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Figurin' Out Craws Without A Cray

By Russ Bassdozer

You don't need a Cray computer to figure out crayfish.  In fact, we'll tell you how you  can figure them out - where they'll be, what color lures imitate them - without ever seeing one.

Why the interest? Experts always tell us that crayfish are one of the major baits in the diets of all species of bass everywhere. But let's hold that crayfish thought (Watch the claws!) for a minute so that we can review the other important food sources for bass too, okay?

Insects. In the beginning of their life, bugs are nutritious, small morsels for a growing bass. However, a bass is generally weaned off insects as it quickly outgrows its juvenile phase. Sure, they will still take bulky-sized bugs whenever they can, and in some remote ponds and streams that I go to, the adult bass continue to feed like trout on insects and their hatches because there really isn't anything much more than bugs, flies and nymphs for bass to eat.

Preyfish. In most places however, adult bass tend to become piscavorous - fish eaters. They'll pursue whatever is the most plentiful and easily attainable prey fish (or fish-like critters), including:

  • Open water pelagics: (shiners, shads, herring, alewives, silversides, etc.). Some bodies of water have LOTS of pelagics. In such waters, bass focus lots of their time and activities around these pelagics. In some waters, for instance, it may become unproductive to fish shoreline cover at night because bass are focusing themselves on eating mid-lake pelagics by day.
  • Cover-oriented species (yellow perch, sunfish, crappies). Other waters have no pelagics, but plenty of juvenile panfish, and bass will orient their diets and feeding habits to intercept these young panfish.
  • Bottom-oriented species (juvenile cats, chubs, sculpins, darters, leeches, tadpoles, etc.). There are some cold lakes up north where leeches are a prominent part of the prey biomass, and I know some small ponds that get filled to the brim with pollywogs come spring!

So, pelagic, cover-oriented, or bottom-oriented fish and fish-like critters typically are the most important item in the adult bass diet.

Click here to visit our fishing art galleryCrayfish. Where they exist (which is practically everywhere), crayfish typically become the SECOND most important item (after preyfish) in an adult bass diet. Unbeknown to most anglers, many bodies of water are infested with crayfish. But unless you start overturning underwater rocks or pulling up water weeds, you may never see many crayfish. They change their colors to blend in perfectly, and they usually hide in the bottom by day. Even if caught out in the open, they can scoot backwards so quickly that the human eye can not really follow them! But even though we may not see crays from day to day, it is safe to assume they can be a plentiful food source for bass on most waters. Therefore, it is in our best interest to learn as much as we can find out about these mysterious critters.

At what temperatures and locations would you START using crawfish lures in early spring?

Crayfish, like many other species of crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles and insects, bury under the mud in late fall to hibernate for the winter. I wouldn't worry about when they start moving about because it is pretty early in the season. They'll usually be out of the mud before you and I begin fishing! All these critters gravitate towards the sun-baked, wind-protected shorelines to start renewing their life energies for another season.

At what depth or time of year should you STOP fishing crawfish imitations?

I wouldn't stop imitating them at any depth. You can catch bass on a crayfish imitator at any depth, temperature or time of year. Whether the bass believe they are actually biting a crayfish or not, we will never know, but bite they will! Of course, if the bass are down 40 feet under big schools of shad, your crayfish imitator may just be mistaken for a shad by the bass!

What are the ideal circumstances for crayfish?

Most crayfish prefer nicely-oxygenated water, which is usually right from the shoreline to about 20 feet deep. The species does make seasonal migratory movements from its local wintering grounds to its local summering grounds. As the seasons turn, they may migrate out of locations that stress them and into locations that provide a more hospitable environment. They tend to form colonies in the most hospitable areas. Especially in hot summer months, bottoms underneath dense weed beds (with non-stagnant water) are favored crayfish locations. Of course, they love living under rocks, under logs, or under anything else that can serve them as a hidey-hole. They will form colonies of burrows in hard clay bottoms, and pile up their diggings by the entrances to their burrows.

What colors imitate crayfish?

Crayfish bodies have light-sensitive cells called chromatophores that automatically adjust the mix of colors that the cells "expose" to the outside world, thereby allowing the crayfish to automatically match its color to wherever it spends most of its time. Their PRIMARY colors are shades of black, brown, green, or grey. On their pincers, their backs and lower fringes of the carapace, they have distinctive SECONDARY color accents, various traces such as blue, red, orange, white, yellow, or amber.

Just like the crayfish automatically matches its colors to its location, you should match your imitation craw colors to whatever color closely approximates the water color, the vegetation color, and the bottom and cover color of the area you are currently fishing. You can even micro-tune into the unique color of a particular weed bed, mud bar or crayfish-infested rock pile. As a rule, think darker - crayfish usually spend most of their time hidden under something or buried into the bottom by day. They usually come out to forage under darkness of night. There are two ways you can accomplish this "darkness" with lures. First, you can use opaque (non-see through) colors that are slightly darker than the water, vegetation, cover and bottom. Second, you can use soft plastic colors that are semi-translucent (see through). Just pick a translucent color that matches the water, vegetation, cover, bottom color. As the translucent lure comes in and out of underwater shadows and climbs up or down in depth, the translucence allows it to blend into its background better. For example, when fishing tannin-stained waters or over reddish-brown mud or clay bottoms, you could try a jig 'n pig with an opaque pumpkin-orange skirt and a translucent pumpkin soft plastic trailer. Click here to read other examples of when to use greener/browner baits in summer.

