New Orleans, La. – One of the big surprises for many now trying to keep tabs on Louisiana seafood since the BP oil disaster has been just where so much of this seafood starts out. While much of it is caught in Gulf waters and along this state's long, undulating ribbon of marshy coastline - the areas most directly impacted by the spill -- an awful lot of it also comes from waters well inland. This is that network of lakes, ponds, bayous and wetlands that proves such a productive nursery for the things we love to eat.
To learn more about this inland fishing habitat and what it brings to our plate, I shipped out for the day with fisherman and swamp hunter Joey Fonseca. Stocky and gregarious, with a bushy, salt-colored mustache, he's a third-generation heir to deep-running fishing traditions. Today he and his wife Jeannie have a niche business supplying restaurant chefs and shoppers at local farmers markets with the tasty creatures from the inland waters surrounding their home in Des Allemands, a tiny village about 30 miles southwest of New Orleans.
In an age of industrialized fish farming, Fonseca still catches wild catfish using hoop nets. Each spring, customers line up for Belle River crawfish, again wild-caught. When Fonseca hunts alligators, he finishes off the toothy reptiles with a sound thump from the blunt end of a hatchet. And when it's time to catch frogs, he sets off for the swamp at night with a lamp, a sack and his bare hands.
But right about now it's prime time for soft shell crabs, those crabs caught right as they're about to shed their old shells and plump up for new ones. The first cold front of the year will signal the beginning of the end for this season's soft shell catch, so local fishermen keep busy through September and October hunting down these precious delicacies in the making.
From sunrise to noon on a normal late summer day, Fonseca and a deckhand will harvest crabs from hundreds of traps around Lac Des Allemands. The vast majority of these crabs are brought straight to a dockside seafood processor, bound for grocery stores and restaurants across the country.
But throughout the day, Fonseca avidly eyes each trap as it's hauled in, scanning for crabs about to molt and become soft shells. In the rattling tumble of crabs shaken loose from one trap, something catches his eye. He plucks one crab from the snapping multitude and carefully extends its paddle-shaped flipper. He's looking for a rosy stitch at the edge of the flipper, a red line no thicker than thread.
Spotting that thread on the moving, busy fishing boat takes intense focus, but it's worth it. It's the faint but certain sign that a new shell is forming beneath the old, and the sign that Fonseca has a restaurant-quality soft shell in his hands.
Back on land, his wife Jeannie oversees a series of fiberglass tanks gurgling away in the plywood shed behind their house. It's a homespun aquarium system where she shepherds crabs through the difficult, and sometimes fatal, molting period.
Through this process, crabs caught on a Saturday might be soft shells ready for Tuesday's Crescent City Farmers Market, where Jeannie sells them live from her cooler to home cooks and restaurant chefs. Hand-selected on Joey's boat, nurtured in Jeannie's shed, these crabs makes great eating at the New Orleans table and add another chapter to the seafood legacy of south Louisiana.