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The Crayfish Story No One Believed (But Turned Out to Be True)

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Wednesday, July 15, 2020
by Theo Witsell

I grew up as a city kid, born and raised in downtown Little Rock, surrounded by more pavement than plants. In the second grade I went to Williams Magnet School, in what was then the western part of Little Rock (now Midtown) with some other kids from my neighborhood. There was a creek (more of a ditch really) at the back of the playground that captivated our imaginations more than the basketball hoops and jungle gyms. To us it was a wild and wonderful place and we fancied ourselves to be real naturalists and would catch little crawdads in plastic cups after school, bragging about our skills and hunting prowess. I’m not sure which species we found in that sad, silty little creek, but they were mostly brown and about two inches long on average, with pincers barely big enough for you to feel it if you got pinched. If you caught a three incher it was a monster.

At the end of each summer our family would gather for a weekend on the lower Buffalo River, where we’d take a leisurely all-day float from Buffalo Point to Rush. It was our tradition to float a little way past the takeout at Rush and up into the lower reaches of Clabber Creek, a cool, clear, spring-fed tributary of the Buffalo. We usually had this spot all to ourselves and would spend the hottest part of the afternoon relaxing and playing in the water. On one trip, when I was in about the 4th grade, we were up Clabber Creek and I was amusing myself catching crawdads. I found some holes in the bank and I took some lunch meat and some fishing line and tried to bait out whatever might be hiding in them.

Boy with Lonpincered Crayfish, credit John MooreI lured a couple of little brown ones out and then, to my absolute astonishment, a giant blue and white monster of a crayfish emerged from a large hole. It was impossibly large - about 8 inches long, with huge claws that seemed big enough to sever a finger, making up at least a third of its length! Definitely feeling intimidated by those claws, and with no cup big enough to catch it, I called excitedly to the adults to bring a net and quick. Someone came eventually but by then it had stolen the bait and retreated into the hole, never to be seen again. Not only did I have no witnesses, but I was met with skeptical looks and raised eyebrows when I told everyone what I had seen. “Now THAT’s a fisherman’s story!”, some condescending adult said.

When I got back to school and told my friends, their reactions were even worse. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and unfortunately, I had none to show. “Uh huh, SURE you saw a giant blue and white crawdad! I believe you!”, “You sure it wasn’t the Loch Ness Monster?!”, etc. In fact, I was teased about my “ghost lobster” all the way up until Junior High. After a while I began to wonder if I had just imagined it, or blown it out of proportion in my mind, until eventually it was just a hazy memory, nearly forgotten.

Longpincered Crayfish (Faxonius longidigitus), photo courtesy of Missouri Department of ConservationNow, fast forward 20-something years. I’m working as the botanist at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and am about to give an evening talk on rare plants to the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists. I was the second speaker that evening, following Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Biologist Brian Wagner, who was speaking on Crayfish in Arkansas. I got there early so I could catch his talk. Eventually he said “and this is the Longpincered Crayfish (Faxonius longidigitus), the largest crayfish in Arkansas and found only in the White River Basin” and he shows a picture of the fabled Clabber Creek Lobster – blue and white with those giant pincers! My memories came flooding back and I grinned ear-to-ear, feeling vindicated knowing that I didn’t dream it but did see what I remembered seeing all those years ago. If only my pals from elementary school had been there!

Photos (top to bottom):

A boy is amazed at the massive Longpincered Crayfish (Faxonius longidigitus) caught in North Sylamore Creek in Stone County. This is probably similar to the reaction that Theo had when he found the Clabber Creek Lobster. Photo by John Moore.

Longpincered Crayfish (F. longidigitus), the largest crayfish in Arkansas, is endemic to the White River drainage of Arkansas and Missouri. Photo used with permission from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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