Forget Crawfish Pie,
By Gage Harford
No matter how you slice them, boil them or bake them, these things are great! I remember back in my younger days, setting out for a day of Crawdad fishin’ equipped with what? You guessed it, fishing line, a paper clip, and any meat mom had in the fridge, preferably hot dogs. Ah, the good ol’days. What could be better than Crawdad fishing on a balmy summer afternoon? I’ll tell you what, bringing the excitement home!
It was on a swamp boat tour in Louisiana, I was watching some local fisherman pulling big Crayfish traps from the water overflowing with Crayfish - so much for paper clips and hot dogs, I guess. Fast forward a few days to my class at the New Orleans School of Cooking, what's on the menu? Crayfish Pie and Crayfish Etouffe, yummy. Already known as a tasty treat, who would have thought these little critters would make good pets? Our paths had crossed too many times for this to be an accident. I was meant to have pet Crayfish. It was undeniable.
First, my disclaimer: I am not a scientist, I did not record any data, although I wish I had- but I didn’t. Who would have known that I would be trying to write an article about this stuff? I am just a hobbyist with a love for anything living, and Crawdaddies happen to be one of my favorites. There is a plethora of information on the Internet regarding Crayfish. Always consult more than one resource while researching possible pet purchases. That being said, please allow me share my personal Crayfish experience with you.
I had already been through the planning and setup stages of my fancy Goldfish tank when I decided I should add some critters to my sump - as long as it is on display, it might as well be interesting to view. I had had limited success in the past with Crayfish, the first being eaten by a Channel Catfish while I was on vacation, and the second, Hank , devoured by a hungry young Trimaculatum. Traumatic yes, but I could not give up that easily.
It seemed like a perfect fit; Crayfish hang out in yucky creeks. Sumps can get kind of yucky...perfect! I will keep Crayfish in my sump. The sump was a modified 29 gallon tank. It was half filled with water, no heater (as this was a Goldfish tank), and a DIY wet/dry for filtration. I picked up four Crayfish from the LFS and tossed them in. The sump was originally set up to work as a sort of freshwater refugium, planted with Parrot’s Feather for nutrient export. At first it was cute, watching my new little buddies chewing on what looked like little green cigars. Well guess what? CRAYFISH EAT PLANTS!! And, they do not fool around either; my lush refugium quickly became a desolate wasteland. I added sand, piles of petrified wood, and a piece of driftwood to create plenty of hidey holes for the Crayfish. They are very aggressive towards each other and need to be able to escape from each other.
Now my new, beautiful, fully planted, aquascaped, fancy schmancy Goldfish tank was at the perfect viewing height, but it seemed I always found myself and my guests lying on our bellies checking out the action in the Crayfish tank. These little creatures were more entertaining than my fish! Crayfish are full of personality, and there is always action in the tank: one is battling another, one is digging a hole, and another eating your plants. These little gladiators will even get used to taking food from your hand. I feed mine a variety of leftover frozen fish food, pellets, algae wafers, and of course, live plants (the clippings from my plant tank are great for this). Crayfish are opportunistic omnivores; if they can catch it, they will eat it. They are also cannibalistic; apparently they too have discovered how good they taste! It is important to remember this when one of your Crayfish molts.
Molting is the process that Crayfish go through when they outgrow their current shell, or exoskeleton. A new shell develops underneath the old one and the old one is shed. Crayfish are extremely vulnerable to attack after a molt because their new exoskeleton has not been given adequate time to harden. It is important to provide a lot of hiding places for the Crayfish to provide refuge while their shells harden. Crayfish will molt more often while young and growing. The best part about the molt is the ability of the Crayfish to play tricks on you.
Yes, these little buggers even have a sense of humor. Picture this: you walk in the door after a long day's work, look to your Crayfish tank, and, "Oh No! Pinchy died!" You find pieces of Crawdad all over the tank. A few days later, still mourning your recent loss, you are viewing your tank, and who should crawl out of a crevice in the back? Pinchy! He gives a nod, as if to say Gotcha! The Crayfish’s discarded exoskeleton can fool you, but don't worry, just leave it in the tank and the locals will clean it up; it is an excellent source of calcium.
