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Elusive crawdads provide good sport at Grantsville reservoir

16 Aug

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

Weston, 7, wades into the choppy waters of Grantsville Reservoir during a windstorm on Aug. 7 while fishing for crawdads.

The following originally appeared in the August 12, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Anything, Dad?” asked 8 year old Bridger as I lifted my crayfish trap from the shallows of Grantsville Reservoir last Saturday.

“Empty again, pal,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Sheesh!”

A stiff wind swept northward across the lake’s geometric surface, sending white-capped waves tumbling erratically toward shore.  This was somewhat expected—Grantsville Reservoir’s location makes it a perpetually windy place.  But that evening’s winds came on the tail of a thunderstorm and were unusually harsh.

The normal weekend crowd had apparently taken note.  Our closest neighbors were a lone fisherman about 20 yards down shore and a black gull that hovered above us in passive flight.  I sunk the box-shaped trap again, too frustrated to notice the pleasant marriage of breeze and humidity, or to contemplate the way the both the lake and the distant Oquirrh Mountains reflected nearly the same deep blue hue.  The clock was ticking, after all.  There was no time for contemplation.

The sense of urgency reminded me of the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Deadliest Catch, which documents crab fishing in Alaska.  The show features scene after scene of cranes hoisting box-shaped traps called “pots” from the depths of the Bering Sea onto the decks of various crab boats.  Sometimes the pots emerge chock full of king crab.  Other times they’re nearly empty.  In the case of the latter, footage of the skipper’s disappointed grimace is accompanied with a somber narration from voice artist Mike Rowe.

“For Captain Clint and crew,” Rowe might have read from Saturday evening’s script, “Harvesting the elusive Orconectes virilis has proven especially difficult.”

Empty. Again.

Unlike Deadliest’s skippers, I wasn’t facing rogue waves, frigid subarctic overspray, or even foul-mouthed deckhands.  But what loomed for me was no less terrifying: the prospect of writing yet another column about getting skunked at Grantsville Reservoir.

Call it musings of a failed outdoorsman, I thought.

The boys and I had come to the lake hoping to net a bucketful of Northern Crayfish for some shore-side surf and turf.  That may seem odd, considering that ninety-eight percent of all crayfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana bayous.  But the Cajun delicacy flourishes here too.

Crayfish—or crawdads, as I grew up calling them—can be found in many Utah lakes and rivers that don’t freeze to the bottom during winter.  The buggy crustacean prefers rocky, clear water bodies at elevations lower than 8,000 feet.  If I didn’t know better, I might say Grantsville Reservoir was created especially for its crawdad population.

But I do know better.  The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources considers crawdads an Aquatic Invasive Species because they eat fish eggs, displace native organisms, and otherwise wreak havoc the lake’s natural ecosystem.  As an eco-minded outdoorsman, subtracting a bucketful of the pesky crustacean from the habitat every now and then is the least I can do.

And I’m not alone.  Hordes of eager harvesters descend on the lake each summer to net the “poor man’s lobster.”  Most people catch them by combing the rocky shallows with fishing nets or angling for them with raw chicken parts tied to a string.  The box trap method is less prolific, but it’s catching on.  Most people boil them on the spot, since it’s illegal to remove live crawdads from the vicinity and dead crawdads only keep for about 10 minutes.

A wildly successful outing last summer left the boys and me with high expectations, so I was especially bewildered when we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot Saturday.  I stuffed the trap with plenty of chicken and a hot dog for good measure, then sank it in last year’s hot spot.  Bridger and Weston, 7, walked the shoreline.  4 year old Coulter pretended to be a pirate, as he normally does when he’s around water.  1 year old Dillon threw rocks.

Crawdads scurried visibly from crag to crag but were too deep to reach with nets.  Closer to shore, aggressive wave action blurred our view of the bottom, making the chase maddening and near impossible.  Bridger dove at a large crawdad and grabbed it with his hand, only to lose it with an incoming wave.  It was becoming quickly apparent why the usual crowd had stayed away.  Our last hope was the trap, which was consistently coming up empty.

“I saw a bunch of people here last week catching those things like crazy,” the lone fisherman commented as he reeled in for the evening.  The gull, having danced on the wind for two straight hours, decided to call it a day, too.

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

“As night falls,” I could almost hear Mike Rowe say, “Captain Clint raises the white flag.”

Ironically, that was the moment my spirits began to rise.  With the burden of the catch lifted, I was free to notice the water’s darkening blue, and that it actually felt warmer than a swimming pool.  My pace slowed.  I smiled.  Perhaps I wasn’t a failed outdoorsman after all.

Naturally I hadn’t thought to pack buns or condiments, so we devoured our hot dogs plain.  After dinner, Weston waded down the boat ramp until he was in waist-deep—sweats, shoes, and all—then he stood and let the waves wash around him.  Bridger fashioned a makeshift fishing pole from discarded parts he had scavenged from the banks.  Coulter continued his pirate ways.  Dillon threw more rocks.

As the sun dipped behind the Stansbury Mountains, I pulled my trap for the last time.  Nothing.

“Those were the best hot dogs I ever had, Dad,” said Coulter, breaking character just long enough to reassure the ol’ skipper.  “And it’s ok—we can catch plenty of crop-dads tomorrow.”

Best hot dogs ever.

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