By Patrick D. Bonin
We learned earlier that crawfish shells harden up as the season ends because the crawfish are older and probably won’t molt again until next fall.
That thicker, harder shell helps them burrow down beneath the ponds more effectively to ride out the hot Louisiana summer and return next fall with the baby crawfish that will create the bulk of the 2014 harvest
You might also notice that the color of the crawfish seems to darken as the season progresses. According to LSU AgCenter Aquaculture Specialist Mark Shirley, you’re not seeing things: crawfish shells actually do sometimes darken during late spring and early summer.
“The darkening depends somewhat on water quality. If there’s a lot of tannin in the water from vegetation that’s giving off tannic acid, you do tend to get a darker shell because of the water chemistry,” Shirley said. “The more tannic acid present, typically like you might find in a swamp, the more vivid the colors will be.”
And speaking of swamps, the wild natural crop of Louisiana crawfish in the Atchafalaya Basin is usually more plentiful later in the summer than pond-raised crawfish. (The “basin,” as locals refer to it, is the nation’s largest freshwater swamp. It has an area of about 1.4 million acres and is located about 60 miles east of our farm in south central Louisiana.)
“With pond crawfish, the whole season is about one to two months earlier than the natural crop,” he said. “Ponds are typically flooded in October or November, whereas the basin is dependent on winter rain and snowmelt. So it’s typically not until more like January or February when water levels rise enough to flood the burrows there.
“The natural cycle of basin crawfish is more like March through July, compared to December through May or June for farm-raised crawfish,” Shirley said.
The key to a successful wild season in the basin is the amount of rain and snowmelt impacting the Mississippi River watershed.
“If there’s a lot of snowmelt up north, or if there’s a lot of rainfall during the spring, the Atchafalaya River will stay up at a high flood stage and flood a lot of the basin and provide lots of habitat for the crawfish compared to a drought year, when most of that swamp stays dry,” he said. “The higher the water, and the duration of the flood in the basin, determines the extent of the wild crop.”
This year’s wetter, cooler spring and the relatively high level of the Atchafalaya River has benefitted the basin crawfish, Shirley said.
“The basin started producing a good abundant supply towards the end of April, through the month of May, and it’s still continuing pretty strong right now. It’s probably one of the betters seasons that they’ve had in the last several years.”
At Frugé Aquafarms, we raise our crawfish in ponds here on the farm in Branch, La., but we’re plain ol’ mudbug fans at heart. So we’ll keep you posted on the status of our harvest as the season winds down later this month.
But we encourage you to support the crawfish farmers in the Atchafalaya Basin as they work to complete their wild harvest. Hey, boil ‘em as long as you can get ‘em!