By Patrick D. Bonin
It’s the third week of June here in south Louisiana, and the dog days of summer are already upon us. High temperatures hover in the mid-90s, with lows only dipping into the mid-70s.
It’s hot. Really hot!
And the crawfish crop is already feeling the adverse effects.
“The season is winding down to the end. We’re already picking up the traps in some of the fields that just aren’t producing anymore,” said Mark Frugé, co-owner of Frugé Aquafarms in Branch, La. “We’re trying to continue production as long as it’s profitable. I’d say we might have another couple of weeks to go.”
He estimated about 80 percent of the farm’s crawfish ponds are still in production, thanks in large part to the drenching rains we experienced in
April and May.
“The recent rain activity has helped out. It supplied the ponds with additional water that otherwise we’d have had to pump, and at this point in the season it’s just not profitable to maintain them by pumping,” Frugé said. “You won’t get your return back. So basically we just fish until there’s no more water, then we shut it down.”
Although still relatively plentiful, the crawfish being harvested now are smaller than they were earlier in the spring.
“The size has gone down simply because the food source (rice stubble) has almost been expended,” he said. “Crawfish production pr
etty much follows a bell curve, with March, April and May being the peak months. It tails off both ways from that peak, and that’s where we are right now.”
The good news for crawfish lovers is that it looks like we have a couple of good weeks remaining for this year’s harvest.
“Typically we try to make deliveries for the Fourth of July weekend,” he said. “This year we’re speculating about maybe going an extra week or so beyond that, but it’s really day by day at this point.”
Better news is that the process of stocking next year’s crawfish ponds was completed this week, so those mudbugs will be hunkering down beneath the rice fields next month to begin their months-long hibernation to escape the summer heat. But they’ll return next fall with their young, and the 2013-14 crawfish harvest will begin anew.
For crawfish lovers everywhere, that can’t come soon enough!
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!
By Patrick D. Bonin
Branch, LA – Ever hear that old expression about needing to have “thick skin?”
Crawfish in ponds across south Louisiana seem to take it to heart every summer about this time, as their shells start to harden while the heat cranks up.
You might even notice some mudbugs are a bit tougher to peel this late in the season… but do you know why?
Mark Shirley, aquaculture specialist at the LSU AgCenter, said several factors influence the hardening of a crawfish’s shell, chief among them age.
“Immature crawfish go through a series of molts before finally becoming a mature animal,” Shirley said. “Once they reach sexual maturity later in the season, that shell will stay with them for several months before they molt again.
“It typically takes 12-15 molts for a crawfish to reach maturity, and sometimes they molt as often as every two to three weeks early on,” he said. “So at the start of the season, there’s a quick turnover with the shells: now there isn’t. That allows for a thicker, heavier shell.”
Shirley said most mature crawfish now won’t molt again until next fall when the ponds are flooded and they emerge from underground. In the meantime, their tough exteriors serve them well as they prepare to tunnel down to escape the summer heat.
“The harder shell enables them to dig a burrow better and easier, and gives them a better chance of surviving underground,” he said. “They’re sitting down there for all of July, August and September. Sometime in October they’ll typically emerge from their burrow not having molted since late spring. “
These mudbugs that survive a harvest season and are used to seed next year’s ponds are typically the really large crawfish you’ll notice in future boils.
“If you find a male with really big claws in December or January, he’s a mature crawfish who’s probably gone through a season,” Shirley said. “When they come out of their burrows next fall, they have to eat a lot for several weeks and they’ll finally molt again to get rid of that hard shell. They’ll get a ‘young crawfish’ look again, but they’re actually an older crawfish in a brand new greener, lighter-colored shell.”
So while thicker, harder shells might signal the “beginning of the end” of this season, as least we know Mother Nature is already at work preparing the mudbugs so they can make it through summer and emerge in the fall… with another brand new crop of live Louisiana crawfish for 2014!
By Patrick D. Bonin
As we begin to transition into the full heat of summer here in south Louisiana, the weather in our region continues to be active and of interest.
Storm systems moving across the central plains are projected to be potentially volatile again this week. Last Monday, on May 20th, an EF5 tornado devastated Moore, Oklahoma, a southern suburb of Oklahoma City.
Twenty-four people, including 10 children, died as a result of the tornado, which destroyed an incredible 12-13,000 homes and impacted more than 30,000 residents. With peak winds at 210 M.P.H., the tornado touched down at 2:56 p.m. local time in Newcastle and stayed on the ground for 39 minutes over a 17-mile path, ultimately crossing over a heavily populated section in Moore.
