Minnows may be the staple food for bass. And insects are certainly the bread and butter diet for trout. But if you show either of these popular gamefish a crayfish, they'll gobble it up in a flash. There seems to be something about the taste appeal of these crustaceans that bass, trout, and also walleyes, pike and panfish find irresistible.
Crayfish aren't necessarily just an occasional treat for gamefish, either. In some waters they are quite abundant and form a major item on the fish's diet. Over 500 species of crayfish exist worldwide, and more than 100 inhabit the United States and Canada. They are found in streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. Local waters such as the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Big Stoney and Cedar Creeks and Lake Anna abound with them.
Crayfish (or crawdads) eaten by gamefish typically range from 1-3 inches. Colors vary but shades of brown, gray, tan, olive and rust seem most common. Years ago only a handful of crayfish patterns could be found. Today there are a number of good crayfish flies as well as several patterns that can serve double-duty as crawdad imitations.
Crayfish are somewhat nocturnal creatures, so action with these flies is often particularly good early and late in the day and when cloud cover is heavy. Also keep in mind that crayfish are bottom-dwellers. Flies should be kept within a foot or so of the lake or river floor. Many patterns are weighted to take them deep quickly. You can also add split shot or use a sinking tip or full sinking line for fishing deep lakes and big rivers.
Keep leaders short, so they don't lift the fly off the bottom -- 4-6 feet is sufficient. Tippet test will vary with the size fly being used and fish sought, as well as how much cover is available for fish to wrap your leader around during the fight. You may need anywhere from 4-12 pound test. Avoid going too light, though. It can cause twists in the leader when you cast.
Most fishermen are familiar with the backwards, spurting motion of crayfish. That is one type of movement they display, often when they are alarmed and trying to flee. Crayfish also move in a slower, less frenetic manner, though, as they crawl forward searching for food or simply moving about.
Keep both of these styles of movement in mind when fishing crawdad patterns. Try darting spurts of 4-12 inches followed by pauses, and also a steady crawling presentation using a hand-twist retrieve. I generally like to start with the slower delivery, to avoid spooking fish. If that approach doesn't pay off, switch to the faster, darting presentation. The fish will soon let you know which delivery they prefer.
Work crayfish flies around rocks, logs, ledges and bottom debris in rivers. Also probe tail-outs of pools, shoreline edges and backwater eddies. In lakes fish near points, weed beds, drop offs, feeder creeks, coves and shoals. Don't be surprised if the biggest fish of your life falls for one of these miniature lobsters.
Patterns -- Crayfish patterns have been made with hackle, rabbit skin and fur, deer hair, closed-cell foam, artificial leather, real leather and synthetic fur. One of the most popular patterns of all is the Clouser Crayfish. It has a thick fur underbody with feather claws, wound hackle for legs and a dark feather section for the back ribbed with monofilament. If you don't have any specific crayfish imitations, various Sculpin patterns or a Conehead Woolly Bugger will work well. Fish them just like you would specific crayfish flies.
Of course if you prefer spinning, you have a wide selection of lures to choose from that mimic crayfish. Many people feel this is the main thing jigs imitate. Crayfish shaped crankbaits are also offered by a number of companies. Work the jigs with a slow lift and drop of the rod tip or a steady crawling retrieve. Crayfish-imitating crankbaits can be effective with a slow, smooth retrieve or worked in short spurting movements, like the real insects behave when they are scurrying backwards to escape a predator.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.