Crayfish: The Poor Man’s Muddy Little Delicacy
Updated: Jan 8
Let’s just get this out of the way: I love seafood. Not so much fish (unless it’s whole, head-on), but more so the weird, curious, more interesting types of water-derived meats. I’m talking scallops, mussels, clam, octopus (yes!), oyster, eel, and let’s not forget crab and lobster. Yum!
Considering Minneapolis is about 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 1,500 from the Pacific, it’s no surprise that Minnesota doesn’t offer up much of a seafood selection. I usually make due with frozen shrimp or fish from the grocery but, if I’m feeling particularly exotic, I venture to the nearest Asian market to quench my seafood appetite. (Being half Asian, I’m partial to not only unique Asian seafood offerings (dried squid strings, anyone?) but also other delectables that fondly remind me of my mother’s kitchen).
Our property here in Cannon Falls has a small man-made pond fed by a constant flow of freshwater from a hillside local wild spring. When we first moved here, the pond was occupied by a small school of pan fish; one huge, very elusive bass; an army of frogs (yes: a group of frogs is really called an army); and, to my elation, a healthy population of crayfish.
My Arkansan dad taught me to call those tasty little creatures crawdads, but the small shellfish go by a surprising variety of other names: crayfish, crawfish, crawlfish, crawldads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mud bugs, and (in Australia) yabbies, gilgies, koonacs, redclaw, or marron. What a mouthful!
And quite literally just a small mouthful, actually. Crayfish offer little more than a bite of tail meat and a heady—seriously, from their heads—slurp of crustacean-type foie gras. Amy McCarthy, editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston, wrote in 2017: “If you’ve been eating crawfish all this time and [left] the heads behind, you’ve sadly been missing out.” She explained further:
“…there is an organ inside [the crayfish head] frequently mistaken as a brain or a big glob of crawfish fat. That mysterious blob is actually the crawfish’s hepatopancreas, which [functions like a liver] … In terms of flavor, the hepatopancreas (often called “crawfish butter”) is sort of like what foie gras would taste like if it came from the sea. As such, it’s a poor man’s delicacy.”
What’s the difference between crayfish and lobster? The most obvious difference is size—crayfish are much smaller—but the other is that lobster live in saltwater while crayfish are a freshwater animal. Thus, Minnesota and its “10,000” freshwater lakes (plus all its rivers and streams) makes for an appealing crayfish habitat. According to the Minnesota DNR, there live five species of crayfish in our state: three native and two invasive. (As of 2007, a published paper from Brigham Young University counted over 640 species, with about 382 living in North America alone. That’s a big crayfish family!)
Crayfish are generally nocturnal and very shy, so it’s rare to see one out and about unless you’re really looking (or hunting). One of the most obvious signs of crayfish population in a body of freshwater is the presence of mud mounds or “chimneys” around the water’s perimeter. These volcano-looking mounds are the tops of crayfish burrows. They measure about 6” in diameter and are topped with a very neat, almost perfect, little 1-2” access hole.
The crayfish population at my own pond remains strong, despite me catching and boiling some for an exotic treat one afternoon, much to the worry of my husband who was convinced I’d get ill from some mystery disease (Note: I did not). This past September I spotted a handful of the softball-sized mud mounds, so it’s nice to know I haven’t completely disturbed the crayfish population with my voracious and curious seafood appetite. And, seeing as they’ve been living here for some years, burrowing deep into the mud to keep from freezing over winter, I think it’s safe to say that there yet lies abundant hope for next spring’s crayfish catching season at this girl’s personal local wild pond. (Psst: Crayfish season goes from April 1 to Nov 30 and, yes, you do need a fishing permit.)
This article is one in a series written for a column titled “The Local Wild” in the Beacon newspaper of Cannon Falls, MN.