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The older I get, the more the cares of the world weigh on me. My body is not so strong as it once was, and I find myself spending more time than I probably ought to worrying about things like paying the mortgage, earning a living and doing some good in this world before my turn on its stage comes to an end. So when I stumble into a moment of unalloyed childish joy, I savor each instant while I can.
Last week I had such a moment, catching crayfish from a stream in the High Sierra.
My friend Mark had offered to take me up to one of his spots in the Plumas National Forest, near Buck Lake. This was a part of the Sierra I’d not yet seen, but for Mark, who used to live in nearby Quincy, it is a second home. Ostensibly we were up there to catch trout, but I was far more excited about catching crayfish. Turns out so was Mark.
Mark had been to this stream a week before with his girlfriend Misty, and they had scored big. “Some of the traps were stuffed!” he said. We’re both fans of the TV show “The Deadliest Catch,” so as we drove, we made all kinds of references to “riders” (crayfish not trapped, but riding on the outside of the pot), “setting back” (returning the pot to where it had initially caught lots of crayfish) and, jokingly, “grinding” (working 24-48 hours straight catching crayfish). Visions of etouffee danced in my head.
Still, I am always skeptical about reports of plenty. Gathering food in the wild is a fickle affair: Being in the right place at precisely the right time can make all the difference in the world, and what happened yesterday will not necessarily repeat itself today. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Aw, man! You should have been here yesterday!” I’d buy myself a new truck. Mark was talking a big game as we drove up the mountain.
He’d brought three traps to set. A crayfish trap is a wire mesh cylinder that comes apart at the center. Bait goes inside the cylinder, which then latches closed. Crayfish can get in through wire tunnels on each end — but those tunnels make it very tough for the little lobsters to find their way back out. Mark’s bait of choice: cat food in steel cans, which we perforated with our pocket knives.
We arrived at Mark’s spot. It was a stretch of stream like any other in the Sierra. There was nothing at all that suggested it might hold a crawdad bonanza. Mark tossed the traps in the center of the stream, then flipped a perforated cat food can a couple feet into the water, near where we’d sit and wait for the traps to fill. “I want to watch them eat it,” Mark said.
Mark broke out some tri-tip sandwiches. No more than a few bites in, the magic started happening. From every rock and crevice, crayfish crept out and scuttled toward the cat food can. I’d never seen anything like it. All of them had a little white patch at the crook of their claw — that meant these were Pacifastacus leniusculus, the signal crayfish. An alien invader.
Signal crayfish are native to the Pacific Northwest, but not California. State Dept. of Fish & Game scientists brought them here in 1912 to see whether they eat baby trout. They do, although like most crayfish, they are mostly vegetarian. When the study was over, for some inexplicable reason the scientists dumped the crawdads into Santa Cruz’s San Lorenzo River. They’ve spread all over the state since then.
Mark and I sat mesmerized by all the crayfish attacking the cat food can. “I bet we could catch some by hand,” I said. I stuck a hunk of tri-tip to the end of one of my trout lures and lowered it into the stream, right in front of a crawdad. It immediately clutched the meat between its claws and started eating it. I gently pulled on the lure, tugging the crayfish closer to the bank. He kept on eating, oblivious. Closer, closer… When I’d pulled him as far as I could without getting his head out of the water — they let go if that happens — I flicked the lure toward shore.
The crayfish let go a few inches from the bank. As quickly as I could, I snatched him from the water and tossed him into our bucket. Schweet! Mark and I began catching crayfish by hand, one after another.
I was a boy again, hunting crayfish in the creeks that fed into Echo Lake, a park near my house in Westfield, New Jersey. My friends Lowell and Chris and Mike and I would spend hours at Echo Lake Park, mostly riding around in canoes or paddle boats, where we would have splash fights on the lake. We would walk the three miles each way to the park unattended by grown-ups; each trip was a little adventure. We’d “provision” at 7-Eleven and, armed with pretzels and candy and Slurpies, make our way to the lake. It was great fun.
Catching crayfish in the little streams was a matter of dexterity. I would lift up rocks to find them, then cup one hand behind the crayfish while waving my other hand in front of his claws. He’d flip his tail to get away, right into my cupped hand. I could catch dozens this way. And yes, I got pinched more than a few times.
Mark and I were catching more than dozens. We were catching scores of crayfish by hand. At one point Mark realized this must be happening in the traps, too. So he started pulling them after less than an hour’s soak. It was just as he’d promised: They were stuffed, with riders on the outside of the cage and everything!
He emptied them into our bucket and set them back. We were both grinning like idiots. So much fun! In the end we came away with 189 crayfish, all caught in less than three hours. And we’d caught close to 60 by hand.
Mark and I have each seen more than 40 summers, and it’s been a powerful long time since we were boys chasing crayfish in our secret spots, a continent apart. But for one magic afternoon we were given the chance to relive that joy. We won’t soon forget it.