To Catch a Craw
by Laura Jackson Roberts

I’m 41, and I just went crawdad-hunting for the first time in my life.

This is a shameful admission for a native West Virginian. Anyone who grew up in a rural area, who fished or played in streams or had access to a relatively clean body of water as a child probably hunted for crawdad. Except me. Nobody ever sat me down on the side of the river and explained the cultural tradition of crawling on one’s hands and knees for bait. So here I am, in my forties, having recently experienced it for the first time, with my 10- and 14-year-olds, who are pros. To catch a craw, my sons told me, you really need to commit. You’re going to get muddy, you’re going to slip and fall, and you’ll probably come away empty-handed. The craw hide under flat rocks, but it’s rarely a simple lift-and-catch, my kids explained. When the rock comes up, a billowing cloud of sediment obscures the river bottom and your intended target, and in that moment, craw make a run for it. They escape by propelling themselves backward, tails tucked, at astonishing speed. Experienced craw hunters may have a net ready, especially if they can anticipate which direction the animal is going to go, but this is difficult when the silt clouds your view. So, you need dexterity and practice. 

“Just lift that rock, Mom,” Ben said, as we sat in the shallows of the Greenbrier River. “It’s easy.” He demonstrated, reaching blindly into the murky water where he began to feel around. 

I didn’t like his method, nor was I keen to shove my hand into any place where pinching claws might lurk. Often, when my kids pulled a craw out, it was already attached to their finger, their pink flesh gone white in its vise. They squealed and laughed, because “it hurts but not really but kind of a little bit but just stop being a weenie, Mom.” I tried, but the craw took advantage of my hesitation, and I never caught anything more than river dust.

Crawdad, or crayfish, eat whatever they can find on the river bottom, including dead and decaying plant and animal matter. We have roughly 30 species in West Virginia, both aquatic and burrowing. While some have been extirpated, notable species include the endangered Guyandotte River Crayfish (found in only two Wyoming County streams), the cave-dwelling Greenbrier Crayfish, and a newly discovered, bright blue, burrowing species, the Blue Teays Mudbug. Several species and their habitats are federally protected due to dwindling numbers, a result of habitat destruction, often from coal mining operations.

While scientifically correct, few West Virginians call them crayfish. Unless you’ve got a PhD, calling them crayfish around here marks you as someone out of place. It’s like saying New Or-leens, rather than the way New Orleans natives pronounce it: “New Aw-linz.” Drop crayfish into riverside conversation amidst anglers and, immediately, you’re an outsider. Expect your license plate to be examined.

“Did they say ‘crayfish’? Damn Virginians. I bet they got Perrier in that cooler, too.”

I’ve got a degree in environmental science, but I’m a native West Virginian, too, and I don’t want to be an outsider in my home state. Most West Virginians call them crawfish or crawdad. (I know this because I took a very scientific social media poll of my friends—some from northern West Virginia, some from southern West Virginia, and a few Floridians who just wanted to add their twenty-five cents.) But I’ve never liked either term, as the animal is neither a fish nor a dad. A sperm donor, yes, but the male crawdad aren’t out there coaching their spawn through a t-ball game. And forget crawdaddy. I’m not uttering anything that makes me sound like a backwoods porn star. Some folks use the term mud bugs, which is too close to bed bugs for me. So, I’ve settled on saying craw. Everyone here knows what I’m talking about when I say craw, and nobody feels the need to check my cooler or my academic credentials. And I’m not the only one who favors craw. In my tackle box, I have a lure by the Rebel Company shaped like a crayfish. It’s called the Wee Craw. They make a bigger version called the Big Craw and a smaller one called the Teeny Wee Craw. Alternatively, if you need a deep diving lure, you can go with the Deep Wee or the Deep Teeny Wee Craw. And if you’re feeling especially finite, whip out your Micro Craw. After all, it’s not the size of the craw that matters—it’s how you dangle it in the water. 

Nevertheless, live bait has the advantage of realistic movement and delectable smell. Despite the craw’s propensity for mischief, no other bait so tempts a smallmouth bass, which is why the craw hunt continues. The search may be the most entertaining part of a day on the river, because there’s another crayfish characteristic that becomes glaringly apparent when you do catch one. As you hold the tiny creature up to your face, its legs flail and stretch outward to appear more threatening. Its antennae swirl around, trying to make sense of its position in space. This is an animal on the defense, but only for a second, because the most notable quality of the craw is its supremely shitty attitude. They’re the chihuahuas of the rocks, the Napoleons of the river. The craw is the ultimate curmudgeon. It raises its claws and swipes at your face. Come at me! I’ve never seen an animal so tiny yet so determined to kick my ass. The craw doesn’t care how small it is or how big you are—it wants to take you down. Craw defense is craw offense. 

Of course, holding a shrimpy brawler high in the air while it takes a swing at you with an I’ll-kill-you-you-gangly-motherfucker glint in its eye only makes us laugh, which probably incenses it even further. And I had to sympathize with a craw that my son Andy caught on the Greenbrier River that day. Minding its own business one moment and the next, plucked from its home, held aloft, and mocked by giants. 

