Crawfish gripped the decks of the Ellie June on Thursday as Fred Jackson and nephew Justin Pulliam guided the boat from trap to trap off the shore of Sand Harbor, pulling up hundreds of crustaceans to sell to restaurants and casinos in Nevada.
Jackson, owner of Tahoe Lobster Co., got the permit in July to start the first commercial fishing operation in Lake Tahoe since the 1930s. A dream that started two years ago when Jackson woke up one night with the idea to catch and sell crawfish has finally become a reality.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," Jackson said.
It's a project that benefits crawfish fans and Lake Tahoe alike, he said. Crawfish is an invasive species that has been linked to water clarity issues. As Jackson explains it, the animals are like cattle. As they graze along the lake floor, they release excrement, an aquatic form of Miracle-Gro, that causes more algae to grow and cloud the water.
"'Clarity by cuisine.' The more you eat, the clearer it gets. Everybody's involved with improving Lake Tahoe's clarity," Jackson said.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency recognized the crawfish as an invasive species in 2009, but it didn't have the resources to fix the problem. Having a private company step in and do the work has been very beneficial, said Ted Thayer, program coordinator for TRPA's aquatic invasive species program.
"I think it's a great idea that private business has come in to remove the crayfish. It's something that we wouldn't have been able to do with public funds," Thayer said.
On Thursday, Jackson and Pulliam hauled in more than 200 pounds of crawfish. They bagged the animals on the boat before dropping them off at Sierra Gold Seafood Inc., a wholesaler based in Sparks, where Director Jim Crowell keeps the crawfish damp in the company's cooler, ready for sale at about $5 per pound. The price varies depending on the client.
According to Jackson, the company has about 30 clients so far, ranging from small mom-and-pop restaurants to the behemoth casinos scattered on the South Shore. Crowell and his family-owned business do much of the marketing for Tahoe Lobster Co., and they're responsible for getting the crustaceans to the kitchen doors.
"The big reason I got involved is because I knew what the lake looked like in the '70s and I know what it looks like now. I want my grandchildren to be able to enjoy the lake like I did. " Crowell said.
For Scott Lee, executive chef at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, the hauls have already been a big success. There isn't a set schedule yet, but he said that when crawfish is available, he buys as much as he can.
"My customers love it. They're actually calling up and asking when we're going to be serving the crawfish," Lee said.
Lee, Crowell and Jackson all agree: Lake Tahoe crawfish are a league above their Louisiana relatives, taste-wise, with a much cleaner and sweeter meat. It tastes just like Maine lobster, according to Jackson.
"They're better-tasting than any crayfish I've ever tasted. It's as close to a lobster as you can get," Crowell said.
Jackson, already looking toward the future, hopes to start using the smaller, less marketable crawfish as bait in the traps and buy a lobster boat for next year. He anticipates real growing pains in the company's future as he starts to add crew and boats.
At the moment, it's just Jackson, Pulliam and sometimes Jackson's wife, Stephanie, out on the lake putting in 12-hour work days that often start about 3 a.m.
"Justin and I, we're nothing special," Jackson said. "We just had an idea, and we kept going after it. It was all perseverance."