Hunkered down in the shallows of the East Verde River with her chin resting comfortably on her knees, 10-year-old Wytnee Hlavacek flips an egg-sized stone over in the water while learning a hands-on lesson in the crafty art of catching crawdads.
"The first thing to remember is you can't be afraid to touch them," she said, scanning the rocky river bottom for a glimmer of movement. "The little ones don't hurt when they pinch you. I'm not afraid of them. I can pick them up with my bare hands."
Balancing on the balls of her feet, poised to pounce, she flips over another rock and jabs a practiced hand into the water. She retrieves her fist, smiling with the satisfaction of a tomboy who learned to catch lizards from her older brother, and unfolds her fingers to reveal a young crawdad about an inch long.
In her hand, she holds more than a prize for a bait bucket or future stew pot; she holds the tipping ecological balance of the river.
Crawdads -- freshwater crustaceans that look like mini lobsters -- are not native to Arizona, which is the only state in the union without naturally occurring crawdads.
Fishermen, who use small crawdads for live bait, introduced the sharp-clawed predators to the state's lakes and streams earlier this century. With few natural predators to keep them in check, the crawdads have become the granddaddies of many waterways, gobbling up native frogs and crowding out natural fisheries.
In the Rim country, invading crawdads, also known as crayfish, are threatening the survival of the Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Arizona Game and Fish herpetologist Mike Sredel said.
"The leopard frogs are close to endangerment," he said. "We're concerned about how crayfish are affecting their habitat and other native species."
Lowland leopard-frog and mud-turtle populations also are dwindling in Sycamore Creek near Sunflower -- a decline that has been linked to advancing crawdad populations, Game and Fish wildlife assistant Verma Miera said.
"The crayfish have made it almost impossible for the mud turtles in Sycamore Creek to reproduce because they eat the young turtles," she said. "We still have adults, but we haven't seen young turtles in four or five years.
"Crayfish are very voracious. It's very difficult for our native frogs to coexist with them because they get eaten."
Crawdads hide under rocks during the day, forage at night and eat just about anything animal or vegetable, dead or alive.
Their indiscriminate eating habits and river-bottom lifestyles make crayfish resilient survivors that can decimate frogs, fish, turtles and other animals in three ways.
First, they graze on aquatic plants, making it harder for plant-eating creatures to find food.
Secondly, they burrow in mud, kicking up silt that makes it harder for sight-feeding fish such as trout to hunt, and harder for plants, covered in silt, to grow.
And finally, they voraciously eat frogs, larval fish, turtles, snakes, insects and other invertebrates -- sometimes wiping those animals out of ecosystems entirely.
"Ironically, crawdads have been implicated in the decline of certain trout species," Miera said, "but fisherman who use them as bait continue to spread them, causing the decimation of some fisheries. We're asking for their help in stopping the spread of crayfish throughout the state."
Once crawdads establish themselves in an ecosystem, there's really no good way to get rid of them, she said.
"With some systems, we just have to let the crayfish have them and accept that they will never be like they were again," she said. "Our strategy now is to identify key pristine areas and try to keep crayfish from getting into those areas at all."
Crayfish, which have few natural enemies in Arizona, are eaten by raccoons, blue herons, some fish and more recently Cajun connoisseurs such as young crawdad fisher Wytnee's father, Joe.
"Some fish and a lot of animals will eat crayfish, but they can't keep up with their numbers," Sredel said.
Crawdad fishing family
But that's not for lack of trying on the Hlavaceks' part.
In the summer, Joe takes Wytnee, her brother, A.J., and their mother, Bobbi, fishing for crawdads two or three times a month.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department requires a standard fishing license to catch crawdads, but has no other restrictions. Fishermen can catch as many crawdads as they like.
"It's fun to do as a family," Bobbi Hlavacek said. "The kids have a great time. In the summer, we usually get about 60 in two or three hours."
Unlike Wytnee, who spends most of her fishing time "accidentally" slipping into the water and basking in the forbidden pleasure of getting wet in the middle of March, Joe and 12-year-old A.J. take the sport seriously.
"The best time to fish for crawdads is right about sunset," Joe said. "That's when they seem to be most active."
Joe and A.J. bait their fishing lines with chunks of salt pork, and scout out dark, riverbank overhangs, where crawdads as long as eight inches while away their days waiting for night to fall and signal their time to hunt.
Minutes after A.J. drops his line in the water, a cautious crawdad slips out from beneath a rock and latches onto the salt pork with its claws. Without hesitation, A.J. whisks the crayfish into the air and drops it in a bucket of water.
"Some of them have claws as big as my dad's thumb," he said, peering into the bucket to inspect his catch. "Those hurt when they pinch you."
It takes about 30 crawdads to feed an adult, Bobbi said. The children will only eat five or six.
"It's a lot of work," Joe said. "But if you love them, it's worth it."
Crawdads, freshwater crustaceans that look like tiny lobsters, taste a lot like shrimp, Joe Hlavacek of Payson said. Hlavacek, a technician for the local cable company, relaxes with his family on weekends by fishing for crawdads at the East Verde River and cooking them up at home.
"Crawdads have to be kept alive until you cook them, or they get mushy inside," he said.
The following are some of his favorite crayfish recipes:
1 head garlic, mashed
4 bay leaves
1-1/4 lb. salt
red pepper to taste
Select adequate size bag and put in all ingredients except salt and pepper. Place bag in small amount of water and cook for 3 minutes. Increase water to accommodate 10 pounds of Crayfish, bring water to boil, add crayfish, maintaining boiling point of water. Crayfish should be cooked in approximately 7 minutes.
DAD'S CRAWDAD SPICE
1 T. Garlic Powder
1 tsp. lemon powder
1-1/2 T. celery seed
3 T. Cayenne
1/2 T Thyme
1 T. fresh ground black pepper
2 or 3 whole bayleaves (crushed)
1 T. onion powder
1 Tsp. lemon pepper
1-1/2 T. Salt
1/2 T. dry yellow mustard
1 T. paprika
1/2 T. ground ginger
Grind all spices together in an electric coffee grinder or food processor or blender. Keep in a tightly closed airtight container.
Take 2 tablespoons of Dad's Crawdad Spice and add it to a gallon to 5 quarts of water. (In a large pan) Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. While simmering, rinse crawdads thoroughly. Add a handful of salt to crawdads and their water about 8 minutes before boiling. Then remove crawdads from the saltwater and rinse well. Toss them into the boiling stock, bring back to a boil and cook no more than 7 minutes per batch. Remove with slotted spoon. Allow to cool. Break off tail. To remove meat from tail, break open from underneath. Then break off claws, use the small part of the claw to extract meat from the large side of claw.
Great dipped in garlic butter, or the stock you cooked it in.