“Look at that guy,” I said to Andy. “He wants to murder us.” It swung its claws ferociously, and in that moment, I was certain I was looking not at a set of pinchers but at a tiny middle finger held aloft in my face. Screw you, lady! Screw all of you! We gave it to my husband, who hooked the contentious crustacean through the tail and cast it downstream. It must have been an unforgivable insult. Craw are swift and grumpy and funny looking, but they hold onto their dignity. As it flew through the air, legs rigid and outstretched, I could almost feel its rage. 

Though bass love craw, there’s a downside to using them as bait: the animal is obnoxious when hooked. It’s a lot like tying your dog to a chair. She wanders in circles, weaves around your legs and the chair’s legs and within 12 seconds is hopelessly tangled. Then, she just stands there, immobilized and utterly confused as to how it happened. And you try to untangle her and get frustrated and ask her why she does this every single time and how hard is it to just lie down and freaking stay there, dog? That’s like fishing with a live craw. You can see your line moving as they crawl under rocks, over rocks, around and through logs. You may be tempted to set the hook, thinking a fish has taken a bite. Nope. It’s that wretched craw, wandering around the river bottom. It happened to my husband, who reeled in to find the little twerp had doubled back and was crawling toward him along the fishing line like a tightrope walker. Behind it, several feet of braided line twisted and wrapped around itself. By the time he got the knots untangled, he was frustrated. He recast both line and craw, claws again extended in fury, downriver toward a deep hole. When the critter hit bottom, it apparently decided it had had enough, removed the hook from its tail, and sauntered off, no doubt in a huff. My husband switched to rubber craw for the rest of the day, and none of them gave him attitude. He said live craw are more trouble than they’re worth, that bait should not fight the fisherman. 

Not every craw-catcher is scouring the river for bait, though. There are plenty of folks who eat them. My friend Christina grew up in Marshall County, West Virginia, a rural place. She told me about a swanky political fundraiser she attended on Long Island. The hall was decorated in the swag of schmoozing and the event’s visual centerpiece was a canoe filled with boiled crayfish. She found herself staring at the crimson pile of claws and legs. No doubt, memories of her childhood rushed in—hot July days, “crick” shoes sliding along smooth rocks slick with brown algae, mayflies rising, sunburns and shouts and the heavy smell of humidity trapped beneath the summer canopy. 

“Aren’t you going to have a crayfish?” someone asked her.

Christina looked at the boat, piled high with the familiar lobsterlings. The presentation was meant to feel exotic, a rare and adventurous delicacy brought in from afar.

She squinted and shook her head.

“Where I come from,” she said, “we call that bait.”

Christina’s event is called a craw boil. The tradition belongs to the south, where crayfish are regularly eaten, and the culmination is the presentation of craw not on a plate or in a chafing dish but in a towering heap. After boiling them, you chuck them on the table in a steaming mound, sprinkle on your seasoning of choice, toss in a few ears of corn and, perhaps, a mix of andouille sausage, garlic cloves, or whatever floats your palate’s boat. Boil-goers pluck craw from the pile.

I’m not sure how to justify my discomfort. It’s incredibly hypocritical of me to sit here feeling upset about the boiling of crustaceans when I had a pulled pork sandwich for dinner last night. Nobody wants animals to suffer, but it’s much easier to push this conflict away when your dinner arrives having already shuffled off its mortal coil.  

A mess of craw is just that—a mess. They need to be cleaned of mud before they can be cooked, and you can buy an eighty-dollar crawfish washer if you’re so inclined. It functions like a whirlpool tub: a hose attaches to the base of the bucket and the water shoots out at an angle, creating a whirlpool that stirs the craw and scrubs the mud off. After 10 or 15 minutes, when the water runs clear, the craw are ready for another sort of hot tub.

This is where I get uncomfortable because, until this step, the stars of the craw boil are usually very much alive.

I watched a YouTube video on how to boil craw and spent most of it dreading the moment when ten pounds of live crustaceans would go into the seething, orange stew. The hosts of the video, enthusiastic barbeque chefs, spoke of the craw as though they were potatoes or carrots. In reality, they crawled all over each other in a mesh bag that twitched with their movements. When the time came, the hosts made a jacuzzi joke and dropped them in, as one would a donut into a fryer.

I’m not sure how to justify my discomfort. It’s incredibly hypocritical of me to sit here feeling upset about the boiling of crustaceans when I had a pulled pork sandwich for dinner last night. Nobody wants animals to suffer, but it’s much easier to push this conflict away when your dinner arrives having already shuffled off its mortal coil.

“Well, it’s already dead here on my plate. Can’t let it go to waste. Ethical dilemmas are more of a lunch discussion anyway. Oh, there’s bacon, too? Shit, pass it over.”

