For Randy Montalbano Sr., 2024 is shaping up to be a memorable crawfish season — but not for the best of reasons.

Montalbano, who runs Randy Montalbano’s Seafood & Catering in Baton Rouge with his son, Randy Jr., said he typically has some crawfish available in January, but the supply has been spotty so far this year.

He had a handful of sacks a few weeks ago, but his suppliers haven’t been able to restock him since then. In addition, the price of crawfish is a bit higher than normal, though he acknowledges it’s early in the season.

Otherwise, Montalbano would be boiling crawfish — though he’d sell it at $10 a pound.

“This crawfish season is, to me, probably going to be the most unpredictable crawfish season that I’ve seen yet so far,” said Montalbano, whose restaurant opened in 2006.

The severe drought that baked Louisiana last summer is being felt this crawfish season. Crawfish normally retreat to burrows to lay eggs in August. But the hot, rainless weather dried out the soil and caused the ground in some locales to crack, killing crawfish in their burrows, said Todd Fontenot, the LSU AgCenter's Crowley-based area crawfish extension agent.

"That's led to a reduction in production overall," he said. "Some ponds will produce, others are not good at all."

The mild winter so far is conducive to crawfish growth because it allows them to move around and eat. Yet Fontenot said producers aren't seeing as many of them.

"We're staying optimistic," he said. "The season will be late, a little behind. But we are seeing indicators that more crawfish are emerging."

At the Harahan restaurant Seither’s Seafood, what looks like a slow start to the season has caused some concern.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and this is the first year in that time I haven’t seen crawfish coming in by now,” said proprietor Jason Seither. “Crawfish season is our time, we live for it here. So when Christmas is over I’m usually switching into crawfish mode. But this time I’m looking around saying ‘hey man, where’s the crawfish at?’”

While some have been available, he says the price is too high to justify adding them to his menu now.

His customers are already asking him about crawfish availability for parties on Super Bowl weekend, which lands just before Mardi Gras. Lent is when most people begin looking for crawfish, he added.

He’s hopes a slow start in the winter will mean a bigger pop in the spring.

“Sometimes what happens when we get crawfish early, people get their fill by May,” he said. “So I think if it’s slow now, maybe that demand will stay high all the way through the season. The crawfish business is all about supply and demand.”

Optimism is in short supply among crawfish farmers in southwest Louisiana, said Mike Fruge, with Fruge Aquafarms in the Branch community in Acadia Parish.

A neighboring farm that often gathers crawfish early in the season had to send all its workers home because there was nothing to catch, he said. And in some areas of Vermilion Parish south of Kaplan, saltwater got into surface water areas that farmers use, he added.

“We’re not seeing the animals in the traps," Fruge said. "And we don’t see the size. There’s a crop there. They’re going to come in, but they’re going to be late. I’m looking more toward February to start seeing some production and more like March for what we think of as normal.”

Willie Chapman, owner of Willie’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge, said the season is running about six weeks behind its usual pace. Though volume could accelerate by the end of January thanks to wetter weather, he’s worried prices won’t fall until late February or even early March, particularly because an earlier Lent season will keep demand high amid limited supply.

He is anticipating “record high prices this year,” thanks in large part to the drought.

“In 15 years, we haven’t seen the conditions line up this bad ever,” Chapman said.

In some instances, farmers have squeezed only a few sacks from 100 acres of marshland, he noted.

“We will start to see better and better supply, but right now the supply is so low that it’s not even worth the farmers' time to go catch the crawfish,” Chapman said.

Laney King, co-founder of The Crawfish App, which tracks retail prices, said a small fraction of the nearly 1,600 participating vendors are selling crawfish now. Those are mostly boiled, and few outlets have sacks of live mudbugs for sale. Typically, between 100 to 200 outlets are selling crawfish by now, she said.

"I knew the numbers would be low, but I wasn’t expecting only 40 vendors to have crawfish!" King said in an email late last week.

The average price for crawfish was $7 a pound for live ones and $9.99 for boiled. That's about a $1 to $1.50 higher than normal, she said.

King said she's heard from vendors who do expect to start selling crawfish in the next few weeks, so they should be easy to find around Mardi Gras. But there's a chance the drought will cause the supply to be lower than normal all season, meaning high prices will linger, she said. 

Anthony Arceneaux says he will have to be late in cranking up his seasonal restaurant, Hawk’s Crawfish, this year. Customers usually start coming in mid-February to his modest place in the woods of northern Acadia Parish, but it could be early March before he will open.

Now 62, Arceneaux has been self-employed in the crawfish business since the age of 15. He says he’s never seen live crawfish being sold for prices like he sees now, and blames the scarcity.

“I know some of the farmers, and talked to one of them yesterday," Arceneaux said. "He told me had run 380 traps and he caught 9 pounds of crawfish. That doesn’t pay the bait, the labor, anything. He’s going to park everything and wait for something to happen."

Arceneaux said people craving crawfish early this season might be in for a shock.

“They better be prepared to pay for it – if they can find them," he said.

Ian McNulty and Adam Daigle contributed to this report.

Email Robert Stewart at or follow him on Twitter, @ByRobertStewart.