salt and pepper to taste a little at a time. Serve in a cup and garnish with any little pieces of tail meat left over when served.

Smitty is a personal chef specializing in dinner parties, cooking classes and special events. Trained under Master Chef Anton Flory at Top Notch Resort in Stowe, Vt., Smitty is known for his creative use of fresh ingredients. To read archived copies of Smitty’s column, visit chefsmitty.com or TheTahoeWeekly.com. Contact him at tmmsmitty@gmail.com or (530) 412-3598.

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Chef David “Smitty” Smith
Smitty is a personal chef specializing in dinner parties, cooking classes and special events. Trained under Master Chef Anton Flory at Top Notch Resort in Stowe, Vt., Smitty is known for his creative use of fresh ingredients. Smitty has been teaching skiing at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows for more than 26 years each winter, and spends his summers working for High Sierra Waterski School since 2000. Smitty has been writing his chef column for Tahoe Weekly since 2005.