Any water containing crayfish is a sure sign of the presence of fish. And as a freshwater bait – if you are lucky enough to catch them – they are said to be second to none
Crayfish are not readily available as a bait to anglers, but when they can be found they are often irresistible to chub and very effective with barbel, pike, perch, trout and tench. Success, however, depends on the natural occurrence of the crayfish in the waters being fished.
The crayfish is a crustacean and is the largest of Britain’s freshwater invertebrates, reaching, on average, 3-5in in length, but in the right conditions, attaining Sin. It has the hard shell, large pincers and segmented tail of its relative the lobster. The crayfish is olive to dark green in colour, although when cook-ed (and some anglers prepare it as bait in this way) it takes on a reddish hue. Widespread disease has made the native British species, Potamobius pallipes, virtually extinct, and the European variety, Astacus pallipes, has been introduced on a large scale to replace it.
The natural habitat of the crayfish is the fast-flowing chalk streams of the south of England with their clean, well-oxygenated water and high calcium content. Gravel and clay-bedded rivers can also support a thriving crayfish population provided the water is pure, and the banks soft enough to burrow into. There are a few exceptional stillwaters which boast crayfish, but it is usually pointless to look for them in lakes.
During the day the crayfish hides in holes in the riverbank, in the roots of weedbeds, or under stones and submerged debris. At dusk, it emerges to hunt for food, eating water plants, insect larvae, snails, dead fish and even its own species.
Various methods can be employed to catch crayfish. The simplest is to root about in the bank, grabbing the crayfish firmly between thumb and forefinger, or to scrape them out of their burrows with a landing net. The first approach is only for the intrepid as the crayfish, though small, can deliver a painful nip before retreating quickly into its burrow.
Some anglers recommend dredging the water with a net or a garden rake, bringing up and sifting through the roots of weeds in which the crayfish will be lodged. All these methods may acquire bait quickly, and at any time of day, but for a plentiful supply it is necessary to fish at night, using a drop net.
A suitable net can be made from close-weave netting suspended on an 18in metal hoop. (A garden sieve will do.) The net is attached by a length of heavy cord to a sturdy 10ft pole, so that midstream can be reached if necessary. To attract the crayfish a piece of dead fish (particularly fresh kipper), fish offal, rabbit or other meat should be tied to the middle of the net.
The best time to catch crayfish is at dusk from July until early October, although generally September is the best month. Lower the nets (it is worth using several) to the bottom very gently, near weedbeds if possible, and then mark the spots with paper or white cloth pegged to the bank. Retire quietly and wait for an hour or two before you retrieve the nets. They will contain enough crayfish for a day’s fishing. The crayfish should be transferred from the nets to a bucket of water and carried home carefully.
It is best to use the bait soon after catching it, although if they are to be fished dead, crayfish can be killed by a sharp rap on the head and then preserved in a solution of two tablespoons of formalin in one pint of water. After a few days they should be rinsed and put into a weaker solution. They will keep for months.
Using dead crayfish Dead crayfish can be taken to the fishing water in damp paper or moss, but they must be handled gently because the bodies will break up very easily.
There is considerable difference of opinion about which fishing technique is best for this bait. Ledgering, both stationary and rolling, float fishing and free-lining all have their advocates but it is generally agreed that crayfish are most effective when fished live, regardless of which technique is employed.
Hooking the bait
Whichever technique is used, it is important to hook the bait efficiently. The hook should be no smaller than a No. 6, and a No. 2 is best for a large crayfish. Most anglers prefer to hook the crayfish either through the second segment of the tail, or between the second and third segment. The hook must enter from the underside to ensure that it connects with the fish that takes the bait. Other anglers thread the hook through the tail and bring it out through the stomach near the hind legs, sinking it a second time so that it emerges between the eyes. Generally, it is advisable to hook it by the tail (as long as it holds for casting) as this is not only less cruel but also allows the bait to move in a natural manner, which is more attractive to the predatory fish.
What size bait?
The size of the crayfish used depends on the species sought. Chub and pike cope with any size, although to catch perch and barbel bait no bigger than 2-3in is ad-visable. Alternatively, parts of the crayfish can be hooked, especially if it breaks up while being caught or carried. The claws, body, and above all, the tail are effective separately. If the bait is very big, break off the large front pincers. This will make it more palatable, even to the biggest chub or barbel. The only drawback to using a part of the crayfish is that it will often attract scores of roach, which strip the bait from the hook before the bigger fish arrive.