• The Wild Foodie

The American Signal Crayfish how, where and when to catch them

Updated: May 2, 2019

At this time of the year its starting to warm up and Spring is set in for good. The rising temperatures wake up more than the plants and trees in the spring, there is also movement at the bottom of our rivers.

American Signal Crayfish guide identification
American Signal Crayfish

Back in the 70’s and to what I imagine would have been the theme tune to Jaws a loud overbearing immigrant was heading this way from America.. No it wasn’t who you were thinking of!! But a breed of Crayfish called the American Signal Crayfish. This Crayfish was part of the food revolution that began in the late 70’s and was being imported to be farmed here in the UK. As fantastic a result as the pallets of British people waking up after post war rationing was all of these imported new foods were brought in quickly and some accidently released into the Wild.. An unfortunate casualty of this mass immigration has been our own White Clawed Crayfish whose stocks have reduced by a massive 95% making it practically extinct except for a few places in the UK.

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So what can we do about it!?!? Well not a lot. Although the Environment Agency have tried to hold back this storm (along with other damaging foreign species such as the Mitten crab – a Chinese and again very tasty immigrant) there is simply nothing we can do. Apart from being voracious predators eating; plants, snails, small fish, fish eggs, invertebrates and even its own young they also carry a deadly plague that they themselves are immune to. This Crayfish plague only affects other Crayfish and is decimating populations of Native White Claws across the country.

Crayfish traps and pots guide
Crayfish Pots loaded with Crayfish

The Signal Crayfish has also used its own cunning to spread but has also been helped along the way by other reckless Crayfish farms. With an ability to cross land and huge numbers on their side Signal Crayfish have successfully invaded most parts of the country. It can be found in our rivers, lakes and ponds - to find out if there is Signal Crayfish in your area see the National Biodiversity Gateway website.

The Signal Crayfish also digs burrows up to three feet long in river banks where each year it lays more than 250 eggs at a time. Encased in a tough shell and armed with two large pincers it looks and indeed tastes rather like a freshwater Lobster or Langoustine and this is why I love to eat them..

They taste amazing they are easy to cook and prepare all you have to do is catch them! There season is April to November although they are most prevalent May onwards and for as long as the weather is warm. I have read of many ways to catch these gourmet treats including crab lines and using baits from Chicken carcasses to Bacon. The technique that seems most efficient is to use Crayfish traps or pots baited with a Salmon head, however cheap cat food also works - check out my other posts on how to catch Crayfish.

The baited pots can be left for a couple of hours or even overnight (like most predators Crayfish are most active in the dark). Make sure that the pots are anchored on the bottom of the river or lake and out of sight of other Crayfish fishermen and women. You do need a license to fish for Crayfish and aside of the paperwork they are really easy to obtain. Please make sure that you can recognize the difference between a Signal and White Claw (or indeed any of the other species of Crayfish) so that you can execute your own revenge on these predatory imports.

American Signal Crayfish facts

• The female breeds from the age of about two when it is 40mm long.

• She breeds once a year and averages 275 eggs.

• The orange eggs are fertilised by the male in October/November.

• They are carried by the female folded within her tail until May when the young are released - if they can escape her jaws.

• The Signal is bigger and more aggressive than native crayfish.

• They are less fussy in what they eat and more successful and rapidly colonise new areas.

• The Signal carries a fungus which is fatal to native crayfish.

• They can live up to 12 years (unless we can halt this prematurely!).

The Crayfish’s most endearing characteristic is.... Its flavour! Once de-shelled and the gut which runs down the centre of the tail is removed we are in a very tasty and satisfying arena. Crayfish have a rich tender luxurious pink meat that is outrageously moreish! The Swedes go mad for the Crayfish season and throw big dinner parties to gorge on this little crustacean with the accompaniment of Vodka. In the UK the Crayfish is partnered with Rocket however there are many other combinations including Valentine Warners amazing dish that includes Cobnuts, Cheese and a hot oven!!

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The meat is mainly in the tail however the claws also provide excellent food as well (particularly on the big male crayfish). When you have picked the shell clean you can use that too!! Roast the shells in a real hot oven for 10 minutes with a little Olive Oil some sliced Fennel and Onion and then place in a saucepan. Cover with water and boil the shells for the most amazing stock!!

Personally, I have bought the traps and last year I tried to catch them in the River Chelmer, although it was the end of the season and I only managed to get the pots wet once. I wasn’t successful but I am determined… Stay posted on the Wild Food Facebook page for my and many others attempts to catch this gourmet treat!

Learn how to catch and prepare Crayfish using Pots and Traps.

Please check the rules and regulations of Crayfishing as well as details on how to get a licence at the Environment Agency Website.


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