'Just like lobster': North Saskatchewan River crawling with crayfish

Burrowed beneath the rocks in the shallow waters of the North Saskatchewan River scurries a lobster-like creature. It looks like it belongs in the open sea, but it's a crayfish. Also known as "mudbugs," the crustaceans are found throughout river networks across Alberta.

The little crustaceans can be found in the North Saskatchewan River, and one forager says they're delicious

Crayfish make a fine meal, Eric Whitehead says. If grabbing them with your fingers makes you shudder, use tongs. (Caroline Wagner/CBC)

Burrowed beneath the rocks in the shallow waters of the North Saskatchewan River scurries a lobster-like creature.

It looks like it belongs in the open sea, but it's a crayfish. Also known as "mudbugs," the crustaceans are found throughout river networks across Alberta.

Eric Whitehead owns Untamed Feast, a gourmet wild food company based in St. Albert. He's begun fishing them out by the bucketful.

Crayfish are an easy catch, but their pincers and black, beady eyes can make even the most ravenous of fishermen a little squeamish.

'They'll give you the heebie-jeebies'

"They're in there. Go get them at night with a head lamp and kitchen tongs, because they'll give you the heebie-jeebies if you try to pick those things up," Whitehead said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"They're kind of like the cockroaches of the water. They're kind of scary, but they taste delicious."

The little freshwater lobsters have been invading waterways across the province in recent years.

Crayfish naturally reside in the Beaver River in northern Alberta, but they're not native to the Edmonton region.

Provincial researchers believe they were illegally introduced to new areas, allowing the species to spread as far south as Lethbridge.

Their ecological impact on native species remains undetermined, but the province is attempting to curb their proliferation.

According to Alberta's sport fishing regulations, it is legal to catch crayfish for consumption.

You can catch as many as you want, but you have to kill them immediately.

No license is required to capture them by hand, but transporting live crayfish or using them as bait is illegal.

Lure them with hotdogs

Despite their less than appetizing appearance, these little critters can make a fine meal — but be sure to grab the big ones with more meat on them, and come prepared to boil them up on the riverbank, Whitehead recommends.

Simply pluck them out from under the rocks using your hands, or lure them out with some cheap bait, he suggests.

"If you want to fish them, you can put a piece of hot dog on a little stick in the day, they'll grab on with their pincers and you can get them into a bucket before they let go," Whitehead said.

"You boil them up and it's just like lobster."

Some Edmontonians have balked at Whitehead's decision to eat river crayfish, suggesting the water is polluted. He has no concerns, claiming the North Saskatchewan is the "cleanest it's ever been."

Foraged delicacies

If crayfish are a little too wild for your taste, there are plenty of edible plants, flowers and fungi to forage in the city, he said.

Many species of wild weeds and medicinal plants like goldenrod, wormwood, giant hyssop, horseradish, mint and the ubiquitous dandelion are in full bloom.

"Right now is a great time to be picking your plants for [medicinal] teas in fall and the winter," he said.

"Obviously, timing is everything, and wild plants come at different times, but now is the time to be gathering that stuff before it goes to seed in the next couple of weeks."

Whitehead said these hardy medicinal plants can be found almost anywhere, and it's all ripe for the picking as long as the area hasn't been sprayed with pesticides.

"Once you get an eye for it, you can be doing 120 down the highway somewhere and you'll spot it," he said.

Sage grows on sunny, south-facing slopes, he said, while Canadian goldenrod grows pretty much everywhere. And then there's dandelions.

"There are a lot of goodies that you don't want to miss out on," he said.