And on Saturday, flash flooding in San Antonio, Texas left two people dead and required first responders to rescue more than 200 residents trapped in vehicles and houses.
According to Internet reports, almost 10 inches of rain fell at San Antonio International Airport from midnight to mid-afternoon Saturday, causing nearly all local streams and rivers to experience extraordinary flooding.
Here in south Louisiana, heat is definitely ramping up, but climatologically at least, it has been unseasonably cool with above-average rainfall for April and May.
“That’s definitely a positive for the crawfish,” said Mark Frugé, co-owner of Frugé Aquafarms. “When water temperatures escalate, the crawfish will burrow underground. I don’t know the exact trigger temperature when that happens, but when it gets into the 90s on a regular basis, the end of the season is nearing.”
Current conditions, though, have benefitted the mudbugs, he said.
“It makes for more favorable production right now, with higher volume than usual for late May,” he said.
Typically, as the heat increases through June, the harvest will decline as the month progresses. Usually, depending on what Mother Nature has in store, we try to harvest through the end of June.
“As soon as it gets too hot, the fishermen don’t see the necessary return on their expense to pump water into the crawfish ponds,” he said. “Production just gradually tails off until we shut it down for another year.”
So just like with the start of the harvest in January, Mother Nature and the crawfish themselves will determine when the 2013 mudbug season officially comes to a close. Keep your fingers (and pincers) crossed for at least one more good month to go!
Growing up in Louisiana was a tough and exciting life.
Louisiana’s Greatest Generation Segment
by John Smith
By Patrick D. Bonin
BRANCH, LA. – Out at Frugé Aquafarms, we use a wide variety of transportation options to maintain and harvest our crawfish and rice crops.
On any given day, a multitude of work is accomplished by lots of different employees in pickup trucks, passenger cars, four-wheelers, 18-wheelers, tractors, refrigerated delivery trucks, combines, crawfish boats, pirogues, and even… an airplane!
An airplane? To help grow amazing mudbugs? Really?
Yep, but it’s not exactly our plane. It’s a crop duster, and it belongs to Richard’s Flying Service in Rayne, La. (But we do have a landing strip on site that the pilots use to land and take off to service our property, as well as the surrounding area.)
Mark Frugé, co-owner of Frugé Aquafarms with his brother Mike, explained how there came to be a landing strip located right on farm property.
“My dad had a crop dusting service in the early 70’s until the late 80’s,” he said. “After that we maintained the strip and then leased it to the current tenants.”
With thousands of acres to cover, aerial applications are a cost-effective, time-efficient way to do business here on the farm.
“We use the crop duster for chemical and fertilizer application for the rice crop, and fertilizer application on the rice stubble in the fall to benefit the crawfish crop,” he said.
Generally speaking, the crop duster sprays two applications of pesticide, herbicide or fungicide on the rice crop, depending on what individual fields need, as well as two or three applications of fertilizer. The mixture is applied based on 10-gallons of water volume per acre.
The rice is harvested in late summer, generating the necessary stubble that will feed the emerging crawfish later in the fall and provide for another bumper mudbug crop.
“Fertilizing the rice stubble maximizes the plant biomass and provides more food for the crawfish to eat during the growing season,” Mark explained. “The more quality food available, the more the crawfish will grow.”
So the next time you sit down to an awesome crawfish etouffee, remember how important that crop duster is to our operation here on the farm. Your fluffy rice and awesome mudbugs might not be the same without our pilots in the sky!
Big Alligators Inside Crawfish Ponds Just Don’t Mix
By Patrick Bonin
Branch, LA – For 25 years, Ed Guidry has worked as the Operations Manager at Frugé Aquafarms: he’s involved in all aspects of rice and crawfish production, and he’s a key guy who specializes in solving problems when they arise. You could say he’s pretty much seen it all.
But in his two-and-a-half decades here, he’s never faced an issue quite like the one he encountered in a crawfish pond late last month. Ed came face to face with an 11-foot-6-inch, 420-pound male alligator… with an even bigger attitude!
“I got a call mid-morning from a very startled fisherman, but I didn’t know exactly what the problem was because she speaks Spanish,” Guidry said. “When I got there, she was still very upset, crying up on the hood of the truck. So I got into one of our crawfish boats to go and see what I could find.”
Suspecting a small four or five-foot gator, he drove through the pond for 10 or 15 minutes and saw absolutely nothing.
