• James E Aarons DVM

Colusa Crawdad Festival


“Colusa has a Crawdad Festival?”

“Yep, every year,” Robin smiled, “It’s put on by the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization Brian is involved in. They’re related to the Catholic priests somehow, helping the church with community fundraisers, like this.”

“I thought crawdads were a seashore thing, or, you know, the bayou or something. How did crawdads become such a big deal, and why in September?”

“Well, actually, they are fresh water creatures, and here, it has to do with the timing of the rice fields. When the paddies are drained, and then refilled, both changes bring crawdads into easy catch.”

“I never knew rice fields were so big up here.”

“Oh, its one of our main crops in the county. It takes a lot of water, which we have here. Rice is planted in fields in March and the fields stay flooded while the rice grows. In August and September they’re drained to allow combines to come through for harvest.”

“Doesn’t that kill all the crayfish, I mean, when there’s no water?”

“They bury themselves in the mud, and wait for the next flooding. Then they come out of their burrows to feed, grow, and reproduce.”

“Crayfish can live in dryness like that?”

“By June the fields have really filled out, and the crop looks like plantings of green grass. Rice is grown in about two inches of water. When the rice is tall enough and thick enough to form a canopy over the water and keep it cool, we add seed crayfish. As water temperatures continue to rise, these guys build burrows underground. People call them mudbugs, but crayfish do not wallow around in the mud. They are more like rabbits, which dig a burrow underground. So by late July the rice fields have been drained completely and the crop is maturing to a golden blanket of grain, which we harvest with a combine. Meanwhile, the crayfish are safe underground in their burrow. We have to flood it again, within the next two months, or the burrows dry out too much. When the ponds are re-flooded, female crayfish come out of the burrows with baby crayfish attached to their tails. The babies are about the size of ants. Each female will hatch 400 to 900 babies and may reproduce multiple times in a season.”

“What do they eat?”

“They feed on the biomass of stubble leftover from the rice crop. It takes about 90 days for the crayfish to reach market size.”

“Here comes Hwy 99. What car are we looking for, Robin?”

“He said an old style, blue, Toyota pickup.”

“Hmm, I wonder where he got that from.” Katie smiled at the way René seemed able to find his way effortlessly through life He never seemed to waste time making plans, things just always worked out for him. “Look, there are some parked cars and there’s the pickup, a blue Toyota. There’s a note on the windshield. I’ll go see what it is, it must be them.”

Katie got out, read the note, and nodded her head. “They’re inside, I’ll be right back.”

“René! Pelipe!” Katie found René reading a newspaper. It was spread over his entire side of the table. They looked up as Katie ran to René and hugged his head.

“Hi you guys, it’s great to see you. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Do you want anything to eat, Katie?” René asked.

“No! We’re on our way to a crawdad festival you guys. I don’t want to ruin my appetite.”

“I love crayfish.”

“Really, René? When did you find a taste for them?”

“Visiting relatives in the delta, near Rio Vista. Those were some great times.”

“Hey, I never knew you were this involved in birding. It’ll be great to hang out with you. Let's go and bring your coffee. We’re on a time schedule.”

She hustled the two up and out quite quickly, leaving the newspaper behind. “Follow us, we’re in the Honda.” As they came up to the truck, Katie asked: “René, where did you get the truck?”

“Its Honey Rose’s. She heard we were going up north and offered it to us.”

“Wow, she really wants to help with this eagle thing.”

“Well that, and she wants us to bring Tal back with us.”

“Why Tal?”

“Honey Rose likes him.” René said simply.

Katie looked at him quite surprised. “She’s too young for him, and they’re too different, in age, in everything.”

Pelipa snorted. “My brother has a weakness for blondes, and Honey is young and attractive. Didn't you know they’re seeing each other?”

“That’s a surprise, it’ll never work out. Have you talked to her René? Pelipe have you talked to Tal?”

“You know all about things of the heart, Katie. Have you called Rory?”

