A beginner’s guide to achieving legend status amongst your barbeque-enjoying friends.
Given the culinary treat that fresh crayfish brings to your taste buds I could have called this article “How to become more popular with the family at dinnertime”.
Unfortunately, the high demand of these spiny delicacies overseas means that for most people, treating the family to a feed of mouth-watering crayfish is usually well beyond an average household budget.
The secret is to go DIY.
Think like a cray
With crayfish found often prolifically amongst reefs and close to our abundant rocky coastline from the Three Kings right down to Stewart Island, the most enjoyable and cost effective means of fulfilling your taste buds desire is the good old-fashioned kiwi DIY way.
Here are a few pointers to raise your status at the next social barbeque.
Let’s start by getting to know our tasty quarry a little better. There are two common species of table-friendly crayfish inhabiting NZ waters - the spiny or red rock lobster and the packhorse or green crayfish.
There are different measurement methods and size limits for each so it’s essential to know which species you’re dealing with.
The author bearing the spoils of a quick afternoon dive.
As the name suggests, spiny or red rock lobsters are dark red in colour and noticeably spiny, while packhorse are olive coloured with smaller, less propagandistic spines.
Both species are nocturnal so they hide out in caves and crevices during daylight hours utilising the cover of kelp to shroud them from view.
At night they venture out to scavenge the sea floor and reef structures for crabs, shellfish, seaweeds, sea urchins and small fish before returning again to the safety of their lair before sunrise.
When diving a new area for the first time it’s a good idea to call into the local dive shop for some all-important local knowledge and pointers first. You’ll get nowhere useful asking at the pub; cray spots are more closely guarded than the Colonel’s secret recipe.
Taking the plunge
Catching a feed of crayfish with your own two hands is by far the most exciting and rewarding method. But let’s not beat about the kelp forest. Despite how easy some blokes make it look on YouTube, they are bloody hard to catch underwater.
As we know nothing worthwhile comes easy and these cunning crustaceans are masters of the art of escape. They are also stronger and faster underwater than seems fathomable.
In fact, I’d rate the size of the challenge as being akin maintaining any sense of dignity while living with toddlers or winning an argument with the missus while the mother-in-law is staying.
Children are often fascinated by crayfish. They are great way to get them interacting with nature and understanding dinner does not have to come wrapped in plastic.
To start with, always dive with a buddy. If he or she is an experienced cray wrangler and can teach you a few tricks, then all the better.
Before hitting the water consult your trusty marine chart and look for rocky coastlines, patches of reef and shallow pinnacles for likely haunts.
Don’t forget to check for any indication of particularly strong currents or tidal flows to be wary of. Crayfish usually live near, but not in, areas of current. Besides, if you’re new to diving it’s a good idea to splash about around slack water anyway.
Once on location eyeball the terra firma above the water’s edge for rocks, cracks and boulders. This landscape often continues into the underwater realm, providing caves and hidey-holes for crayfish to hang out in with their mates during the day.
I’ve found they generally favour the ocean-facing side of reef structures, as the currents bring the food to their doorstep. They don’t tend to be far from the seafloor either. Bear this in mind when planning a dive so you stay well within your depths limits.
You don’t have to dive deep to get crayfish. In less easily accessed locations, and with a little local knowledge, they can be found in as little as two metres of water.
Classic crayfish country offers plenty of places to hide. Look for coastal islands, rock falls and numerous submerged bommies.
Kina eat kelp, which in turn provides a food source for many of the creatures that will eventually find their way into a crayfish’s stomach, so if you come across a barren patch of rock crammed with kina you’re not likely to find too many crays close by.
Every spot’s different, so time spent exploring likely areas underwater often pay dividends in the long run. Take note of where you find nests, even if they only hold a single cray or two; good hideouts often repopulate.
Don’t discount sandy areas. Some of my best hunting has been exploring isolated bommies in areas of sand.
