The chilly rivers and blue lakes of the seafood-centric Pacific Northwest are brimming with small creatures that some chefs describe as "lobsterettes"—and the few fisherman selling them can't catch enough. But somehow even the most shellfish-savvy Seattleites aren't aware that this local species, called signal crawfish, even exist.
Plentiful and easy to catch, signal crawfish are sweeter and cleaner-tasting than their better-known Louisiana brethren. Yet the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife—tasked with keeping an eye out for who's fishing for them—has only 13 people registered to fish commercially for the local mudbugs, though stats are not kept for recreational hunters.
Signal crawfish bear only a passing resemblance to the mudbugs Louisiana made famous, and as their nickname suggests, are closer to lobster in size and flavor. "Someone from south Louisiana doesn't even recognize our crawfish," says Justin Hall, of Pike Place Fish, which sometimes sells local crawfish. Most are nearly double the size of the ones you're probably accustomed to, sometimes weighing up to a third of a pound each.
They turn the same lobster-red hue when cooked, but alive, the crawfish are greener, browner, and—depending on whether they are caught in saltwater or fresh—can have bright blue in their shells. There's no mistaking a signal crawfish for the Louisiana kind, which is also present in the region but considered an invasive species. Charles "Bubba" Kuhn, a crawfisherman and former chef says, claims that anyone who has tasted local and Louisiana crawfish will choose the local meat: "You show them both side-by-side and it's over."
Hiep Ngo, chef of the Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant Crawfish House in Seattle, agrees. He says that people prefer the Southern version because it's the only varietal they know, not because it's the best.
Despite their abundance, flavor, and size superiority, signal crawfish don't appear on many menus in Seattle. Crawfish House is one of the rare exceptions. Ngo is originally from Vietnam, but spent a few years in New Orleans between leaving his home country and arriving in Seattle. During the Louisiana crawfish season, he has them driven up from Portland or par-cooked by family members in Louisiana and shipped directly, precisely arranged to minimize their time out of the pot. (It's illegal to ship live Louisiana crawfish into the state.) He, too, compares the local version to lobster, adding that the Louisiana species is more like shrimp.
Part of the challenge is convincing people of how good the local crawfish are, since many crawfish aficionados are loyal to the Southern ones they grew up with. The other part is balancing ordering and selling.
While Ngo will freeze and use the Louisiana crawfish for other dishes, he has found that it's worth it only to sell the slightly more expensive local version live or as a crawfish boil. Hall, of Pike Place Fish, agrees. "People say they want them, but once they're around, maybe they show up, maybe they don't. We don't want [live local crawfish] in huge quantities. If they die, we throw them away. There's not a big market for them."
But that's in dispute. Locals bringing them home to cook might not be a part of local food culture yet, but Ngo is buying as much as he can—often 600 pounds a week. Many of those come from fishermen along the Snake River, where the catch can come from either Washington or Oregon. Only 3,800 pounds of crawfish were fished commercially in the state all of last year, according to Bruce Baker at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This year's season began in May and 1,200 pounds of signals have been fished so far.
Kuhn is one of those fisherman along the Snake River who keeps boats and licenses in both states. This is his fifth year as a commercial catcher, and he sells all of it to Lap Suy, the distributor from whom Ngo buys, and says "I can't get enough for him." It comes down to a matter of gear, he tells me. He has about 60 pots. Each commercial license allows for 100 pots to be used during fishing; Kuhn uses 60 pots to catch his 100 pounds a day.
Mark Flahaut of Henderson Inlet Seafoods is only in his first year with a commercial license, but says the only thing holding him back is that he is self-financed, so only has about 40 pots at the moment. The pots are similar to crabbing pots. They are baited traps that fisherman throw into the water, let sink to the river or lake bed, and leave for up to a day.
In his first year, Flahaut has already had success. "I've got four restaurants [as customers], a pub that serves them once a week, and I sell to Pike Place," he says, adding that he had planned to cook and freeze them, but started getting phone calls out of the blue. During the day, he's a union mason, but halfway through his first season, he's already seeing the potential for a successful business with low start-up costs: "Just a bit of gas, money, and time. Once you get all that done, it's just go out and fish."
Flauhaut currently hauls about 120 pounds a week, which he sells for roughly $3 a pound wholesale. He's impressed with the reactions he gets when he shows off his product—especially from chefs—and thinks word is getting out. "There's starting to be more of a demand. The price is going up." Ngo has noticed the price increase as well, saying he is paying more than a dollar more per pound for local crawfish than he did last year.
Even with the extra expense, he pushes customers to try the signal crawfish—and soon. Both he and Kuhn mention that Seattle's record-hot summer likely means an early end to this year's crawfish season—possibly within the next month (instead of October, as per usual). For him, the wild-raised signal are less of a hassle to bring in than the farm-raised Louisiana version, and they taste better. "It's more fun, with more flavor," Ngo says.
Kuhn, who cooked five cuisines throughout his career—including being a master of handspun pizza—agrees. He points out that you can even dig out edible chunks of claw meat from the local species. Other than an Australian species that he heard could grow to 30 pounds, Kuhn says, "signal are the best in the world." But they can only earn that rep if somebody is catching, selling, and eating them.
His advice to potential crawfisherman? "Get into it now!"