“Why do you bring him up, René?”

“He wanted me to remind you to call him, he knows how involved you become. Have you called him?”

“I think so.”

Robin honked the horn and tapped her wrist.

“We have to go, follow us, René.” She slid into Robin’s car and they eased back onto the road for Colusa.

“Do you want to know how to catch them, Katie?” Robin asked.

“Catch who?”

“Crayfish, remember?”

“Oh yeah, go ahead Robin.”

“So, we catch them in special traps. My Mom came up with this unique design it impresses a lot of people. I sell the traps, which is why I’m such a big part of the festival. It gives us more sales contacts. We’re even starting an online business.”

“How do the traps work, Robin? Why is your Mom’s design so much better?”

“It’s just like catching crabs in the ocean. Have you ever done it?”

“No, but Rory has. He fashioned a square cage, bending wire mesh around the square bottom, and then slanted the sides to meet about a foot up. That’s where the rope went, so we could retrieve it. He bought half-inch metal hardware wire, the kind you use to build cages, and he covered the frame with the hardware cloth to about six inches from the bottom. Then he wired a big fish head to the bottom and dropped it off the pier.”

“How did it work?”

“It worked well. He caught lots of crabs, enough for a dinner for six in one morning.”

“Crabs are dumb and lazy. Crayfish traps need to be trickier. Just like crabbing, catching crayfish is easy because they love to eat the bait. The problem is they’re much more nervous than crabs. They’re sort of like cats, always ready to eat but also they always have an eye out looking for the nearest escape route. So you’ve got to design an escape-proof trap, you see?”

Katie nodded her head. “Why are they so much more skittish than crabs?”

“Crayfish have many predators and it is extremely difficult to lure one out of hiding and into your trap. Then, once a crawdad eats their fill of your bait, they immediately try to find their way out of the trap and find a good place to hide.”

“How are your mom’s traps different?”

“These are made of ½ inch by 1 inch 16 gauge galvanized aviary wire bent into one foot cylinders and are two feet long.”

“So they’re cage wire tubes?”

“Exactly, but Mom has figured a way to use a soft black netting inside the wire tube to make two entryways which narrow down to a two-inch opening.

“Honey Rose is dating Tal, I can’t believe it.”

“I’m sorry, Katie, what did you say?”

“Honey Rose lent René her truck because she wants to be Tal’s girlfriend.”

“That’s not going to happen, not up here.”

“Why not?”

“He’s dating Jana.”

“Jana, at the Raptor Center, that Jana? Another blonde?”

“Bingo! Tal loves certain types of ladies, and he and Jana are pretty tight.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Do you want to know the secret?”

“To what? The secret to what?”

“Why my mom’s trap is so much better.”

“Sure, what’s the secret to catching all the crawdads one would ever want?”

“The black netting, the stuff we use inside the trap.”

“That’s the secret, then, the inside trap?”

“Yep, the black netting is the secret. It gives them a sense of security venturing into new places.”

“How?”

“Crayfish are at the bottom of the food chain, so everything is out to eat them, and that’s why they’re so skittish. Plain wire entries become transparent when in the water, so crawdads feel vulnerable entering a wire trap. The black netting evidently gives them a sense of security.”

“How is that?”

“They feel more comfortable entering a tunnel. Only starving crayfish will enter those other traps. They pass those traps by for a safer meal. The black netting supplies them with concealment from predators as they make their way to the bait. Also, the mesh size, texture, and bounce of netting won’t give them the sense of encountering an object that cannot be entered. Painted wire or plastic will.”

“Those are well thought out reasons. How much better do they work?”

“I have testimonials.”

“Ha, you sound like a commercial, Robin.”

“One guy wrote during a fishing trip on the Pit River here in northern Cal, he set one of our traps out using a fresh salmon head as bait. The next morning he had eighty-eight crawdads. We’ll be taking orders for traps at the festival, at our booth. ”

“Wow, how many pounds is that?”

“About six pounds.”

“Hey, that's cool.”

