The Off Season: Summer days with creeks and crawdads

Tribune-Star/Mike LunsfordRelatives of lobsters: Several species of crawfish live in Indiana. As a child, the columnist tried to catch crawdads along the banks of water.

In the lazy hot days of my July childhood, our family occasionally visited my Great Aunt Grace at her little farm in Putnam County. Grace was a younger sister of my grandmother, and since her husband had passed, we made a point of driving over to sit in the Sunday shade of her back yard to talk a while.

Grace reminded us so much of my grandmother, who had died at 60, that it was almost unearthly to be around her; her laugh and touch, her smile, were so similar that I think she served as a great comfort to us. I still remember how tiny her house was, and I don’t recall her having a television, even a fan. And so, inevitably bored with lawn chairs and adult conversation, my sister and I, and sometimes our cousin, Renee, would scuff rocks down a winding gravel drive to a railroad-tie tractor bridge and explore a branch that wandered through the farm.

There is a natural attraction to water for country kids, which we certainly were. I spent nearly as much time in the marsh near our house, or at Spring Creek, or on a nearby pond — even in a big drainage ditch near our cousin’s place — than I did in my own bedroom. My summers were about dragonflies and horsetails, lightning bugs and crayfish, the latter of which lived in abundance at Grace’s.

I can still see us, face-down on the bridge, dangling a bit of string between the ties, hoping to catch one of the great green-brown crawdads that we spied in the water or along the spongy banks. Half afraid of what we’d do when we actually landed one, the crawdads most often let loose and plopped back into the water before we got them an inch or two above it.

Crayfish are remarkable things; freshwater relatives of lobsters, there are hundreds of species; 99 percent are native to North America. Most of what I came across when I was a kid were undoubtedly burrowing crayfish, known for building “chimneys” of mud. The soil for those mounds is pushed out of vertical shafts that can run as deep as 15 feet, for crayfish keep burrowing until they’ve reached the water table.

I would imagine that there is hardly anyone who has spent much time outdoors who has never seen a crawdad chimney, and since crayfish are known to prefer poorly drained soils — often heavy with clay — the accumulated weight of the dirt they dislocate on a single acre has been estimated to total over a ton, that statistic according to James Nardi in his wonderful, “Life in the Soil” (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

The most likely chimney-building burrowing crawfish in Indiana — there are five species — is the “digger” crayfish (Fallicambarus fodiens). Early this spring, I found a digger — I think — as I walked in the wet gravel of a field road near my house. It appeared to be perfectly at home in either the muddy brown water of a tractor tire rut, or scrabbling among the rocks, but in either place, it didn’t particularly want me around.

Spending time with crawdads, as I used to, certainly made me immune to any temptation of ever eating one. As great a delicacy as they may be around the world — particularly in Louisiana — I think I’d rather eat one of my gym socks than something that smells and looks like our ditch-loving friends. It is my understanding that, like lobsters, the tail of a crawfish is what is most edible, which is no comfort to me either. Crawdads, by the way, feed on a wide variety of both living and dead plants and animals, and often their speed belies the images we have of them as lumbering and awkward. In fact, small crawfish can move with amazing speed, particularly when in reverse.

Carissa Lovett, naturalist at the Dobbs Park Nature Center — one of my grandsons’ favorite places to visit — says much more study could be done on crayfish. Carissa’s stories remind me that children of all ages have surely spent some time with a crawdad or two.

“As kids, we would try to catch them in the creek,” Lovett says. “I even kept a couple of small ones as ‘pets,’ but if I remember right, they didn’t make it very long.”

Carissa informed me that Indiana actually has a crayfish named for it: (Orconectes indianensis), first described by William Hays in 1896; he classified it with another species, but they were given separate status a few years later. The Indiana Crayfish lives almost exclusively in southwestern Indiana, and other than the same threats all crayfish face (loss of habitat and invasive species) they seem to be doing just fine.

The rather featureless rusty crayfish — also native to Indiana — is labeled an invasive in many places. Bait retailers have marketed it to a point where at least five other states to our north and west fear their native crayfish populations may be threatened by these aggressive newcomers.

Although the science of crayfish is interesting, it is the childhood connection that most intrigues me. Lovett said, “I remember lifting big flat rocks slowly and letting the water settle to see what was hiding beneath. Most of the time there was nothing, but we did get a prize under some of the rocks: crayfish, salamanders, small fish, and sometimes a small snake would surprise us. Those days spent in the woods increased my love for all things wild and is one of the factors that made me the naturalist I am today.”

Good things happen to those who play in creeks.

You can contact Mike Lunsford at hickory913@gmail.com; his website can be found at www.mikelunsford.