Warmwater Tips

Crayfish Reflections of the Mudbug

By Jack Ellis

Whether you call them crayfish, crawdads, crawfish, or mudbugs,these freshwater crustacean arthropods are much appreciated by research scientists, small children, fishermen, and aficionados of cajun cuisine. So prevalent is the last group that I had to search long and hard to find reference materials for this article that didn't have anything to do with cooking.

Crayfish, members of the order Decapoda (ten-limbed), comprise the families Astacidae, Cambaridae, and Parastacidae. These freshwater relatives of the lobster are found in streams and ponds throughout the world and range in size from just under an inch to sixteen inches. Their thin, hard exoskeleton is typically a reddish brown or olive color in North American waters, but may also be white, pink, blue, or even bright orange. The brighter colors occur when the exoskeleton is new and soft which makes them more vulnerable, hence more attractive to fish. Dave Whitlock says that crayfish may be number one on the list of favorite fish foods.
During the day they will hide in burrows or under stones and ledges. Crayfish emerge at dark to feed on small fish, decaying plant and animal matter, insect larvae, worms, and snails.

The crayfish is among the world's living fossils. In 1989, Steven Hasiotis, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado, discovered the first of many 220 million year old crayfish fossils in Utah, almost 100 million years older than any found before. His fossils are almost identical to modern crayfish. Hasiotis thinks they may have evolved as much as 300 millicn years ago. This would put the mudbug up there with sharks and roaches among the most enduring animals of all time.

Knowing what size and color of crayfish inhabit your favorite fishing spot can be a valuable asset in choosing the right fly pattern, but crayfish aren't that easy to catch. I can remember spending long hours of my childhood dangling chunks of bacon under the limestone ledges of Shoal Creek in Austin. The trick was to feel the take and gently raise the crawdad into net range before good sense overcame greed and he dropped off. I'm not that patient anymore. A much more effective method is to build a trap combining a light source and bait which can be left in the water overnight.

Use an opaque wide-mouth plastic jar with a sturdy lid. Cut an opening about an inch and a half in diameter in the lid. Start cutting at the edge, not the middle. The whole trap is going to be laid on its side and partially buried, so you want the entrance to be above the center to keep the crayfish from crawling back out. A small water proof flashlight or a chemical lightstick will provide illumination. Use meat for bait. Just before sunset put the light and the bait in the jar, place it in the shallows along the edge of the stream or pond, and secure it well. The crayfish will come to the light and bait, crawl through the hole, drop down in the jar, and stay there. If you want to get fancy, put a section of wire mesh in the bottom of the jar to make it easier to see what you've got and drain the water out. The screen can be covered with dark plastic while the trap is in use.

Crayfish escape from danger by fleeing backwards. The thrust of their powerful tails creates a darting or jumping motion. For these reasons crayfish fly
patterns are tied with heavily weighted tails and the claws extending out from the bend of the hook. It is also a good idea to use patterns which ride with the hook up so as to avoid snagging on the bottom. The retrieve should make the fly dart along the bottom or hop up a few feet and sink back down. Soft, bright body materials will simulate the new exoskeleton stage favored by fish.

There are dozens of crayfish imitations ranging from the elaborately detailed creations of Joe Robinson, Dave Whitlock, and Duane Hada (see ROP Dec. 95) to woolly buggers with a split tail. The key factors are size, color, and texture. For those who have mastered the use of soft plastic lures on a fly rod, there are several small crayfish styles available.


The article first appeared in Jack Ellis's monthly newletter, Refections on the Pond. The newletter is not in publication any more. The reprint of this article was granted by the publisher.

Jack Ellis lives in East Texas on the shore of a secluded private lake. Jack has published two books: The Sunfishes A Fly Fishing Jouney of Discovery (A must for any warm water fly fisher) and Bassin' with a Fly Rod.