Meanwhile, local restaurant owners faced a trio of unsavory choices: depend upon a dwindling supply of frozen tail meat acquired prior to the storms; switch to lower-grade imported Asian crawfish; or take crawfish off their menus.
What a difference a year makes.
According to officials at the LSU AgCenter, which monitors crawfish supplies and life cycles, this year's crop already far outpaces last year's and signals a rebound in the industry's health over the past 12 months. The LSU officials attribute this season's good start to "timely summer rains that increased crawfish survival in their burrows and led to better reproduction." Likewise, they say this year's relatively mild winter has shown crawfish to be "more active and growing -- leading to better catches in both quantity and quality."
Translation: it's mudbug season again!
Across south-central and southwest Louisiana, crawfish and rice share a rotational cropping system, one in which crawfish depend on the remains of the rice harvest for nourishment. Rice is planted in late spring, and fields are flooded and stocked with crawfish in June.
Throughout the summer, while the rice is growing, the crawfish burrow down, lay their eggs, and then wait for the hatchlings to emerge and attach themselves to their mothers' tails. By August, the ponds are drained to harvest the rice, after which they are reflooded in September or October -- a signal to the crawfish that it's time to dig their way to the surface, where they consume the rice shoots left over from the harvest.
After the second round of flooding, the crawfish are harvested throughout the winter and into the spring -- beginning as early as November and continuing, sometimes, as late as June or July. The crawfish cycle's peak in March, April and May is best known locally as crawfish boil season.
Given last year's dismal crawfish production (due mostly to decimation of the mudbugs' food supply), there has been widespread concern about this year's crop.
Greg Lutz, professor of commercial aquaculture and extension at the LSU AgCenter, says Hurricane Rita was the main culprit last year. The storm's surge left salt deposits in the soil, which made it difficult for farmers to establish a stand of rice in many ponds. Lutz adds that ponds located farther inland, though not directly affected by salt deposits, nevertheless saw flooding from rain that backed up into natural drainages. The flood damage, while a significant setback, was not as severe as that caused elsewhere by high levels of salt.
This year's substantial rainfall brought hopes that the remaining salt deposits would wash away, leaving in their wake a return to the normal crawfish life cycle.
If only it were that simple, says Lutz.
"Once you get the salt off those particular acres that were impacted, results still won't be seen until the following season," Lutz says, noting that many ponds have recovered in small ways. He adds that crawfish farming, like any other crop, has its share of unpredictability. "Even people who have been in this business for 30 or 40 years, the longer someone has been in this business, the less inclined they are to make predictions. It's difficult to say where we're going at this point, but we're off to a pretty good start. It looks like we had better survival and reproduction than we had last season."
Local seafood restaurants are taking a similar wait-and-see approach. Darren Chifici, general manager of Deanie's Seafood Restaurant in Bucktown, says speculation and predictions are useless because "you just don't know until it happens."
Chifici believes this season will see an improvement over last year if only because "you can't get any worse than last year, which was really short." He recalls that, prior to Katrina, the crawfish crops were the best in 20 years. So far this year, Deanie's hasn't had to make any adjustments to its menu -- it sells the best of what it can get at market price, and Chifici is content with what Deanie's has received so far.
Most of what the restaurant is seeing this year are pond varieties of crawfish, Chifici says, adding that he's looking forward to the bigger and better wild strains from the Atchafalaya Basin and elsewhere, all of which are yet to come. He cautions against high expectations, however, because it just isn't known what March and April will bring.
Chifici also admits that he hasn't seen much change in the production cycle. This season, like all others, started off small and expensive, with prices falling as crawfish grow in size and availability. He adds that the recent cold spell may have stunted mid-season crawfish development. "When it's warm and they're growing, they grow very fast," Chifici says. "They can double in size in just a week or so. But when it's cold, they grow a lot slower."
"Up until last month, we were about at normal or maybe even a little bit ahead compared to more recent years," he says. "But when that cold spell finally caught up with us, that really slowed things down. It's just a question of when things begin to warm up and how quickly -- or slowly."