“Yeah, and the trend is catching on. We’re getting so many orders for traps Mom can’t keep up. And then someone in Utah just called to say they caught 980 crawdads in just two days, and the biggest one was 7¼ inches.”

“Have crawdads always been here or is this something new?”

“California has a native species, but there some Louisiana guys were imported here years ago. You haven’t heard much about crawdads because most people in California don’t eat them. But with the large increase in the Asian population in southern California, demand is skyrocketing. And, these festivals help enlighten dry landers to Louisiana ways.”

“Here, we’re almost to the processing plant. Wave to René to turn here with us.”

Katie unrolled her window and pointed to the building. René honked and followed.

“Do you need a license? Can you catch them year-round?”

“In California only people who sell commercially need to apply for a license. But the catch is seasonal, as it has to correspond with draining and flooding rice fields.”

“Oh yeah, that’s what Rory told me. He went on a hunt with his boss in radiology up in Yolo once, when they drained the rice paddies.”

“Yeah. There are some available then, during the first drainage, but a lot more come out when the paddies are refilled. Oh, just pull in there. I’ll run in, they should have the order ready. Can you open the trunk please? Here are the keys.”

Katie was more relaxed now. Stretching, she rubbed her neck while she watched René get out of his truck.

“Katie, we’re almost out of gas. We’ll be right back, so don’t leave without us.”

“We won’t.” She really loved René, and at his youthful innocence. As she leaned against the side of the car, relaxing in the morning sun, everything felt good to her. She hadn’t realized how pent-up she had become since running from the reservation. She inhaled deeply and settled into the welcome feeling of hózhǫ́, realizing she was at peace.

“Open the trunk, Dr. Reynolds.” Robin hollered from behind a man who was pushing a gurney packed with bags of cold crawdads. Katie counted six bags being carted over.

“Katie, make sure he puts them on the blue tarp, they’re going to leak.”

“How many pounds is that?” Katie asked.

“Two hundred ten pounds ma’am.”

“Okay, is that it?” she asked Robin. “What other things do we have to pick up?”

“Nothing. Now we just head to the fairgrounds. Brian and his fellow Knights have this all figured out. He told me this is all he needs.”

“We need to wait until René returns. He needed gas, he won’t be much longer.”

--------------------------

“Hey baby, Dr. Katie and I are here with the crayfish,” Robin told her husband, Brian. “Where do you want us to put them?”

“In these coolers, put a bag in each cooler. Did you make sure there was still more, in case we get low?”

“Yes, they have ten extra bags just for the weekend. We can send René over; he knows where it is now. Oh, where did he go, Katie?”

“He and Pelipe are checking the other vendors out. What can I do?” Katie felt the excitement of their focused preparations. Brian had a crew of four other men.

“There's nothing for you to do, yet. Grab a beer and relax. Thom, get the Doc a beer.”

A tall crewmember hurried over to the cooler.

Katie smiled at him as he handed her an ice cold, dripping bottle.

“Thank you, Thom.”

Brian instructed Katie as he filled a big pot with water from a hose. “You need to get the water about halfway up the pot, see the line around the whole pot?”

“She looked at a ring of discoloration encircling the halfway mark on the aluminum kettle and nodded.

”Right there, see it?” Evidently he wasn’t convinced she saw it so she nodded again and pointed to the correct line.

“This must be an old pot, Brian.”

“Yep, it’s only used for crayfish boils. Thom, pull a sack of crayfish out, so we can get started.” He was still holding the garden hose. “We need to rinse each bag off and at least melt the ice off these guys, so they aren’t so dazed and confused. They cool them down to preserve them, but they are still alive. We warm them up in the sack first, before we purge them.”

“That would just make them more awake when you kill them in boiling water,” Katie observed. “Maybe it’s better to drop them in while they are still too cold to think.”

He looked at her as though she were spewing blasphemy. “No, no, we can’t do that. We don’t know how clean they are, they’ve got to be purged. Set the bag down carefully, Thom.” He was obviously unwilling to push any limits on crayfish customs.

