FREEPORT, Calif. — The onset of pale, gray December skies signals the end to another year's crayfish season along this portion of the winding, orchard-lined Sacramento River.
A little-noticed retreat occurs as the last few homemade, wire-mesh traps are pulled from the river's murky green water and placed in storage. Afterwards the handful of dingy, mud-splattered boats that work these scenic miles of rock-lined waterways are retired until spring.
Just as the crayfish disappear with the advent of cooler temperatures, the men and women who attempt to make a living collecting the bite-size shellfish from the river's bottom also begin a yearly ritual of their own. They start complaining.
Their problem is fairly simple: Not many people in California have ever seen a crayfish and fewer still actually eat them. The inability to attract sufficient interest in these river-based shellfish means that the harvest must be shipped elsewhere, namely Europe. But the U.S. dollar traded strongly against European currencies during the past several years and there was little profit in cultivating overseas markets.
As a result, the boats which ply for crayfish on both the river and the delta to the southwest have dropped precipitously from more than 40 just a few years ago to far less than half that figure today.
To compound matters for this fledgling industry, flooding can noticeably reduce a season's crayfish catch. Thus, the abnormally high water levels earlier this year affected the current harvest, leading one crayfisher to say that, overall, 1986 was a "lousy year."
Still, there are projections of better paydays. Some, in fact, wishfully talk of a time when Los Angeles, the metropolis full of consumer dollars to the south, will be as dedicated to eating crayfish as is New Orleans, where the item is a virtual staple.
"My dream is to sell every pound we catch right here in California," said crayfisher Alvin Stults as he motored up the river after removing his last 50 crayfish traps from the water. "The restaurants are ordering more and little by little it grows. We'll see that day."
Stults is one of the major players in the Sacramento River crayfish world, a business that goes on almost imperceptibly between the tiny river towns 30 and more miles south of the state capital. He owns Cliff's Marina just outside of Freeport, and buys the palm-size shellfish from others to supplement the catch from his own 400 traps. He, in turn, sells live crayfish to wholesalers, processors and overseas buyers.
"We would be much better off if we could sell everything in L.A.," he said while maneuvering a former houseboat that serves as his base of river operations back to the marina. "More people there should eat crayfish. Nobody that's tried them doesn't like 'em. They taste like a cross between lobster and prawns."
Stults' optimism is based on a margin of substance. There are at least a dozen newly established Southern California-area restaurants specializing in the spicy Southern cooking inspired by chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, whose K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen restaurant in New Orleans created a host of imitators throughout the country. Dozens of other Los Angeles eateries also offer selected dishes influenced, or originated, by Prudhomme and his colleagues. And crayfish are one of the important fixtures in this distinctive cuisine.
But before any decided culinary shift occurs, the crayfish catchers will need more than just a national flirtation with Cajun and Creole cooking to fulfill their ambitions.
These three-inch-long shellfish resemble lobsters in appearance, but in no way share their ocean-raised cousin's consumer appeal. In fact, many people who are familiar with crayfish, or crawfish, know them only as fish bait, not food. Equally troubling is the difficulty inherent in building the public's appetite for an entity affectionately referred to in the South as "mud bugs."
Yet, there is some reason to continue hoping because this lack of familiarity is mostly of a provincial nature. Crayfish attract quite a following in a number of quarters. For instance, the Swedes prize them simply steamed or cooked and then marinated with a brine and dill sauce. Prices in Stockholm can hover as high as $4 per crayfish preceding the annual Swedish festival honoring the crustacean, which starts the first Thursday of each August.
In French cuisine, crayfish are also popular and are often pureed into numerous sauces or used as edible garnishes. The inclusion of crayfish in sauces is much endorsed by Prudhomme, who wrote that the fat found on the upper tail is incredibly rich and can even be substituted for butter.