Living in Hope
and fishing for crawdads
I stepped down to the gravelly shore on tender feet. It was night. A crescent moon drifted across the quiet lake, telling of peace in the air. I could see into the clear water by virtue of many yard lights nearby. I wanted to dip in, take a dive, cool off. It had been unseasonably hot and many things cluttered my mind.
Just as the big toe of my right foot touched the tentative liquid, a shadow, fully a foot long, moved away from the shallow water toward the deep. It had the telltale bomb shape of a small mouth bass. I was surprised. What was he doing in the shallows? He had to be grubbing for crawdads.
The other day a couple of young boys were overturning the large riff raff of rock we’d had installed to guard the bank from the perpetual erosion of time and water. They had discovered crawfish and they were on the hunt. Under nearly every large rock they found what they were looking for, in various sizes.
Most of these were young crawfish. You could tell readily by their size and the smallness of their pinchers. It was their abundance that surprised me. I couldn’t remember ever seeing crawfish in these waters when I was a boy.
I’ve seen many of them on fly fishing excursions upriver, especially in the Flathead River above Paradise, Montana. The Flathead flows into the Clark Fork; so it’s easy to surmise these crustaceans had probably moved down from there.
You don’t see them in the water during the day, though one might scurry from beneath your feet if you are wading through weeds. They hide in the day and come out at night. I remember seeing and even catching them in the Washington pothole lakes like Badger and Fish Lake when I was little and lucky enough to get to go. But no memory serves them up in these waters from those early days.
Last year, when we first moved back here in July, my daughter and a friend of hers named Bea waded around the rockier parts of our shoreline and came back with a small bucket full of young crawfish. They must have caught 20 of them. I was amazed then, too.
We lived in Montana along the Missouri River near Craig for a few years before returning home. The Missouri is full of crawfish. For you fly fishers, a great imitation is a Wooly Bugger, weighted and fished deep along the bottom. Moss colored green or brown works well. You fish it by darting it with foot-long streaks of line. The technique imitates the escape surge of a frightened crawdad. They swim like a shrimp, backwards with their claws and their eyes following.
If you don’t know what a crawfish is, go to Louisiana and stop along the bayou at the first little roadside restaurant you come to. You’ll find the tables there have holes in the center large enough to contain a bucket. You might not know what the hole is for—until and unless you order a tray full of Cajun Crawdads. They’ll bring you a pizza platter full of boiled crawfish, complete in the shell, looking like mini-lobster and tasting like fire (from the hot Cajun peppers). There won’t be anything else on the platter, either, because they assume you are going to drink beer with this feast set before you.
So you pluck away, shucking torsos, pinchers and legs into the shell bucket, stealing a bite-size morsel of flesh from each tail. When you’re done, you burp and wipe the overabundance of paprika from your lips, hoping they’ll bring you a salad or some desert to smooth things out; but they never do.
I’ve not gotten into eating north-country crawdads. Don’t know why. They sure look the same. Didn’t eat them along the Missouri either. Just couldn’t do it. I caught one there and brought it home on a whim. Stuck it in our fish tank by the window. We had goldfish in there. I wanted to study the habits of this creature, the crawdad.
I found he was a bottom dweller. I think he lived off the algae that collected on the natural rock and sunken objects I had in tank. He hid mostly—by day. Came out at night when he thought I wasn’t looking. How do I know it was a he? No answer to that one. Maybe it’s ‘cause they’re not called crawmoms.
He stayed with us until we moved. Got bigger and bigger. One day, to my great dismay (because I had become attached), I looked in the tank to see where he was and how he was doing and there found the empty remains of his body. Oh my! I thought. I have killed him through neglect! I felt horrible. I reached into the tank to fish his carcass out and a dark crustaceous form darted to another part of the tank. I nearly fainted, then realized he had molted. In my hand was the empty skin of his external skeleton, with empty pinchers and legs still attached.
Fascinating, don’t you think? Isn’t it fascinating that creatures of this sort can live in the bottom of lakes and rivers, along the healthy shores? They grow to be about three inches in length, maybe four if you include the pinchers. They look a lot like scorpions, but their tails are turned down, adapted for swimming, and they can’t sting, nor are they poisonous—under natural conditions.
I thought about the Rock Creek Mine now permitted for development upstream along the Clark Fork. They say they’ll contain the mineral wash in a huge man-made reservoir, discharging the cleaner overflow into the river. I wonder what will happen if the safeguards fail. There’s a fisherman’s advisory out on Lake Coeur d’Alene cautioning people not to eat too many bass, because the bass eat the crawfish and the crawfish have ingested the mercury left over from the Silver Valley debacle.
I watched the dark form of that bass head for deeper water and imagined those boys and my daughter catching crawdads. Oh, I so hope not, I thought.