HOW TO CATCH CRAYFISH
Crayfish are freshwater crustaceans related to lobsters, and there are two main species in UK - the native white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), and the non-native American signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus).
Originally the Signal crayfish was commercially bred in this country for the restaurant trade but about 25 years ago a handful managed to find their way into the waterways across England and Wales. Today, populations of Signal crayfish can be found as far south as Cornwall and are now making their way up into areas of Scotland causing devastation amongst our native populations of the smaller and less aggressive white-clawed crayfish. Not just confined to the water, Signal crayfish also have a habit of walking overland in a search for new feeding and breeding ‘grounds’ which is why they have been able to colonise such large areas of the country so quickly.
Trapping crayfish for food in the UK only involves the signal crayfish, which can be up to 25cm long with claws extended. The native crayfish is never more than a few centimetres long.
Why eat signal crayfish?
Firstly,eating wild caught crayfish pretty much guarantees food that does not contain pesticides, fertilisers, hormones or genetic modification - or least you hope it doesn't.
Secondly, the American crayfish is causing problems for both the native crayfish and for British waterways. Signal crayfish out compete native crayfish because they are bigger, their eggs hatch earlier in the year, females lay up to 500 eggs (the native crayfish lays around 200), and they are less fussy about what they eat. In addition, the signal crayfish carries a fungal disease (Aphanomyces astaci, commonly called the crayfish plague) that kills the native crayfish. Luckily for us it is not harmful to humans. American crayfish also damage the local environment by burrowing into the banks of rivers and streams to build their homes. At the very least this causes erosion of the river banks - at worst, it causes their collapse!
What do you need to catch crayfish?
The Environment Agency's concerns are that if people are allowed to catch crayfish for food, they will be sold to the restaurant trade, and because there is money to be made, some people might 'seed' rivers and streams that don't have signal crayfish, so that they can be harvested in the future. Crayfish traps are easy enough to buy on line or - depending on whether the Environment Agency allow it in your area - you can make your own trap. Just be aware that trapping crayfish is a summer activity. In winter, they will be hibernating in the river banks. And remember, they best time to catch crayfish is at night!
How to trap a crayfish
Crayfish also have large apitites, you take it into account when baiting your trap. When crayfish season it at its peak, a commercial size trap should have at least a pound of bait in it.
For the best results use salmon heads with gills, herring, shad, cod heads with guts. But make sure that it is as fresh as you can get it. If the bait is starting to turn, throw it away. Keep your bait frozen until you are ready to use it, then freeze what you have left if it's still good. If you don't have access to this type of bait and most don't you'll need to find some type of fish which is extremely oily and probably local. Carp works well, as do most of the fish you can catch with rod and reel. However, bullheads and catfish are not liked by crayfish.
While a lot of fish are not very oily in their flesh, their heads and guts will still work fine as an effective crayfish bait.
As mentioned before, don't bother with chicken, beef, pork, dog or cat food - they are a very poor substitue. Also avoid using bait jars unless you have specially formulated bait to put in it. Bait boxes on the other hand will work well provided they are made out of at least 1/2 inch mesh.
Always check your traps the following day, and if you find anything elsi other than signal crayfish, let it go. Furthermore, don't leave a baited trap in a watercourse for more than 24 hours, in case something other than a crayfish gets trapped in it. Let any native crayfish go, but if you catch small signal crayfish, don’t put them back as it is illegal to put them back, once caught - you have been warned. Be aware that Signal crayfish are cannibals, and if you remove only big ones, there will be nothing to keep the numbers of small ones down. Perhaps the Environment Agency in Scotland have urged fishermen to kill signal crayfish on sight.
Look for areas which may provide cover for the crawfish such as rocks, roots, etc. Not only do these areas provide cover for the crayfish but the algae which grows in these areas is also a food base for the crayfish. These areas also give the crayfish a good place to hide while hunting for fish fry and any other moving critter they can capture and eat alive. It is pretty amazing how crawfish can catch even a six inch fish and hold it with their big pincers while they eat the poor fish while it tries to get away.
When taking them out of the trap, remember to keep your fingers away from their pincers. Either keep them in tubs of tap water for a couple of days to purge them of any food in their intestines, or remove them as per the video above.
How to cook crayfish
Simmer for around 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave in the water for another 2 minutes. They turn pink when they are cooked, and look like mini-lobsters (which they are).
The edible parts of the crayfish are the tail and the claws.
First, pull and separate the head and tail. Next, pull off the legs, then grab the end of the flesh sticking out of the tail casing and pull. Sometimes there will be pink eggs - you can eat those too. But give it a bit of a rinse to get rid of all traces of intestines and food.
To remove the flesh from the claws, place them on a hard surface and hit sharply with the back of a knife to crack them open. Grab the end of the flesh and pull it out of the claw.
You can serve crayfish with rice, toast, mayonnaise and/or any number of sauces. It looks and tastes a bit like prawn. In fact, there are plenty of recipes out there.
For a meal for one person, you'd probably need the meat of 5 crayfish.