Tahoe Lobster Co. Owner Fred Jackson spotted the boat around 11 a.m. trolling near Dead Man's Point, a spot where he'd dropped crawfish traps before.
"He's definitely pulling something up," said Jackson as he motored quickly toward the other craft.
As they drew closer, Jackson and his nephew Justin Pulliam decided that the man on board was searching for fish, not crawdads. But since the theft of 77 of the Tahoe Lobster Co.'s traps, Jackson has kept a closer eye on neighboring boats.
Jackson received his permit to commercially harvest crayfish in July. Two months later, the first set of traps disappeared. The pair didn't think much of the incident until 10 traps started disappearing about twice a month.
Someone stole 20 traps just last week off the East Shore and losses total about $8,000, according to Jackson.
"I just don't know what to say. I don't understand the mindset behind all this stuff. It's such a good thing all around. This whole project is for the people in the basin. It's a clarity issue, it's a community issue, it's a good deal," he said.
The Tahoe Lobster Co. doesn't advertise the traps' locations. White and pink floats marking the traps hover about 10 to 20 feet below the surface, and even Jackson and Pulliam sometimes have difficulty finding them with their GPS. Someone must be watching them, Jackson said.
Jackson dreamed of creating the first commercial fishing operation in Lake Tahoe two years ago. Crawfish, an invasive species linked to water clarity issues, graze on the lake bottom and release excrement that causes algae to grow and cloud the water.
By trapping the crustaceans and selling them to Nevada restaurants and casinos, Jackson hopes to improve water clarity by cuisine. With approximately 300 million crawdads living in Tahoe, Jackson figured he'd have plenty of product.
He reached out to the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Carson City Sheriff's Office, but leads haven't been forthcoming. Jackson said he still hasn't heard back from the sheriff, while the Department of Wildlife is encouraging people to call the Operation Game Thief hotline if they have any information about the crimes.
"We can use (the hotline) to gain leads if someone knows something. Because right now, we don't have any leads. If everyone's keeping their eyes and ears open, hopefully we'll figure it out," Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy said.
The thefts come at an especially inopportune time for the Tahoe Lobster Co., which faces a challenging winter season and new competition.
As temperatures drop, crawfish migrate to deeper water and become more difficult to harvest. After three hours of pulling traps Tuesday, Jackson and Pulliam hauled in about 75 pounds of crawfish. Three months ago, Jackson estimates they would have had at least double that amount.
To top it off, four new parties have applied for commercial crawfishing permits in Lake Tahoe, applications that are on the Dec. 20 Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's hearing officer agenda. The applicants each need a permit from the agency to move forward with the harvest.
When it comes to approving the applications, TRPA Senior Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist Patrick Stone said his role is to identify potential recreational and environmental impacts of the venture.
"It is not my role to determine if a company is prepared to start or will be financially successful. My role is to review the application for compliance with the TRPA Code of Ordinance and to make the required findings. That said, I am also interested in seeing crayfish removal projects succeed in in controlling crayfish in Lake Tahoe," Stone wrote in an email.
Jackson doesn't mind honest competition, but he said he's not sure how the new applicants plan to develop their businesses. And after spending two years pioneering methods to harvest cold-water crayfish in Tahoe, he feels like the other crawfish entrepreneurs are jumping on the bandwagon.
If they think they've tapped a get-rich-quick scheme, they're in for a surprise, Jackson said.
"I think they're in for an eye-opening experience. All it is is a lot of work for very little money. I feel like a farmer," Jackson said.
Before the other boats hit the water, Jackson needs to put an end to the thefts. He doesn't know if the traps were pilfered by random boaters or if it was an act of deliberate sabotage, but Jackson said he plans to be smarter about where they lay the traps. He's received many emails about how to protect the traps --one of which came all the way from Nova Scotia - and he hopes the thefts will end as word spreads.
"They're not going to stop us. There are broken people everywhere, but you just wouldn't expect them here," Jackson said.