Custie’s, sounds like a real old fashion institution; like The Pearl on St. Charles Street in New Orleans or Felix’s on Bienville in the French Quarter. These restaurants weren’t known for their elegant fare or beautiful French architecture but rather the freshest seafood appealing to, in the know, savvy, die hard seafood lovers. Unlike blue crab and crawfish, lobsters aren’t indigenous crustaceans to Louisiana; as a matter of fact I ate my first whole lobster only five years ago. Not having indulged in them before presented no problem; knowing how to extract the juices, fat and meat from every possible nook and cranny is instinctual. Can you imagine how many crawfish it would take to equal one lobster; particularly a two to three footer? Certainly it would take at least a bushel basket or full burlap sack not to mention much more table space. Now I’m getting misty eyed…Oh my crawfish, oh my crawfish, oh my crawfish tastes so fine. Since I left you can’t forget you, and you’re always on my mind…ore the bayous, ore the ditches ore the swamps, you’re all around, but I living in the desert and you’re no where to be found. (Please excuse me a moment, I need a kerchief and Mint Julep.)
Actually I found the lakes and creeks here are full of small langoustines that look and taste just like crawfish when cooked properly. My fishing buddy (my dad) sent me a dozen new crawfish nets when I first moved here, encouraging me to stretch my imagination and be resourceful. He knew there were crawfish here; I just had to track them down. Well, that I did. My neighbors would tell me grim stories of catching them on their on their fishing poles (rod and reels) but smashed these little nuisances with their shoe. The thought was devastating but at the same time but gave me hope of finding a decent crawfish hole. After finding the right spot, I baited the nets with chicken gizzards setting them in the creek with a pole the way we did it in Louisiana. In Louisiana the canals and ditches have murky, slow moving, warm water with muddy bottoms allowing the nets to sink in leaving the bait atop to attract the prey. Not so here in Arizona; the creeks are cold, clear, fresh flowing water with rocks on the bottom. The crawfish didn’t oblige me by crawling into the net but rather feasted under the net. A different approach would be necessary to suit the circumstance.
In developing my new strategy I had to take into consideration the variables I previously mentioned and most important; what type of snake to avoid all cost. In Louisiana we stay on the land and use long poles to retrieve our nets out of the murky water which is the residential habitat of the aggressive, deadly cotton mouth water moccasin. However, cotton mouths aren’t found here in Arizona; rather diamond back rattle snakes infest the brush along the creeks. My new modus operandi required fish buckets, large aquarium nets, a few dozen hand string lines of various lengths, each having a bobber on one end and a safety pin looking hook to hold the bait on the other; and a chest of ice to keep the crawfish alive while in transit. The most important rule of thumb, in this case, is to stay in the water away from the rattlers being ever vigilant of their presence. Along with the help my daughters and their friends we could catch nearly thirty pounds at a time, feasting on crawfish often. What more could I ask for. My dad knew, from the get go, how to challenge and inspire me; I was very fortunate to be mentored by him. He taught me the fundamental rules of catching the critters in water, the psychological rules of recapturing renegade crustaceans on land with my bare hands as well as the how, why and wherefores of cooking them to perfection. Though I could take a fish of a hook, he always handled the cat fish due to their sharp fins (or at least that’s what I thought.) The first time I tried to de hook one was a catastrophe. I struck it with a mallet to knock the wiggly fish out; its slippery body popped up, stabbing me in the heel of my thumb. That’s when I learned the sharp fins are laced with poison causing excruciating pain. I couldn’t think straight much less stand still; I ran around the exterior of our house three times before driving myself 20 miles to the nearest hospital where they injected cortisone and or a pain killer. As Paul Harvey would say “That’s why you handle catfish carefully…now you know the rest of the story.”
Summing up, in the early 1980 Louisiana generously sold fishing licenses to out of state and foreign commercial fishers. Historically Louisiana fishers by law and common sense used a type of trawl net allowing large turtles and other species to escape, being cautious not to use methods resulting in stripping their livelihood. Our water ways are like mazes making it hard to enforce that law with the newcomers. As a result not only are the approved fish diminishing at an unthinkable rate but the protected species, caught by using illegal trawl apparatus, die before being dumped back into the water. The future looks dismal for our once bountiful resource.
Jack thank you for your wonderful memoirs, they well up fond memories for me. Gracious me!!! Pardon my slip of proper southern manners for not offering you a Mint Julep also. It must be this aw-ful heat.