“Every once in a while, maybe when we have a big flood, we might have a little alligator in one of the ponds, and it doesn’t bother anybody and nobody bothers it,” he said. “It stays around a bit, but it usually heads further down the bayou to a better habitat where it has enough food to eat. The water doesn’t really stay in our crawfish ponds long enough for one to live here.”
But just when he was about to give up looking, the boat rolled right over the huge submerged beast. (After things calmed down a bit, Ed found out the first startled fisherman had actually run over the big gator as well, nearly flipping her into the water.)
“He definitely wasn’t scared of the boat. The only reason I found him was because I hit him,” he said. “He spun around pretty fast and came towards the boat with his mouth wide open. I had never seen one that size in person ever before, and I’ve been fishing and hunting in south Louisiana all my life.”
For his own safety, as well as the safety of the fishermen who harvest crawfish in that pond, Ed killed the big gator with a couple of shots from his .22 rifle.
“It was unbelievable. It took me and three other guys to pick it up, put it in the boat and bring it to the landing,” he said.
We contacted the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to report the incident, and they sent out a game warden to investigate. Despite the danger presented by an alligator that size on the property, as well as our need to be able to safely harvest our crawfish crop, Ed was ticketed for taking an alligator out of season and not being a licensed alligator hunter.
“The game warden was a really nice fella who was pretty lenient with me. I could have actually been arrested,” Guidry said.
A licensed nuisance hunter came by later that day and took the alligator, leaving Ed with only memories of his once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
“I understand why I had to be ticketed, but I’m just glad everyone here is safe,” he said. “It would have been very easy for that gator to knock someone out of a boat, or grab their arm as they leaned over to work the crawfish traps. So all in all, I think it worked out for the best.”
And the big gator’s presence has made all of the fishermen a bit more attentive while they harvest thousands of crawfish traps out here on the farm each and every day.
“Everybody’s looking around a little bit more, I guarantee you that,” Guidry said with a chuckle. “Everyone’s being more careful out there.”
By Patrick D. Bonin
Branch, LA – Getting the crawfish into our traps is just half the battle here at Fruge Aquafarms. Getting them out of the traps, cleaned up, sorted, sacked and ready for your pot are the other vital pieces of the mudbug harvest equation!
And considering that we bait and empty about 11,000 traps each and every morning during the height of crawfish season, you can just about imagine the time and manpower that it takes day-in and day-out just to get the crawfish out of the ponds.
Our secret weapons in the process are our custom-made crawfish boats!
These 14-foot aluminum boats are outfitted with four 13-inch tires (two on each side) and one big paddlewheel, which actually churns in the mud on the pond bottoms to propel the boat forward.
And our fishermen use foot pedals, not a steering wheel, to navigate through the ponds hands-free, so they’re easily able to empty the crawfish traps onto a sorting tray and keep the process moving.
And speaking of moving: the boat rarely stops during the entire harvesting process. Traps are carefully spaced so the fisherman has time to grab it, empty it and re-bait it just in time to place it back in the pond and pick up the next trap.
So why have wheels on the boat? To make traveling from pond to pond easier and more time-efficient.
“The four wheels allow the boats to be amphibious,” said Mark Frugé, co-owner of Frugé AquaFarms. “We’re able to drive on land for short distances, cross farm roads and get into and out of the ponds pretty easily.”
Mark explained that when harvesting for the day is complete in one pond, the fisherman can simply drive out and head for the next pond, so the whole harvesting process can begin again. The paddlewheel provides the power, and the tires provide clearance for the boat to ease over the land
This way, fishermen don’t have to waste time getting their gear and bait into and out of several boats throughout the day: it streamlines the process and makes the tough task of harvesting all those mudbugs a bit more efficient.
The Frugé Aquafarms custom-made crawfish boat: that’s just how we roll.. and float!
Actually, Mother Nature and the mudbugs themselves determine the duration of the season!
Here at Frugé Aquafarms, we seed mature crawfish into our rice fields over the summer. Those crawfish breed and burrow down deep beneath the ponds to escape the late-summer heat and the rice harvest, and don’t emerge until the fields are re-flooded in the fall. Those tiny crawfish (the size of ants) feed on the nutrient rich rice stubble and grow into the delicious mudbugs we harvest for the season, which typically starts around November or December.
Unless Mother Nature throws a curve ball with an incredibly wet or cold winter, the best months for Louisiana crawfish are March, April and May. June is usually when the heat of summer starts to crank up, water quality deteriorates and crawfish slowly begin to burrow down to escape the hot temperatures. Crawfish stocking again occurs in that season’s rice fields, and the process starts all over to keep your pot boiling year after year!