by Springfield Lewis/Louisiana Seafood News
In small mud puddles, young crawfish a quarter-inch long dart around at your feet. They’re much too small to eat.
Their parents, however, are growing to market size in the flooded rice fields just the other side of the earthen levee. And they’re in season, getting more plump and profitable by the day.
The fields are knee deep in water, having leveled off from previous rains. The annual crawfish harvest started officially in November, with peak months occurring from February through May.
In Eunice, Louisiana, Cajun music and crawfish farming are renowned. And commercial crawfishing is a close-knit operation between Lindsey “Red” Aucoin and Joey Schneider.
Aucoin, a native son, owns the land. Schneider farms it for two main crops: rice and crawfish. On any given morning, Ruben Hernandez – Schneider’s H-2A worker – pilots a capture boat between rows of rice, emptying wire-mesh traps as he covers 85 acres of maturing freshwater crustaceans.
Preparing the Fields
To produce a maximum yield, preparation of the fields began almost a year earlier. “In March, we start to plant our Clearfield® rice, which grows to 36 inches,” said Schneider, a second-generation farmer. “It’s a long grain, white rice with a lot of leaf.
“Medium and long grain rice are what you want if you are going to do a rice-crawfish rotation,” he explained. “Crawfish feed off the parasites that grow on the leaves of the rice stalk.”
In April, the rice fields are flooded for the first of three times. The third flood remains in the fields until the last week of June, when the water is cut off to let them dry for a late July or early August rice harvest.
By the end of May, Schneider will start stocking crawfish, about thumb-size, while there is still green rice in the fields. He seeds 50 to 100 pounds of crawfish per acre, which is the amount that Louisiana State University recommends. As the water gets hot in July, the crawfish start to burrow deep into the clay levees, where they stay holed up for the rest of the summer.
Hibernating Crawfish Emerge
In October, after the rice is harvested, Schneider will start to re-flood the fields. By November, the hibernating crawfish and their young emerge, feeding off the leaves of the rice plants. Keeping the right balance of vegetation is important to maintain good oxygen levels in the water.
Crawfish traps are spaced evenly up and down the rows of flooded fields. Each trap has a 42-inch base, with two entrances for the crawfish. Crawfish climb into the trap backwards.
Once inside, they usually cannot figure how to escape. Left in a trap too long, however, the smaller ones can get away – leaving the bigger, more marketable crawfish, said Schneider.
Dead fish are used for bait during the early months of the harvest. When temperatures warm up, they switch to artificial bait, which is a hard cube.
As the season nears its prime months, the harvest at this location in St. Landry Parish looks promising so far for the size, catch and taste of the product. Daily catches in late January here were yielding both small and medium-sized crawfish – when small ones are usually the norm.
“Farm-raised crawfish is the best,” believes Schneider, who checks the fields in knee-high waders. “It tastes a lot sweeter than wild harvested from the Atchafalaya basin.”
There’s no boasting here. He’s just expressing a little homegrown pride to season the next crawfish boil. You can’t begrudge a Cajun crawfisherman that now.