White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Father's Day Feast

by Matthew Conner

My son proudly displaying his catch. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

My son proudly displaying his catch. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

My rubber knee boots provided little traction as I slowly slid down the mucky side of the bank towards the muddled water. The soft mud of the waters edge impeded my movement and slowly took hold of my boots as I sank into the primordial ooze above my ankles. I peered through the water at a tangle of chicken wire that I had baited a few hours earlier with some cut-bait and chicken livers. I saw a greasy film on the water around the trap and spotted some movement from inside. I lifted the trap out of the water and heard the snapping of tails and claws. I turned and tossed the trap up the bank to my son Wyatt for closer examination.

I turned to go back up the bank pulling one foot free from the muddy hold. As I pivoted and tried to pull my other boot free, my foot pulled out of the boot and I landed with a “thud” on the bank of the bayou. My four year old son pointed and yelled, “Dad, your boot fell off!” I pulled the boot free and climbed the bank to empty the crawfish into our bucket to take home.

It had only taken about fifteen minutes to empty the traps and re-bait and then I told Wyatt it was time to go home. I watched as a small frown began to appear on his face. I took a quick mental inventory of how much time I had spent with my children lately and decided I needed to spend some time with my son on the Refuge this morning.

We decided to continue our “hunt” and see what else we could find on the Refuge. We walked along the bayou catching crawfish for supper and watching for wildlife. A Banded Water Snake swam within a couple feet of us from the bank and Wyatt spent hours trying to catch minnows with his bare hands.

We also talked about how we were not the first people to catch crawfish in this area. Native American tribes would tie pieces of deer meat to reeds and float through the bayous and wait for the reeds to move. When they saw a wiggle, they would pull the reed out of the water and drop the crawfish into their boats.

We decided to try this technique ourselves. After rapping a piece of chicken liver to a stick, we stuck it in the water and waited for a tug. Wyatt insisted he hold the stick with the meat on it and try to catch one. The stick never became still and due to constant checking of his bait and wiggling the stick in the water. I didn't take long before the bait fell off. Wyatt and I decided we better stick to using traps and not the reed technique.

Next, we came across crawfish shells that had been torn apart and eaten by something. I asked Wyatt what he thought it might be and he shrugged his shoulders. Not far from the crawfish remains, we found some “scat” on the ground and I reminded Wyatt that this is what we call animal poop to sound like professional naturalists. Looking at the scat and the crawfish remains we determined that the predator had been a hungry raccoon.

Slowly we walked along the water with Wyatt constantly checking the waterproofing of his muck boots. Suddenly Wyatt called out that he found another dead crawfish. I walked over and saw a white exoskeleton of a crawfish. “This crawfish didn't die,” I explained. I told Wyatt that as crawfish grow bigger; their protective shells do not grow with them. They start to grow a new shell underneath the old one and have to shed off the old one to grow one that fits. I said, “Just as you grow out of your clothes, so do crawfish grow too big for their exoskeletons and they have to grow new ones.”

Continuing our journey, we came across mud chimneys along the edge of the water. We examined the detail of the crawfish structures noticing that each chimney was built from hundreds of pieces of mud balls that were carried and molded by the crawfish. Each chimney serves as the entrance to an underground tunnel that may be as deep as twenty feet in areas that have drier climates. However, I told Wyatt that the crawfish tunnels on this Refuge were most likely no deeper than one to five feet because of how wet the ground stays year around. I described the tunnels as underground homes that provide shelter and most importantly water to the crawfish year around. After the wet season, the land may dry up, but the crawfish can live in their protected underground borrows until the spring waters return.

We returned to the truck and Wyatt was closely inspecting the crawfish in the bucket using a pair of hotdog tongs to pick up the specimens for a closer look. He asked me why some had small spikes and why they were different colors. I told Wyatt that there are over three hundred and fifty varieties of crawfish in the U.S. and each type had a different color or texture to it.

By late morning we had dozens of crawfish and headed home to begin preparing our Father's Day feast. According to the Food Network, Father's Day holds the record for the most beef consumed compared to any other day of the year. Most of the beef consumed is typically grilled and in the form of a nice juicy steak. Fathers all over the country wore silly aprons as they stood careful watch over their grills as they partook in this reflective and habitual event last Sunday.

Our Father's Day feast was a little different this year. A scattering of old newspapers lay on the picnic table as we dumped several pounds of Arkansas mud bugs in the center. It might not have been steak, but I would have to say it was the best Father's Day meal I have ever eaten. I was able to spend time with my son catching crawfish on the refuge and explore some of the wonders of White River NWR.

After a long wait, some of the refuge roads are finally opening. Jacks Bay Road , Long Lake Road , and Brown's Shanty road are now open. I imagine I will see several other fisherman and crawfishers this weekend as I head out this time with my two year old daughter Bailey. This weekend will be her turn to try her hand at catching crawfish and to spend some quality time with dad. I hope every father has chance to take his children out to the Refuge this summer and return home with some food for the freezer and some memories for a lifetime.

Last updated: September 10, 2008