All jokes aside, Crayfish are fascinating creatures to observe, especially if you are the scientific type. I bet they could generate all kinds of data for recording (if someone was up to recording it!). Their social structure, their dominance displays, eating habits, distribution, habitats, mating rituals, oh yeah, you heard me, I said mating rituals. Kids, you had better get mom's permission before reading on. I'm just teasing- this is educational.
So there I was on an average Friday night, a cold beverage in hand, my dog at my side, watching TV. I glanced from the couch towards my Crayfish sump. My female Crayfish (see sexing later) was acting odd and bent into this odd C shaped position. That's when I realized I should have done more research on this animal before bringing it home. What if it has some weird disease or deficiency and I don't know how to treat it? Well, whatever she was doing 'Ol Mr. Pinchy really appreciated it. He walked over to her and she shot back in typical Crayfish fashion. He persisted, and eventually positioned himself in such a way to have grabbed hold of both of her pinchers with his. He pulled her close, abdomen to abdomen. I imagine he then whispered sweet nothings into her ear. That’s when the magic happened. The romantic in me wanted to leave them alone, but the Discovery Channel fan in me just had to watch. They were locked in a Y-shaped embrace. The courtship did not last more than a few minutes, then the male let go and the female jettisoned the heck out of there. The male seemed a touch exhausted and slowly wandered the area. The male had just deposited his sperm onto the female's abdomen in order to fertilize her eggs.
So what happens next? This is a Crayfish first for me. Gone are the days of hot dogs and fishing line. Enter a new chapter- Crayfish reproduction. I'm going to be a Daddy! A Crawdaddy Daddy! Well, thank goodness the female's instincts took over; I did not have to do a thing. This is the part where I really wish I had recorded some data. From what I understand, the gestation period will vary with water temperature. The cooler the water, he longer the gestation period. The warmer the water, the shorter the gestation period. Crayfish that hail from warmer waters will also breed more frequently due to the favorable conditions. I recall my Crawmommy's gestation period took a long time; months even, or maybe it was just my impatience.
One day I noticed a bunch of tiny black eggs on the female's abdomen. Needless to say, I was elated. I do not recall if it was before I noticed the eggs or after, but the female excavated a small cave right in the front of the tank under a piece of petrified wood, right up against the glass (thank you Mrs. Pinchy for the front row seats). She did not like leaving her cave - I dropped food down to her to ensure she was eating well; I do not know if she would have come out for food or not, I imagine so. These critters are eating machines. My timid female Crayfish had all of the sudden transformed into the most vicious male-hating Crawmommy I have ever seen. Any time another Crayfish would come near her burrow, she would fend them off with a savage attack, and believe me, they got the point; they left her alone for the most part.
A while later the eggs developed into little squirmy thingies that the female would fan with her legs. Soon after she was kicking the babies off of her and sending them out on their own. Crayfish have a certain capacity for parenting; or at least the female does, which was news to me. Momma took care of her young. She would kick them off for a while to explore, and they would come back to her later for safe keeping. They did not venture more than an inch or so from their mother at first. Eventually it was time for the babies to grow up. They did, and I had baby Crayfish all over my tank. No way would they survive their cannibalistic parents, so I provided some good hiding places and all in all I ended up with around 20 baby Crayfish. Cute little buggers. I made sure to leave somewhat dirty sponge filters in the sump and never cleaned the sump too well. This provided plenty of food for the hatchling Crayfish.
Time marched on in Crayfish world, the babies continued to grow, and as my electric bills went up, I started taking my fish tanks down. I found homes for my Goldfish, and planned to tear down their tank, but what to do with the Crayfish? Give them away? Dovii food? No way, these things were way too cool! I set up a 55 gallon tank in the garage just for them. I used the same wet dry setup as the Goldfish tank, but positioned it above the main tank so that no overflows would be needed. I noticed when tearing down the sump that my other two Crayfish were missing, and Big Daddy Pinchy had no legs on one side and was missing a pincher. I can only imagine it was an intense battle. All odds against him, backed into a corner, two against one, but Mr. Pinchy never gave up. He had to defend Mrs. Pinchy's honor. Mr. Pinchy prevailed and to the victor go the spoils. The Pinchy family was moved to their new 55 gallon home. Take note: multiple Crayfish in a small tank will result in dead and injured Crayfish.