The beauty of these spots is that the crays have to return to them during the day, which reduces the ground you will have to cover to find them. In these locations nine out of ten crays will be found right on the edge of the sand under a rocky ledge.
Garlic butter crayfish on the BBQ
A simple and mouth-watering alternative to the good old boil-and-devour technique that’s enjoyable to cook with a beer in hand.
You will need:
Whole crayfish split lengthways
Butter (is there really an alternative? I don’t think so)
A hot barbeque
Break off the legs and feelers and place in a pot to boil separately for a tasty entrée; they will burn on the BBQ otherwise.
Take a sharp, heavy-duty knife and split the crayfish in two lengthways. Remove all the gross bits and rinse off (preferably in salt-water). Pat the flesh dry with paper towels.
Finely dice one to two garlic cloves and mix together with two tablespoons of softened butter in a bowl using a fork. Use more or less depending on the size of the crayfish and your taste buds.
Place the cray halves shell down on the barbeque hotplate and spread the garlic butter mix over the top of the exposed flesh. Place a piece of tinfoil over the top and fold it down the sides to trap the heat in. Cook on medium-high heat for around five minutes, longer for bigger crayfish, or until the flesh is white and firm right through to the shell.
If you prefer the authentic barbeque flavour, forget the tinfoil and sear the flesh side on the hot plate first for up to a minute. It is essential to coat the flesh with melted butter first to prevent the delicate flesh sticking and burning on the hotplate. Turn over and cook shell-side down for around four minutes or until cooked through (part flesh with a sharp knife to double check).
Serve with cold refreshments and bask in the accolades.
Stalking the prey
When you spot a set of feelers sticking out from under a rock the number one trick is not to get overexcited! Assume stealth-mode before approaching and take some time to scout out the surrounding area first as there may be others close by that you don’t want to send into hiding.
Get in as close as you can before going for the horns. When it comes to the grab shot, you have to be 100% committed and somewhat fearless. Aim behind the horns, as the cray will most likely shoot backwards in defence. It’s a good idea to also utilise your non-grabbing hand to protect your face and mask in tight situations.
A stainless steel lasso comes in very handy for extracting any hard to reach individuals without inflicting any feeler or leg damage. Make sure you invest in a cheap lanyard latch to attach it to your catch-bag, as they’re surprisingly easy to misplace underwater.
A good torch (with a wrist lanyard) is also a must for scoping out dark holes or overhangs and don’t forget a good quality pair of tight-fitting Kevlar gloves. These will instil confidence and protect your palms from pain.
Fishing with pots
Remember, crayfish are nocturnal so soaking a pot overnight allows you to catch them in your sleep without having to get wet. It’s also by far the cheapest and easiest method for a DIY crayfish.
Red means ready. Remember, it is the law to dispatch crayfish humanely before dropping them in boiling water. The Ministry of Fisheries recommends chilling to between 2˚ and 4˚Celcius before dispatching with a sharp object.
These days you can pick up a collapsible cray pot, complete with a buoy and rope, for under $100. Although less effective than the wire cage varieties, they do work and you can increase its effectiveness by cable-tying the collapsible corners, adding a proper bait trap, equally weighting each corner and attaching the rope to a bridal so the pot sits flat and upright on the bottom. If you’re serious and have the storage space go for the fixed mesh variety.
Being a keen fisho, you’ll have a steady supply of fresh fish frames for bait. It’s a good idea to check your pots daily and re-bait with fresh fish frames, unless you’ve got a very strong stomach or have lost your sense of smell.
You can't make friends with salad.
Trust me the stench of saltwater-submerged rotting fish wafting past your nostrils first thing in the morning is something that no one needs to experience first-hand.
Speaking of aromas, new pots will take a few days soaking in the briny to become weathered and lose that “just bought” smell so don’t give up if you haven’t scored a feed on the first few attempts.
Sure, a feed of crayfish won’t be the easiest meal you’ll ever catch, but it may well be the tastiest.
With perseverance, patience and experience you’ll soon be the most popular bloke at the beach barbee.