Every morning and evening for the next several weeks Janet Sutton will be up to her knees in crayfish. That's her job. At her Longbranch Farm in Virginia's Northern Neck, Sutton will wade into the wetlands. Protected by thigh-high boots, she'll raise the pyramid-shaped traps baited with small herring. Then she'll dump her catch of feisty crustaceans in a bucket that floats in an inner tube.
The crayfish are easy to catch. "They are not too swift," says Sutton. The meat is delicious. "It's delicate and sweet-tasting," she says.
Customers drop by her farm and park near the "Fish Barn." That's where Sutton sells her catch. Inside there are nine fresh-water tanks where the crayfish are purged of impurities as well as exterior mud. Then kids can scoop them up. Their parents can take the crayfish home and cook them up.
Crayfish farming is just one segment of aquaculture--the business of raising aquatic animals in a controlled environment. In Maryland and Virginia there are more than 200 aquafarms that raise, in addition to crayfish, hybrid striped bass, catfish, tilapia and trout. Most sell their catches wholesale. But we found seven farms that welcome visitors and sell seafood to retail customers.
Most area farmers are not licensed to clean fish. That is your job. But the following farms will be glad to tell you how it's done. Call ahead for availability and directions. And take along a cooler.
HEMLOCK SPRINGS TROUT FARM At the Conley family farm, visitors can catch dinner with a pole. Or a rainbow trout ($2.69 per pound) can be netted for them. Fulks Run, Va. (13 miles west of Harrisonburg); call 540-867-5904.
JIBBEY POINT CRAYFISH FARM Heidi Hodgson raises and traps crayfish ($3.50 per pound) from four ponds on her farm in Accomac County, Va., south of Assateague Island. They range in size from 3 to 5 inches. There are 15 to 18 crayfish per pound. The season runs from May to Aug. 1. Ask Hodgson for recipes. Hacks Neck, Va.; call 757-442-5420.
LONGBRANCH FARM For more than 10 years, Janet Sutton has raised crayfish ($3 per pound) on a portion of her 150-acre farm in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The season at Longbranch runs from May to mid-July. Sutton has developed a special crayfish spice that is also available for purchase. Kilmarnock, Va.; call 804-435-6253.
MAC'S CATFISH Virginia cooperative extension agent Mac Saphir raises and sells corn-fed blue channel catfish ($2.99 per pound) at historic Mount Olympus Farm. Open October through December. Ladysmith, Va. (20 miles south of Fredericksburg); call 804-448-1719.
MISTY BOTTOM FISH FARM Hybrid striped bass ($3.50 per pound) are the reason folks visit Frank Bavis's three ponds at Misty. Opens July 5. Cooksville. (25 miles north of Bethesda in Howard County); call 410-489-5122.
VIRGINIA AVIATION & MACHINE Pilot Ken Hyde's first loves are flying and building historic aircraft. But out behind his hangar there is a beautiful pond from which he sells hybrid striped bass ($4.32 per pound). Open from September until April. Warrenton; call 540-347-1909.
WILLOW BROOK FISHING FARM Most people who visit Willow Brook, site of the former Turner Mill, catch their dinner in two half-acre ponds with a fishing pole. But the Walker family members also use a net to capture rainbow trout or hybrid striped bass ($3.40 per pound). Bumpass, Va. (37 miles east of Charlottesville); call 540-872-3664.