Crayfish Critters: Memories Past, Present-Day Concerns

All photos courtesy The Missouri Department of Conservation.

By Don Corrigan

Crayfish, the “poor man’s lobsters,” were once in abundance in streams of Webster-Kirkwood in suburban St. Louis. Watersheds at Gravois Creek, Sugar Creek, Deer Creek and Shady Creek hosted many of the six-legged fellows.

When freed slaves settled areas near the creeks in North Webster Groves after the Civil War, the streams provided drinking water, recreation and food sources for the liberated residents.

A crayfish boil with melted butter could offer a kingly meal. Vegetable gardens in family plots provided plenty of side dishes to go along with the “crawdaddies” harvested by young boys.

Crayfish boils – and local streams full of the tiny “lobsters,” – seem to be a thing of the past. Experts with the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) have an explanation for the disappearance.

“Crayfish suffer in suburban areas because of the runoff from herbicides and the pesticides used on lawns,” said Rich Thoma of the local nature society. “Some species are very sensitive to degradations in their habitat.

“When the crayfish suffer, sometimes other species of dragonflies and frogs take a hit also,” explained Thoma. “That’s because the crayfish burrow into the mud to make their homes, and other creatures then use the burrows for their homes.”

When crayfish disappear, the burrow homes for the dragonflies and frogs disappear. It’s a classic case of ecological breakdown.

In the St. Louis area, creepy, crawly crayfish now find a home for a short time in bait shops. Crayfish make good bait for catching much larger bottom feeders such as catfish.

Although the best place to find a crayfish in the St. Louis region may be a bait shop, they are still plentiful in many natural areas of rural Missouri. In fact, our state has some 35 species, and many of these species can only be found in Missouri.

A few species can grow up to 4 to 6 inches long. Their pincers can cause mild pain. Any pain ends when they end up on the dinner table in salads, pilafs, etouffees and traditional boils.

A Spothanded crayfish crawls in a Rocky Creek area during the autumn season at Mill Mt. Natural Area near Eminence, MO.

Chowing On Crayfish

Dan Zarlenga of MDC encourages anyone interested in crayfish recipes to go to Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood. The nature center has free copies of “A Guide To Missouri’s Crayfish.”

The crayfish guide has a mouth-watering chapter titled, “Mud Bugs Make Good Eating,” which notes that crayfish are tasty in a wide range of dishes from Cajun to Yankee.

Crayfish actually are first cousins to the much-loved American haute cuisine – the pricey lobster. The guide available at Kirkwood’s Powder Valley nature center argues that crayfish are superior to lobster.

Crayfish meat is more tender than lobster, more delicate than shrimp, and has a unique and pleasing flavor. Nutritionally, they contain the same protein as lobster, with essential vitamins and minerals, but are low in fat and cholesterol.

“The problem with any crayfish caught in Webster Groves and local streams is that it takes a lot of labor to catch and peel the critters for a small amount of meat,” said Thoma. “They can make a good meal, if you catch buckets of them.”

Thoma said the ones caught in Shady Creek in North Webster more than 100 years ago would have made for some tasty crayfish boils, but they grow small here, so a lot of work would have gone into making a meal.

Zarlenga noted that the place to catch the large, meaty, long-pincered crayfish is at Table Rock Lake near Branson. They’re best caught in quantity in nets or traps from May through July.

Crayfish catchers need to know that a state fishing permit is needed to harvest the poor man’s lobster. Also, the daily possession limit of crayfish is 150 per permitted angler.

Ozark crayfish near Eminence, MO.

Crayfish: Missouri Proud

Missouri can be proud of its 35 species of crayfish, which make the state a crayfish capital. Among the species found here are: Freckled, Belted, Golden, Coldwater, Woodland, Saddleback, Ringed, and Water Nymph crayfish.

In addition, there are the very localized species such as Neosho Midget, Mammoth Spring, Big Creek, Salem Cave, Bristly Cave, Caney Mountain Cave, Red Swamp and Painted Devil crayfish varieties.

“We don’t want to lose any species of our crayfish,” said Zarlenga. “We really are concerned about local crayfish declines, when their habitat is destroyed, when they are overharvested, when non-native species invade their range.

“That’s why it is illegal to transport and release crayfish from one site to another body of water. Invasive crayfish can just wipe out the native crayfish, transfer diseases and change native fisheries.”

Back in North Webster in the post-Civil War days, there was a lot less to worry about at a summer, outdoor crayfish boil. No pesticides, herbicides or roadway oil and grease runoff, nor any invasive critters ruining things.

At North Webster crayfish celebrations of yesteryear, it was all about getting your fill of the poor man’s lobsters. To borrow a slogan from a national restaurant chain, it really was all about, “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood.”

(Don Corrigan includes a chapter on North Webster and the poor man’s lobsters in his Amazing Webster Groves, available at the Webster-Kirkwood Times and area bookstores.)

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