 Maybe these feelings boil down to the moment you meet your dinner for the first time. Dead dinner, enjoyable. Live dinner, disturbing. And watching that bag of craw shimmy on YouTube disturbed me.

I’m not the only one. In 2004, David Foster Wallace visited the annual Maine Lobster Fest for Gourmet Magazine and came away unsettled about the nature of the festival and the consumption of the crustaceans in general. While festival goers are tying on their plastic bibs and lining up to partake in the celebration, he wrote, the lobsters in the mess tent are huddled in their temporary tanks, looking stressed, and when they go into the pot, it looks like a painful death. 

It must take a certain constitution to be the boiler, to stand there all day, listening to them clang desperately on the pot lid. To paraphrase Wallace, lobsters really hate being boiled alive. And maybe these seafood festivals are unique, because I can’t think of a whole lot of other American events where the main course is slaughtered while folks are standing in line to eat it. We like our food dead. We don’t want blood on our hands. And I have to wonder if the Maine Lobster Festival would be as popular if you had to boil your own lobster. Pluck him from his tank, stare him down, chuck him in, and listen to that screaming sound they make, even if it is just steam escaping the animal’s carapace. David Foster Wallace wrote that PETA shows up to remind festival goers they’re participating in ritual murder with a side of drawn butter. 

I’ve never eaten a craw. I’d like to know what they taste like, sort of. Craw can’t bang on the pot lid, but I don’t have the stomach to plunk a mass of them into a pot of boiling water for the sake of a crayfish essay. Admittedly, at the end of the how-to video on YouTube, when the barbeque chefs dumped the scarlet, steaming mud bugs out onto a cutting board, they looked like they smelled pretty good. But it was a twice-removed sensory experience, so don’t base your next backyard gathering on what I’ve written, here.

“Time to eat these guys,” one of the YouTube chefs said. He picked up a craw, broke it in two, placed the upper half of the animal’s body against his lips, and sucked audibly.

“All the juice is in the head,” he said. The other guy did the same thing and made a slurping noise as his cheeks pulled in with the force of his suck. 

At this point in my research, Ben looked over my shoulder.

“Is he sucking that craw’s brains out?” he asked.

The chefs demonstrated how to break the exoskeleton and eat the tail meat. But by then, they’d lost me. The brain-suck was enough to turn me off. And, like Christina said, it still looked like the contents of an upended tackle box, anyway.

The craw in a craw boil are Procambarus clarkii, the Louisiana crawfish. According to the West Virginia Reddit threads, our endemic species taste like mud, though it doesn’t stop locals from considering a feast now and then.

“Where can you buy live crawfish for a crawfish boil?” someone asked on the regional thread, hoping for a hookup with a seafood shack or fish monger. 

“They’re free in the creek,” came the reply. 

We never once thought about tasting the Greenbrier River craw the kids caught. I may abhor the name “mud bugs,” but that’s what they look like. It’s easy to see how the craw wash is such an important step in the boiling process. Still, even if our craw looked clean and delectable, I’m not sure I’m ready to suck anything’s freshly cooked brains out. I’m not even brave enough to grab one out from under a rock. 

By our final day on the river, I still hadn’t caught a craw. The kids had a difficult time disguising their pity for their poor mom. She fell a lot, they noted, and wasn’t fast enough. Also, I heard them say to their father, she was clearly afraid of being pinched, an anxiety that compounded when Ben found and suffered the wrath of a hellgrammite, the larval stage of a horrifying creature known as a Dobson fly. If you’re unfamiliar with that insect, imagine an earwig had a threesome with a dragonfly and a rhinoceros beetle. Larvae look like a Jurassic throwback: dark bodies, spindly legs, and piercing mandibles that rival the craw’s claws in size. The difference between a hellgrammite and a craw is that the craw pinches you to teach you some respect; the hellgrammite does it just to be a dick. 

After one too many hesitations when I should have been bold and stuck my hand under a rock, my family eased up on their expectations. It was obvious to them I wasn’t getting the hang of the hunt. And though they didn’t say it, I knew I was the outsider. To be fair, I’d helped to catch several. I was good at spotting which way the craw darted when the boys lifted the rocks, so they made me The Official Craw Spotter, but I was pretty sure it was the kind of consolation job you give the loser of the group, the one who has poor hand-eye coordination and little chance of success on her own. Still, I’d rather be pitied than pinched, a thing I have yet to experience. It seems like an unavoidable part of this riverside ritual and a necessary step in the education of a competent craw-catcher. I guess I don’t want the craw badly enough. Maybe craw-hunting isn’t for everybody, regardless of where they’re born. Maybe, when all is said and done, I’m grabbing at something I’m not meant to catch.

Laura Jackson Roberts
is an environmental writer and humorist. Her essays have appeared in places like Terrain, Brevity, Hippocampus, and Bayou Magazine. Her humor has been published in Defenestration, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Animal, among others. She lives in West Virginia with her family, where she hikes, paddles, camps, and rescues homeless dogs. Find her on Instagram @thatwvwriter.