Yamamoto soft plastics come in 100 different colors, so it provides us with an ample palette to pick off some of my favorite craw-imitiating colors.

021 Black w/ Large Blue Flake 296 Rootbeer w/ Black & Dark Green
051 Black w/ Small Red Flake 236 Smoke Rootbeer w/Green & Copper
208 Watermelon w/ Black & Red 163 Smoke w/ Black & Copper

Summer softshells are delectable!

Like most crustaceans, crayfish can molt during any month when their metabolisms are high and whenever they need some growing room inside of their shells. This molting season usually is the few months from late spring through late summer. A soft shell crayfish often takes on a pale smoky, almost milky translucent color with white, orange and powder blue accents. The accents start out drab, turn quite brilliant as the shell hardens, and then fade out as the hard shell reverts to the prevailing bottom color. Bass find softshells to be delectable, and I think this molting pattern can be imitated with a smoke-colored soft plastic lure. I like the Yamamoto colors #163 and #200 for this as well as the Kalin's color #455. I make my own fiberguard jigs, and I make a tri-tone fiberguard using clear, blue, and orange fibers to further trigger a "soft craw" resemblance to the bass!

Short Stubby Craws Work Well

I've used a lot of soft plastic crayfish in my time. Some were ultra-realistic models of the real thing. Others did not necessarily look realistic, but had thin worm bodies bulging out with exaggerated claws and antennaes far bigger than any living craw. Regardless of whether they were ultra-realistic or not, they all caught well for me in their time.

Anyway, I keep trying different stuff as far as fishing goes. Manufacturers are good like that. This season, I have begun favoring a few styles of craws (see below) that match a stubby, cylindrical profile. I started to favor these particular craw styles over all others because they imitate the claw, leg and body posture of a backward-scooting crayfish, which tucks in it's claws and legs, and tucks its tail under its belly, therefore appearing...well...cylindrical and stubby.

How does this posture look on a real craw?

Well, take a look at a real craw that croaks in your bait bucket. The wide fan tail folds in on itself, bends and folds under the mid-section. The legs and claws fold in on themselves too. It almost takes onthe appearance of a compact crayfish "pellet" for lack of a better word. Now that's the same posture when they scoot too! And that's what you should attempt to imitate with Texas-rigged craw lures. Now, the bass I catch have no doubt seen this scooting "posture" a-plenty, and I feel the following few lures trigger bass after live craws better than the craw lures with the big exaggerated claws or with the ultra-realistic details.

Another point is the compact size of the following lures. Some of the craw lures on the market are big, floppy ones up to 6" sizes. But I know an awesome live crayfish expert who is clearly convinced that bass bass prefer the shortest-bodied, smallest-clawed craws instead of big ones. In fact, he catches more and bigger bass on 2 to 3 inch long crayfish than he does on larger 'dads.

1) Gambler 4" Crawdaddy. This lure has a "fat" body that is intentionally designed for use on Gambler's screw-in Florida Rig! Bass love nothing more than a vulnerable craw scooting tail-first across the bottom frantically looking for a place to dig in or hide under! The Crawdaddy's claws and legs are tucked in close to the body, and the body is cylindrical. And that's exactly the shape and claw/leg posture of a backwards-scooting, crawdad - hunched over with the appendages tucked in. Son, stick a Florida Rig in this one - and call in sick to work! Work it through rocky, weedy, shallow cover where craws hide. Choose colors to match the water, weed, and bottom colors where you will be tossing it. Make it scoot and pause like real. Bounce it into obstructions, then kill it. Jiggle it in place on the bottom, then let it lie motionless. Expect to get bit when it's motionless. Often you will not feel a hit, your line will just start swimming off or feel heavy. Expect BIG bass!

2) Gary Yamamoto's 3 3/4" Baby Craws. Most of the craws you see on the market are "craw worms," which have flat, floppy craw heads/claws stuck on thin 6" worm tails. The overall design is that of a crawfish lollipop, right? But not the new Yamamoto Craws. The body is fat, wide, and almost cylindrical from end to end, like the body on a fat twister tail grub - except with claws instead of a twister tail. The claws are only slightly exaggerated - they're just right! The claws stay tucked in close, just the right posture for a backward-scooting craw effect. For spooky fish in clear water, I usually go to a 3" Baby Craw rigged on a "Texas jig" (a lead head molded onto an offset shank Texas rigging hook). A Texas jig and Baby Craw presents a simple "do nothing" profile and action that is often required in clear, tough finesse situations.

3) Venom 4" Clickin Craw. The 4" size is great as a trailer on skirted jigs - or alone on a jig head, Texas or short Carolina rig. Usually, I prefer both the jig options - unless weeds are too heavy which is when I'll opt for the weed-free Texas rig or short Carolina rig. Design features include the extra long thin antennae, long thin claws, and the two-tone colors that do make a difference!

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