In the morning, when the swamp is still dark and the drapes of Spanish move hide the falling moon, Emery and Rita Quebedeaux slip their green metal boats into the waiting water. During the next eight hours they wade among the oak and gum trees, easing the boats beside them as they empty and rebait 1,200 wire trapes.
The catch has been samll this year, barely enough for them and other Cajun fishermen to save the South from a torment worse than a summer without love: a spring without crawfish.
The drought has claimed the red swamp crawfish. This would seem inconsequential except for the ferovr with which the crawfish fancier boils, stews, gumbo, bisques, etoufees, fries and pies the humble swamp crustacean to a lofty culinary finish.
Nor is it inconsequential to the hundreds of Cajun fishermen who, unlike Emery and Rita Quebedeaux, do not have their owns crawfish farms and depend instead on the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rive basins for the bulk fo their annual income, their crawfish catch.
The basin has not been generous this year, and this is why: what the crawfish needs is a dry summer and a wet fall - a dry summer in which the female burrows three feet into the ground with 300 to 700 eggs. Then when the swamp flows rich with water in the fall, about mid-September, the young emerge. But last year the swamps remained dry; there was not enough water coming down the Mississippi and Red rivers to spill across the southern Louisiana swamps and the crawfish were not and the crawfish were not flooded out.
Meantime, lush vegetation sprouted where water once ran, Spring saw a modest rise in water levels to finally bring out the young crawfish. But it also inundated all that new plant growth, which then decayed and fouled the water to the point where crawfish and other fish couldn't survive.
The result - a tiny harvest of tiny crawfish. And high prices. Fishermen were getting about 25 cents a pound this time last year but are now getting 55 to 60 cents a pound, with the increase passed on to consumers.
"Oh hell, gimme a sack," said an offshore oil rig worker who stopped at Amy's Fishery here on the way to his home in Mississippi from his one-week-on, one-week-off job in Texas.
He paid $36 for a 58-pound sack of live, scratching crawfish. "I got 84 pounds for the same price last year," he said.
Later that night the crawfish would be boiled, seasoned and served to two dozen hands that would break the abdomen section off from the rest of the body and eagerly remove from the abdomen a pearly white treasure of crawfish meat. (The crawfish, known in the North as crayfish or crawdad, is, after all, related to the lobster.)
That ritual, which reaches its greatest frequency in teh Lenten season, constitutes a $6 million or more industry in Louisiana, and the state says it accounts for 99 per cent of the edible crawfish production in the country. Small riverways in Southern California, Washington and Oregon are generously alloted the remaining 1 per cent.
Net that appreciation for the crawfish is confined to those areas. Crawfish experts here say, the days of cheap crawfish are gone, that prices will stay high because of increased demand, particularly in distant places, such as Washington, D.C. where you can find them in some French restaurants.
About 40 per cent of this delicacy now comes from crawfish ponds, or farms, in southern Louisiana, says Larry de la Bretonne, a crawfish expert with the cooperative extension service at Louisiana State University in nearly Baton Rouge. The other 60 per cent comes wild from the Atchafalaya and Mississippi basins. That is why the reduced flows have had such an extensive impact on the crawfish crop.
Harris Barris, 41, a Cajun in nearby Catahoula who has some 500 crawfish traps in the Atchafalaya swamps, can usually count on making $8,000 to $10,000 a year on crawfishing, the majority of his income.
But for the past weeks he's got nothing, has even been losing, like the day last week he was out from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and got one 50 pound sack. It sold for $30.
Trouble is, the bait cost $45, not to mention the gasoline for his boat and truck. "That should be the best time, right now," said Barras in his French-accented English. It should also be the time he is playing back the $1,000 bank loan (for trapsM boat equipment, gasoline) to carry him through the season. "It's pretty hard to pay a note of $1,000 when you're $15 back [on a day's work], and try to eat too," he said.
"Guess I'm going to have to get a job." he said.
That is not the usual Cajun fisherman work ethic, which embraces an eight-month crawfish season and then catfishing and sometimes fur-trapping. Three of the crawfish months - February, March and April - are the make-it months when long days and grueling, seven-day work weeks offset the slack times.
Rita and Emery Quebedeaux are out every day to empty 1,200 traps on a 1,000 acre pond (a flooded woodland) they rent.One day last week they brought in 554 pounds at 60 cents ($330). Normally, they should be getting 700 to 800 pounds but at about 35 cents ($245 to $280). "It just since last week we catching that much crawfish," said Quebedeaux of the 554 pound day.
And as if to reflect an improvement in catches across southern Louisiana, the price dropped to 55 cents a pound the next day.
So to the bottom line in any discussion of crawfish: What do they taste like? That depends to a great extent on how they are cooked and who is the cook. But we can say that the crawfish is the messenger of Neptune bearing a scent of the waters in such a delicate cache that the flavor is certainly the one to which shrimp futilety aspire.