We moved to the North Valley in my single-digit years. My first week there, I tentatively explored the neighborhood, which looked so strange to me with its lack of sidewalks and surplus of green. I wanted to find some kids to hang out with. I found the ditch system instead.
There wasn't any water in the ditch bed the first time I laid eyes on it. Translucent remains of crawdads, nasty roach-looking lobster creatures, bleached by the sun, could be seen sticking out of the muddy ditch bottom. You're definitely not supposed to play in the ditches, but I did anyway.
On more mellow ditch days when the water's not moving too fast, and the ditch isn't totally full, crawdads are pretty easy to catch, especially at night. In our neighborhood near Los Ranchos, the ditches are only a few feet deep. Often, the flow is a muddy brown. But with an old-fashioned stick and string and whatever bait you can scrounge up, it's not too difficult to yank them out. They seem to bite for just about anything.
If you're camping at Morphy Lake near Mora, they come out in droves after dark. Armed with just a flashlight, we used to tread out until the water was about knee deep, and shine the light into the lake. The crawdads freeze for a moment, and you can pluck them out with your hands. Well, I used to be able to, anyway. You lose some natural fearlessness as you age, I think. These days, crawdads creep me out.
You can cook them any way you like (see this week’s food section). Louisianans love them and call them crayfish, putting them in all kinds of sauces and stews. Some folks fry ’em. You can just boil them up, too. They taste kind of like really gamey lobsters. It's a lot of work to get to the meat, though, and there's not very much there. I'm not sure if my mom ever let me eat anything out of the ditch, or if it was just a catch-and-torture ... er ... catch-and-release game for my cousins and me.
Next time you're near a Valley ditch, North or South, keep your eyes peeled for these crawly brown guys. I remember them being about one-and-a-half palms long. Of course, my hands were a lot smaller then.