We get this question all the time, and it’s usually followed by more similar questions, such as –
When is crawfish season? Is it a legal season? When is the best time for crawfish? Are the crawfish big yet? When do they get big?
There is no legal season but one driven by mother nature. In south Louisiana the farm raised season generally starts somewhere around mid-December. Of course we have seen years where we had product in commercial quantities for Thanksgiving or earlier. In general, though, the early crop tends to be sporadic, and the catch can double, drop in half, or even go dormant depending on weather.
Water temperature and hours of sunlight are the two big drivers of an early season crawfish. Without getting too technical, extended periods of temperatures in the 30’s will cause crawfish to be inactive and sluggish; therefore the catch will suffer. Extended temperatures below that can begin to kill crawfish and even severely damage the entire crop for the season.
I’m not sure there is a “normal” season, as every season we have had for the past 30 years has been slightly different. On average things on the farm get going in early December and reach a peak somewhere about mid-March. Things then remain steady through mid to late May and tail off into July.
So, the best time for crawfish is springtime when water temperatures start getting into the sixties. The crawfish get very active at this point and are shedding shells (molting) and growing rapidly. During the rapid growth period they have tender green shells. They are easy to peel and in my opinion, it’s the absolute best time to eat them. They are sweet and full…oh boy, just thinking about them makes me think I’ll boil some this weekend! In Louisiana this usually happens somewhere around mid-February and continues throughout the full season.
Are the crawfish big yet? By mid-March the first, early born crawfish start to mature out and put on their final shell. The males start growing huge claws, and the females’ tails tend to get bigger than the males. If you have studied them over time you will easily recognize the difference. Of course if you haven’t, simply flip them over on their backs and look at their bellies. It is pretty obvious. Anyway, mid-March is the best time for large crawfish. From this point on, until the season ends or food supply runs out, crawfish are the biggest they will get. So, the best time of year for big crawfish is mid-March to mid-May. Crawfish get big in March and stay that way until late May until the size starts falling again.
Our goal every year is to have live crawfish available for the Superbowl through the 4th of July. So that usually makes it easy to remember. Superbowl to the 4th.
Not to confuse this any further, but I think I need to address a few other “seasons”. There are “other” crawfish seasons…remember it’s all about water temps. What I just described above is the farm raised season of south Louisiana. There is a wild Louisiana crawfish crop, primarily from the Atchafalaya Basin, but also from all river basins down here. It is truly a wild crop in all senses. Wild and crazy is more like it. It’s is driven by water temps but also by rising and falling river stages.
That rise and fall of the river depends on rainfall and snow melt all the way to Illinois. This rise and fall can be swift and dramatic. The catch can be huge for weeks and then stop in days. It’s hard to predict and plan for. On good years, the wild crop season can last much longer than the farm raised crop, and we do supplement our crawfish production with wild catch. I have seen several exceptional years where the wild crop went on year round. Again – it’s all about water temps. The wild crop has the advantage of a “potential” tremendous volume of “free” cold deep water. When mother nature cooperates it can be amazing. When she doesn’t the whole crop can be missed.
So what else? Well, there is a short season of California crawfish. These crawfish are harvested out of the rice fields of northern California, which are north of Sacramento. This crop is not really a crop but considered a tremendous pest for the rice farmers up there. Imagine that! The crawfishermen up there are a small group who get permission to set traps in the rice fields. Some of these crawfish make it into the market from July through September. There are a few enterprising people trying to organize the industry, and someday I wouldn’t be surprised to see a stable supply coming out of there.
There are literally crawfish seasons everywhere. I’ve heard of people making an annual trek to a lake in the mountains of Colorado and people catching crawfish in every stream in the world. There are Yabby crawfish from Australia and Signal crawfish from the Pacific Northwest. But, to my knowledge, there is no place else like south Louisiana for the abundance, consistency, and most importantly, dependability.