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Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Crawfish thrive in Lake Washington

Seattle Times staff reporter

Crawfish are a valued food commodity in Louisiana and clear across the Atlantic Ocean in Sweden.

But, what most people in the Pacific Northwest don't realize, is that a thriving wild and much larger species flourishes in the backyard of Seattle.

The bottoms of Lake Washington, and many other lakes and rivers in the state are filled with the tasty crustaceans.

To find out more, I took a recent trip with Pete Malek, a commercial fisher from Lake Forest Park who has been crawfishing in Lake Washington for the past 12 years.

Malek set 120 pots in three locations around the north end of Lake Washington. In order to keep others from poaching his pots, Malek sets them under water with no markers and uses an anchor to dredge up his chain of pots. It took us less than two hours to pull, clean and reset the pots with an electric winch.

Our day's work netted Malek about 70 pounds of crawfish, destined to his client, the Pike Place Fish Market later in the week.

Not bad for part-time work.

"This is just something I do as a side job," said Malek, who works full-time for the Washington State Ferry System. "I used to commercially fish in Alaska and California, but I got burned out. This is just an easy and clean commercial fishery to participate in, and it is so close to home."

Malek and two others have caught 90 to 95 percent of the commercial catch in Lake Washington the past three years.

"We give out about 12 permits per year for commercial crawfish fishing," said Jon Anderson, a state Fish and Wildlife fish program manager. "The few on Lake Washington are the only ones who do it regularly during the season. About five others do it a few times a year and the rest didn't even put a pot in the water.

"Those who do it, definitely have a niche in the local market for crawfish. About $2 per pound is the common price [$4.50 per pound retail] the commercial guys get for their catch, and prices have held steady for the three years that I've been monitoring it."

Sport anglers are also quietly getting their good share of crawfish around the state.

"It is just as easy for recreational anglers to catch crawfish, too," Anderson said. "Since they're in good abundance, I don't see why a person couldn't go out and catch enough to bring home for a nice meal."

Sport fishers are allowed to set two pots per person, and no license is required. The Lake Washington crawfish season is open for both sports and commercial fishing until the end of October, and reopens the first Monday of May.

Marking-pot rules are similar to crab and shrimp, and details can be found in the state Fish and Wildlife regulation pamphlet.

Unlike crab and shrimp, no colored buoys are required by sport fishers, but they need to be marked on the surface by some type of flotation device. The daily sport catch is 10 pounds per person.

People refer to the mini-crustaceans by various names, and all are equally accepted.

Crawfish. Crayfish. Crawdad. Crawdab. Even mud bugs. Whatever you call them, they're cousins of lobster, shrimp and crab.

The signal crawfish found in Washington are not the same as those found in other parts of the country or world. The ones found around here are large compared to those found elsewhere, including the red swamp and white river crawfish in Louisiana.

Signal crawfish are also slower in growing to adult size. It takes about two to three years to reach the minimum legal size of 3- inches, but they can grow as big as 6 inches or more in five to six years.

Crawfish prefer fresh animal food, but also eat a wide range of aquatic plants.

"Salmon chunks work well and a lot of people go down to fish-cleaning plants to get fish carcasses for bait," Anderson said. "Crawfish seem to prefer oily fish. People use everything from chicken necks to gizzards, and punching a can of cat food."

Juvenile crawfish prefer shallow, weedy areas where they can find protection from predators — and each other, because they are cannibalistic — and the large adults prefer deeper water to avoid birds and land mammals.

"Crawfish like underwater structure and murky, muddy areas that has some hard bottom away from shore," Malek said. "You should also look for places with overhanging brush and knocked-down tress along the shorelines."

The common depth to fish is 15 to 30 feet or so, but not much deeper than 40 feet. Overnight soaks or longer usually provide the best catches.

"Crawfish are a very ubiquitous creature in many waters of Washington," Anderson said. "They seem to be a stable population judging by what we see in commercial catches on Lake Washington."

Mark Yuasa: 206-464-8780 or myuasa@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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