Slow start but still hope for successful crawfish season

Crawfish season has begun. Experts say recent cold snaps mean mudbugs are slow to molt and move to traps. Richard Rand, the co-owner of Honey-B-Ham, said they’re moving fast on Prien Lake Road, from the pot to the drive-thru window.

Some customers can’t wait for their first seasoned-just-right bite of tail meat and they aren’t complaining about size or price, according to Rand. The price fluctuates for retailers and for customers and will go down later in the season. Currently, it’s $7.99 per pound at Honey B Ham.

“We usually sell out,” Rand said. “We’re getting 40 to 60 bags a day.”

Mark Partin, manager at J.T.’s Seafood, said it’s the same at his place — difficult to meet the demand and too early in the season for larger sizes.

“The weather has been cold,” Partin said. “Farmers don’t want to fish all of their small crawfish now. They want them to grow, and farmers don’t want to harvest when the crawfish are molting. However, crawfish won’t grow if fields are over-populated. It’s a balance. There are a few older ones in there, but the size of the young ones we’re seeing is about two to two-and-a-half inches.”

A pound goes for $6.99 at J.T’s. An average order per person is three pounds.

“They are a little small right now,” said Roanoke Tallgrass Farm owner Burt Tietje. “It’s January. Crawfish are always small in January. When the full moon hits at the end of month, we’ll have an explosion in size.”

Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist said, at this point in the season, the supply is slow and the size is small for a couple of reasons.

“The cold water temperatures slow down the growth or molting of the crawfish and it also slows down the crawfish coming to the traps. If we continue to have sunshine like today, it will increase the temperature of the water. We need one or two more molts to get good, eating-size crawfish.”

Like all crustaceans, crawfish shed their shells to grow. Young crawfish molt more than older ones. It takes a crawfish about three to four months to get to 30-count per pound. In addition to water temperature and population, water and food quality can affect growth. Crawfish can increase up to 15 percent in length and 40 percent in weight in a single molt in optimal conditions.

The cold weather isn’t the only thing impacting supply. Farm workers, often comprised of H-2A Visa program holders, are slow to the game across the U.S. Here in Southwest Louisiana, the problem is compounded by hurricane damage.

“Farmers have to provide housing for their workers,” Shirley said.

“It’s a labor-intensive business,” said Jim Johnson of Crawfish South of Welsh.

He farms more than 1,000 acres in Jeff Davis Parish with his son.

“I know farmers who have been busy repairing housing for laborers and haven’t had the opportunity to repair their own homes.”

Housing has to be inspected and approved by certain government entities four to six weeks before laborers move in. Roofs can’t be tarped, according to Johnson.

“There’s a whole lot of money involved in farming crawfish,” Johnson said. “Everything from labor, housing, boats, transportation to market.”

Johnson said he is anxious about the economy and is working at remaining positive, he admitted. He and other crawfish farmers need a good year, as do the restaurants and production facilities they supply. COVID restrictions closed restaurants and reduced the price per pound last by almost half in March 2020, the peak of the season.

“It was a huge punch in the gut,” Johnson said. “It’s been a trying year for a lot of people, not just me as a producer, but restaurants, caterers and the general public. This is a huge part of our culture. We want to sell our crawfish.”