Live Crawfish Sizes and Quantities
Live crawfish, once harvested are almost always placed in sacks made of plastic mesh to enter the market. This makes handling and transport easier, and their close quarters keep them from injuring one another during territory disputes. If you were packed in a closet with so many people where you couldn't move, chances are you wouldn't be able to do a lot of damage either. The sacks average 40 pounds, but can range from 32 to 45 pounds. Some crawfish vendors only list a per sack price, claiming they have weighed each sack to equal 40 pounds. Since the crawfish don't eat after they are harvested, water is the only thing passing through their system from the occasional wetting rinse. This will cause the weight of the sack to increase or decrease, but only slightly. Other crawfish vendors will simply pick out how many sacks you want to buy, weigh them, and charge you the current per pound price for you order. Another important thing to remember when buying live crawfish is that sacks are almost always sold whole. Half-sacks, quarter sacks or any other fractions are rarely seen in the market. Crawfish boils are a social occasion as much as they are an eating occasion, so if 40 pounds seems like too much, just invite more friends. Louisiana natives are known to eat twice as much as anyone else, so just call one up if you need help.
When buying live crawfish, it is important to know that there is no universally accepted or sanctioned size or grade system. This can be confusing and misleading at times, but any reputable vendor will usually let you see their current inventory before you make a purchase. Crawfish seasonality is directly related to their natural growth cycle. Depending on rainfall amounts during the Fall, crawfish can be ready to harvest by late November to early December. During the Winter months, crawfish do not grow as fast, keeping the population scarce and average sizes much smaller than warmer months. Thus, early season crawfish are in greater demand, which farmers capitalize on by setting their prices higher. Small size, short supply, greater demand, and high prices in the early production season result in limited use of any sizing and grading system at this time. As the weather warms up, production supply and crawfish sizes increase, creating competition among other crawfish farmers. Two-thirds of the annual Louisiana crawfish production is harvested from March-June. It is during these months that sizing and grading systems are utilized. Because there are no guidelines for size measurements or grades, one vendor may be selling "Selects" that are different in average size from another vendor. The only consistent practice seen when discussing sizing and grading is the allocation of larger sizes to high volume purchasers. These are usually restaurants and caterers who purchase on demand schedules, usually large format crawfish boils for pre-planned weekend events or promotions. Once harvested from ponds, live crawfish only have several days of shelf life. With the clock ticking, the sized and graded crawfish need to find buyers as soon as possible. The added step of sorting the biggest crawfish out of the thousands of pounds takes precious time, but it makes them more marketable and demands a premium price. One huge benefit of taking the time to sort a harvest is quality control. Very similar to weeding, the sick and dead crawfish are discarded, along with other plants and animals found in the catch. The crawfish usually require a good rinse regardless of this process, to remove the grit and mud from those "mudbugs".
There are a few terms to be familiar with when purchasing live crawfish; "Select" and "Field Run" are the most common. "Select" or "#1 Select" are regularly used to describe larger sized crawfish, from 12 to 15 crawfish per pound. Some sorting methods during the later Spring and early Summer months will classify an even larger grade "True Select", with 12 or fewer crawfish per pound. Keep in mind that late season crawfish have harder and thicker shells, adding weight and accounting for the lower per pound numbers. You may see the term "Bait" associated with small sized crawfish. Fish love crawfish just as much as we do. Throughout the harvest season, "Field Run" is used to describe batches that have not been cleaned, graded or sorted by size at all. "Field Run" is the most economical way to purchase, but you get what you pay for. Mixed in with the full size range of live crawfish could be dead and crushed ones, along with other critters and plant material. This lagniappe doesn't benefit their short shelf life. Without proper attention, taste and overall quality can be affected.