Dutifully and carefully Thom set the blue nylon mesh bag on the concrete, allowing Brian to do a proper rinse-off. “Also, if they’re in their frozen state, when they go into the pot they might drown.”

“So? You’re going to kill them anyway, Brian.” She could not understand his obtuseness.

“It’s different. This is the natural way,” he persisted.

She gave up offering him her viewpoint. It was probably a relief for him, for now he could fully focus on crawdad prep. “Okay, open the bag and dump the crayfish into the cooler, Thom. It’s time to purge.”

He flooded the cooler almost to the brim with water, popping the plug on the side to let it all drain out. Sure enough the warmer water brought the red skinned fellas out of their ‘dazed and confused,’ torpid hibernation. They started to wiggle around, looking for a way out of the cooler. He handed the hose to Byron, directing him to repeat the purge three more times.

Then Brian checked the status of the pot. Katie heard the rush of propane from the burner. This sounded like a high-powered heater. Sure enough the water was already churning, almost ready to break into a boil. Smiling like a mad scientist, Brian unscrewed the cap to a whole bottle of Zatarain’s Crab Boil and poured the red powder into the brew. This brought it to an immediate boil as the additions lowered the boiling point of the water. He immediately followed up by emptying an entire bottle of Zatarians Shrimp Boil liquid into the pot as well. The harsh pepper fumes made Katie cough and gag when she inhaled a healthy breath. Brian added a second bottle of liquid Shrimp Boil to the cauldron, looked at the pot, and decided it need a third liquid Shrimp Boil. He pulled out his last ingredient. “And, here is the secret ingredient!” he exclaimed. “This is pure Louisiana Crystal Hot Sauce, an entire bottle.”

But it wasn't the end of the recipe. It needed something to sharpen the taste on the tongue, and salt would do nicely. Katie watched wide-eyed as he dumped in an entire container of salt into the brew. This elicited even more bubbly boiling fumes and Katie began to cough again. “Wow, that's powerful when it’s blowing right in your face.”

Ignoring her discomfort, Brian continued to load the pot. “Okay, bring over the aluminum basket. It's time to add the first batch of corn and potatoes.”

She watched as an unnamed sous chef threw in eight ears of corn, which had been shucked and cut in two. Then came three onions cut in half, and then about twenty potatoes, cut in half, with their red skins still on.

“Ready for the crawdads?” Katie asked too soon.

“No, not yet. We can't forget the lemons.” He tossed in six lemons cut in half. “And then the Andouille sausages.” Thom added three pounds of sausage cut into two-inch pieces. We’re ready to start the boil,” Brian said proudly. He used a long handled, wooden paddle to stir the goodies inside the spicy red boiling liquid. “We wait twelve or thirteen minutes, until the water comes to a hard boil, and then we add the crayfish.”

After a few minutes the stew began to percolate.

“We’re almost ready for the creepy crawlers.” He smiled over the writhing mass of now warmed up crustaceans.

“How long do you boil them for?”

“I don’t know, Katie, at least twenty-five minutes. But sometimes I leave them on for an hour and a half at a slower boil.”

“Brian, you forgot the mushroom satchels.” Thom hurried over holding two bags of whole mushrooms, about twelve mushrooms in each bag.

“We put the mushrooms inside these cheesecloth bags otherwise the crawdads tear them up.”

Katie was about to cite this as another reason to keep them cold and sleepy, but decided she couldn’t win against the master. She smiled and bit her tongue.

“Just make sure you boil long enough until all the crayfish sink, then you know. When there are no more crayfish on the top it means they have sucked in all those juices and ended up sinking to the bottom. And, you know they'll taste real good.”

Well, now Katie knew exactly how to make crawdads for a hundred people. She just added it to her library of things she had learned, but would probably never use again. She got up, got another beer, and went off to look for René.

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Colusa Crawdad Festival. Chapter 19


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