Another problem crawfish farmers face this season is a shortage of natural bait -- typically cut fish or rough fish such as pogey (Gulf menhaden) or freshwater shad, which are considered best for crawfish in cold water. Once the water warms up in the spring, artificial baits do just as well, Lutz says. For now, the natural bait shortage and the cold snap "really put farmers in a bind because they don't have any alternatives."
The cause of natural bait shortages remains unknown, but, like other shortages these days, Lutz suspects there may be a link to the 2005 hurricanes. Within Louisiana, most natural bait consists of shad from inland rivers and pogey from coastal waters.
Overall, many factors contribute to a successful crawfish harvest from the Atchafalaya Basin. Water temperature must rise, along with early water levels, and both must remain relatively high. In addition, the basin needs enough flow to keep the water from stagnating. Similarly, water levels have to be just high enough to allow fishermen full access to the crawfish.
Lutz says all those things must happen at just the right time, which is why it's nearly impossible to predict the kind of crawfish season south Louisiana will have.
Tenney Flynn, head chef at GW Fins, has been waiting for prices to fall below $10 a pound for peeled crawfish tails before putting mudbugs back on the menu. Until that happens, he's serving shrimp etouffee instead of the traditional crawfish dish.
Flynn bought crawfish at $12 to $13 a pound several weeks ago -- just to test them out -- and is optimistic about the upcoming season, given the quality of what he's seen so far. Like many local chefs, he refuses to use an Asian substitute. The frozen imports "taste like the powdered fish food you'd put in a tank," he says, adding with a note of irony, "When [crawfish] are scarce and expensive, they're not good. But when they're abundant and cheap, they're very good. You'd think it'd be the other way around, but it's not. I'm just waiting for the abundance."
Despite all the waiting, speculating and depending on things like bait, water levels and temperatures, the good news is that there are crawfish out there. The fact that Louisiana has had a relatively mild winter means crawfish have been able to grow, says Lutz. He adds that the overall quality of crawfish coming out of the ponds is excellent -- and their size is pretty good. Moreover, farmers who manage their crop to get larger (but usually fewer) crawfish and farmers who focus on maximizing their yield, which usually means smaller mudbugs, are doing equally well on the market right now, Lutz says.
On the retail side, consumers appear to be buying all they can despite the temporarily higher prices, says Leslie Stevens, a saleswoman at Deanie's Seafood Store. She adds that little by little, prices are coming down -- from $3.25 to $2.75 a pound as of last week.
Interestingly, early reports from southwest Louisiana portended a disappointing season -- mostly because the bugs thus far are too small for Cajuns' demanding tastes.
"The availability of crawfish is scarce," says Dwight Breaux, owner of Dwight's Restaurant in Lafayette. "We couldn't get enough to open up Saturday night."
Breaux is not alone in his pessimistic assessment of the early season's yield. Cajun Claws in Abbeville is a boiling house noted for its select crawfish. "It's never happened before that we could only open two nights a week," owner Donni Choate told the The Independent Weekly in Lafayette. "But if we can't get the best, we don't open."
Choate operates as a broker, buying crawfish for Cajun Claws and selling the surplus to other restaurants. Typically he buys from fishermen whose ponds are located in various areas hit hard by Hurricane Rita's storm surge in September 2005. Ted Noel, one of Choate's suppliers, has 200 acres of ponds south of Abbeville. About 30 percent of his ponds had some inundation from Rita, he says, but it didn't result in a high degree of salinity. Nevertheless, Noel's ponds aren't producing normally.
"Things have been kind of mysterious since the storm," he says. "We had great indicators that this would be a good season, but we haven't been catching."
The paucity of large crawfish has affected processors as well. Lutz says Louisiana has roughly 30 licensed crawfish processors, but some of them may not open at all this season. He does expect a majority of them to open, however, particularly as the season progresses and prices fall.
Considering the state of the crawfish industry at this time last year, a return to the traditional "wait and see" status may be the best anyone can hope for this time around.
"The word 'abundant' is abused a lot when people talk about crawfish," says Lutz. "But ... they're gonna be available and they're gonna be affordable. They're going to be within reach of the consumer. We're going to have a fairly normal season when all is said and done -- and if you really want crawfish this season, you won't be disappointed."
Mary Tutwiler of The Independent Weekly in Lafayette contributed to this story.