Crayfish Connoisseur: Swedish Man Brings Passion From Homeland To Arizona

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Arne Koch's passion is crayfish.

Being Swedish, it's a passion he comes by naturally.

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Arne Koch, born in Sweden, where the crayfish is the king of crustaceans, knows a thing or two about trapping, cooking and preserving a season's catch to last through the winter.

"If you're born in Sweden, you can't help it," Koch said. "If you're born in Sweden, you're interested in crayfish.

"It's some kind of a national food in Sweden," he continued. "It's a national pastime to like, to catch, to eat and to drink crayfish."

To drink? Do the Swedes utilize the legendary Bass-o-matic of "Saturday Night Live" fame to liquefy their crayfish?

What Koch has in mind is the more conventional drinking of spirits. And, he adds, there's also a lot of singing about crayfish at these Swedish social events.

"It's a party," he said. "You don't eat crayfish because you're hungry. You eat it because you want to socialize. You get together and you sing songs and you drink akvavit."

Akvavit is a Scandinavian whiskey. The word is Latin for "water of life."

If you're one who believes all good things must come to an end, you'll understand how Koch felt when he emigrated to the United States at the age of 28.

"I first lived in Michigan, and crayfish were never on my mind," he said. "Then I got a good job offer at Motorola, and I moved to the Valley."

It wasn't long before Koch discovered that Arizona is crawling with crayfish.

"I met an outdoorsman at Motorola who suddenly said, ‘Let's go catch crayfish. He had a net of some sort and we went down to the canals.

"I was ecstatic. They looked and tasted just like the crayfish back home that I had grown up on."

Koch had rediscovered his passion. Crayfish once again became an integral part of his life.

"I traveled all over Arizona, and practically everywhere I found crayfish," he said. "I went camping at lakes every summer, and most every one had crayfish."

When he retired from Motorola, Koch and his wife moved to a five-acre spread in Round Valley. While he continued his pursuit of crayfish, another passion emerged.

"There was so much land to do something with, and I had a little bit of a green thumb so I started making a garden," he said. "It got bigger and bigger, and finally I had so doggone much stuff coming out of my garden we had to do something with it. We decided to sell vegetables. It was pick your own."

Five years ago, when the garden became more than they wanted to deal with, the Kochs moved to Payson. Arne's pursuit of crayfish intensified.

"I built some traps and bought some from Sweden and I got very good at it," he said. "Now I go up in the mountains where I know there are crayfish, and in three days I catch maybe 1,000. Last summer I went up to Hawley Lake on the Apache Reservation for three days and I caught 1,400 with my traps. That turned me on!"

Koch packs his catch in Styrofoam coolers, each with a bag of ice. Most of the crayfish stay alive until he gets them back to Payson.

"I chase my wife out of the kitchen and stand there cooking four, five, 600 at a time," he said.

Louisiana Cajuns are also crayfish aficionados (although they call them crawfish or crawdads), but their recipes are far too complicated for Koch's tastes.

"They have umpteen different spices," he said. "The Swedish recipe is the ultimate in simplicity -- water, salt, and, if necessary, dill.

"You cook the whole thing like you would a lobster, crab or shrimp. You put it in boiling water alive, because otherwise you don't know they are fresh."

Koch then freezes the cooked crayfish in containers. Using a special crayfish knife ("designed for Swedes, by Swedes"), Koch enjoys his crayfish all through the winter, "usually about 15 in a setting."

But the winters can be long, and Koch recently decided he needed to find something more to do.

"I started looking around, and it struck me that maybe I should start elaborating on my old hobby -- crayfish," he said.

So Koch is now selling crayfish traps -- one that he imports from Sweden (which sells for $30) and one that he makes himself (for $25).

"You can catch crayfish on poles," he said, "but you can catch many more by trapping them. I designed my traps based on others I have seen," he said. "There is a basic trap design."

Koch's traps, however, have a feature that many don't have -- a "crayfish stopper" that keeps the creatures "from finding their way out again."

Koch told Arizona Game and Fish officials about his product and they sent him a letter of encouragement. Game and Fish considers crayfish a nuisance, and encourages people to catch or trap them.

"I don't agree with that assumption," he said. "Trout, especially rainbow trout, are not native to Arizona either.

"It's because there are so many trout fishermen and they get all irritated if they get a crayfish instead of a trout on their line. But then I'm terribly biased."

Koch's wife isn't particularly fond of crayfish either.

"She thinks they look ugly, but I think they're lovely," he said. "She's also allergic to them."

Koch, who is a robust 78, stops short of calling crayfish a fountain of youth, but he waxes elegant about their nutritional virtues.

"They are very healthy -- heavy in protein, low in carbohydrates," he said. "And they don't have a lot of calories. Personally, every time I eat them I feel so much better afterward."

For more information, or to purchase crayfish traps, Koch's website is www. TrapperArne.com or call (928) 472-7310.

Nearby lakes like Woods Canyon, Knoll and Willow Springs have plenty of crayfish. And if you need any more incentive to test the Rim country's bounteous crayfish waters, consider Koch's parting words:

"The crayfish are just waiting for you right up on top of the Rim."

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