Anglers who like variety know they can get it from the waters of Eleven Mile State Park, which is famous for producing trophy rainbow, brown, cutthroat, Kokanee salmon and Northern pike.
But what if you like cajun food? No need to head to Louisiana. Get your traps and next spring head up to Eleven Mile and try your hand at crayfish.
Turns out Eleven Mile produces crayfish that rival Maine lobster in size. (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.)
Discovering my park is a hotbed of this Southern delicacy was a revelation to me. And the way it was revealed to me during our crazed summer of the pandemic is just another reason why I love my job.
It started during a routine patrol in July as Ranger Derek and I were making boat calls.
We found a series of crayfish traps set around the lake. We pulled one up and checked for the required information, which was all in place. And we noticed it was full of crayfish, which are also known as crawfish and crawdads and are popular ingredients for crawfish pie, boiled crawfish, crawfish Boudin and other Southern dishes.
Then we noticed a pontoon boat around the bend that was pulling a similar trap. We took the very full trap over to the pontoon and gave it to the skipper, Bill, and his trap-master, Don.
Both were a bit wide-eyed as they saw two park rangers approaching with one of their traps in hand. But they had nothing to fear. They were doing everything by the book.
Turns out their boat was full of traps and baskets of crayfish. We spent a few minutes talking and soon realized their operation was not just a casual crayfish trapping effort. Don and Bill put traps out every month at Eleven Mile or another reservoir.
On this particular day, they caught over a 100 pounds of crayfish. I was impressed with their operation and wanted to learn more. They invited me to tag along the next time they came to Eleven Mile.
In September, that invitation became a reality. I met them at the boat ramp where they picked up a rental boat. We were joined by Larry, the marina owner, who fished off the back while Don and I handled the trap retrieval efforts.
This was to be their final day of trapping for 2020. Don gave me a lesson in the trap pulling method as Bill guided the boat to trapping beds.
Don and I got into a rhythm of pulling traps and the work went quickly as we got into some great conversations.
Turns out while Bill is the skipper on the water, he actually works for Don as a chef and house manager. Bill is a natural skipper, being a Navy veteran. And he’s a natural choice in Don’s kitchen, having worked as a White House chef. Yep, he cooked for the president. (I will not share which administration.)
Don not only sets and pulls the traps, he makes and maintains them. The pair start trapping in June, being careful to release all the female crayfish they catch, keeping only the largest males.
And crayfish in Eleven Mile get pretty big. By the end of the day, I was calling some of them lobsters because they were big enough to enjoy claw meat, which is not the norm.
As we worked and talked, I learned they share their haul with friends and neighbors. And, apparently, Bill makes the best Étouffée and holds the best crayfish boils around. Bill even freezes tails to make Po’ boys, which I love.
On this day, we caught 90 pounds of crayfish and they gave me a portion of their bounty. (I enjoyed them with Ranger Derek.)
Even better, they gave me a renewed attitude, which had become frayed after the stress from a summer of record crowds and a bad case of pandemic fatigue.
It was one of the best days I’d enjoyed in a long time. I met people who are not biologists but would make scientists proud with the way they research the breeding season and anatomy of crayfish.
And they generously share their time and knowledge, and their crayfish, with others. I especially appreciated that they understood why regulations exist and they help promote doing things the right way, not just the easy way.
It was some of the best conversation I had all summer.
Besides the crayfish, recipe ideas and even two traps I got that day, I received the gift of reminding me why I love my job.
Often, I talk about the scenery, the natural beauty of Colorado, the opportunities that exist to enjoy the outdoors all the time.
But what it really comes down to is the people you meet. Not just CPW staff, but the everyday guests at our parks.
Thanks Bill and Don, you did more than catch crayfish that day. You made a tired park ranger change her attitude and look forward to next season and all the interesting people I have yet to meet!
For information on crayfish trapping see the CPW website.
Written by Darcy Mount. Darcy is the Eleven Mile State Park Manager. If you have general questions about Colorado Parks and Wildlife, email Darcy at AskARanger@state.co.us. Darcy may answer it in a future column.
Great article! Well done!!