The new 55 gallon Crayfish play land was packed with rock, driftwood, plants, and sand to create numerous hiding places. Plant- wise, I have found that my Anubias, Riccia, and Crypts seem to hold up well against the Crayfish, but Parrot's Feather, Elodea, and Water Sprite are quite delectable to these dual-clawed eating machines. My babies are now over an inch long and I will soon (real soon) need to find homes for them. I do not think the 55 is adequate space to hold all of their little attitudes. Crayfish have an uncanny ability to regenerate injured body parts, and through successive molts Mr. Pinchy has re-grown most of his legs and his claw; evolution has been kind to them.
So what's the point? Do I have enough to cook with? No. Is it a good feeder animal to breed for your other animals? Not unless you are breeding lots of them, and the time it takes to grow a good-sized Crayfish is way too long. The point is that these often overlooked creatures are excellent specimens for the home aquarium. A 10 gallon tank is plenty of room for a single crayfish, they are extremely entertaining, and they sure beat the shell out of a land hermit crab! They are easy to care for, amazingly adaptable, and reasonably priced (you could probably go catch your own; see paragraph one for instructions). There are countless varieties, even an electric blue color morph. Give them a shot. You will not be sorry.
For those of you interested in keeping Crayfish, here is a quick reference so you do not have to search through my ramblings to pick out the good information.
Common Names: Crayfish, Crawdads, Mudbugs, or Yabbies
Species: There are countless varieties. I personally keep Procambarus clarkii.
Housing: 55 gallon aquarium, planted, driftwood, sand substrate, and petrified wood. I would say for a single Crayfish a 10 gallon tank would be nice. Do not crowd them because they will kill each other.
Plants: Java fern, Java moss, Anubias, Cryptocoryne, Water Sprite, Riccia fluittans, Vallisneria. (All plants are vulnerable to munching)
Temperature: No heater, room temperature(~). Temperature will vary by species.
Filtration: Homemade wet dry, any decent filtration should suffice.
Lighting: Dual full-spectrum bulbs housed in a shoplite from Home Depot. If you do not intend to keep live plants, any lighting will do.
Tankmates: Other Crayfish- watch for aggression, they are cannibalistic. I keep a colony of Guppies for added excitement in my tank. There is always a risk of the Crayfish catching your fish or your large fish eating your Crayfish. Use good judgment.
Feeding: I feed Hikari Sinking Algae Wafers, New Life Spectrum Cichlid pellets, live plants, and left over formula one cubes. The live plants are clippings from other tanks. Please don't buy live plants to feed these guys or you will go broke!
Locomotion: Crayfish just sort of cruise, crawl, and climb around. When scared, they dart backwards with amazing speed. When two Crayfish cross paths they will often come together like two knights ready to battle. It is great, as long as no one is seriously injured. It is usually just a quick scuffle and the weaker of the two will scurry away.
And the question on everyone's minds...Can they pinch you, and does it hurt? Yes they can. I have only been pinched when I was provoking the Crayfish. They would much rather flee the situation. It really did not hurt, but different varieties of Crayfish have different sized pinchers. Some are the things nightmares are made of.
No need to reinvent the wheel. Please use your favorite search engine to learn more about the world of Crayfish. The links below are some of my favorites:
http://www.bluecrayfish.com/\cf0\ulnone - great molting video
It is important to note that Crayfish found at your local pet shop may not be native to your area and the introduction of foreign species into a habitat can be very dangerous. Do not release your Crayfish! Take them to your local fish store or feed them to a hungry turtle if you must get rid of them.
Editors' note: We wholeheartedly agree with the author here. Never release ANY aquarium plant or animal into wild ecosystems!