Big bass love crayfish. If you want to land a lunker in spring, try tossing out a live crustacean.
Photo by Photo by Ron Sinfelt
When largemouth bass move to the shallows during the pre-spawn and spawning phase of their year, they are hungry. What better way to tempt them than to offer them a real meal? While bass will eat almost anything they can fit into their cavernous mouths, a preferred bait in the spring is live bait, and the best live bait is often a fat, juicy crayfish.
Crayfish are native to all fresh waters, so bass everywhere are familiar with them as a source of food. Also in their favor as a bait is that crayfish are reasonably easy to gather in fair numbers, either by purchase from a local bait shop, or by procuring your own, and are hardy creatures that can survive for long periods in captivity.
There are several hundred different crayfish subspecies found in the United States, most of which take a biologist to tell apart. They can be found in muddy streams and cold, rocky lakes and everywhere in between. They are bottom crawlers, and feed on both plant and animal life.
Known in some parts as crawfish, crawdads, grass crabs, and perhaps a half-dozen other names, the crayfish is a desirable bass food everywhere there are bass. The crayfish has long been considered a perfect bait for smallmouth bass, and while many live bait experts -- particularly in the south and eastern states of the country -- have relied on large shiners and waterdogs for largemouth, the crawfish gets results on big largemouth bass all across the country.
Fishing live crayfish can be done in several ways, but perhaps the best is "fly-lining," which has nothing to do with fly rods or fly fishing, but means casting the crayfish with no additional weight. Practitioners of the art of casting live crayfish on spinning gear often use custom rods with oversized guides and a soft action to allow casting the bait without it ripping off of the hook. Most fish with 8- to 10-pound test line, and hook the crayfish in the hard "nose" just in front of the eyes.
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Early in the season, you will want to use small crayfish about 2 inches in length. Generally, most good crayfish anglers go with those that show a greenish blue color, indicating they are more soft-shelled than the red ones, especially early in the spring. Later in the year, you may get the best bite on really large crayfish, often as long as 5 inches, and very red. There are no hard and fast rules.
The rods most prized for casting live crayfish are soft-action spinning rods equipped with oversized guides, and outfitted with good quality spinning reels. The length is 7 to 8 feet, with two-handed grips. A custom rod built with larger than normal guides is desirable. The large guides cut down on casting resistance. The best live bait rods have a slow-medium, soft action, with enough backbone to work a big fish. Ten-pound test line is a practical working strength. It's a compromise between line visibility in the clear water of western bass reservoirs, and the ability to handle a very large fish. Some may go lighter; seldom heavier. Bait mobility is the key to fishing live crayfish. A heavy line makes them act unnaturally. Hooks are Mustad 92641, 9260D or 9174's. With most crayfish, size 4 is used, but you should vary hooks to match the size of the crayfish.
It's often recommended that anglers use crayfish by hooking them through the meaty part of the tail. Knowledgeable western live bait specialists don't do this, preferring to "nose-hook" their baits, piercing the hard, pointed beak which projects out between the crayfish's eyes. This doesn't injure them, and they stay more active.
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The actual fishing technique is a blend of modern bass technology and the time-honored sit-and-wait methods of pure bait fishing. The real key to effectively fishing bait for largemouth is locating suitable structure. The pros probably spend as much time graphing possible locations as they do actually fishing. Suitable structure is isolated rock piles, rocky points or riprap alongside deeper water. The good crayfish angler likes to find a sharp structure break with about 8-10 feet of water on top of it.
As important as finding good structure and using a good bait is the way you anchor. Most anglers just don't spend the time to get in the proper position for a good presentation. Since you're trying to feel the crayfish and the bottom with your fingers on the line, anchoring upwind or up-current of the target area is important. It keeps the line as straight as possible, maintaining a good connection between the bait and the angler.
Most good crayfish anglers feel that for those who fish crayfish from a boat, proper anchoring and structure technique are just as important as the casting and working of the bait. Find rocky structure with about 10-12 feet of water over it, and carefully chart the site with your depth finder before selecting an anchor point. Anchoring rather than usin
g the trolling motor on your bass boat to maintain position works better because you want to fish stealthily, and each spot you select will be fished for long periods of time, covering every inch of the structure.
Most often you will want to anchor your boat right against the shore. This makes the boat seem part of the normal shoreline, and its presence is quickly accepted by the fish. If you do have to anchor in deeper water, you need to anchor with double anchors that keep the boat from moving around, as the real trick to fishing live crayfish on light line is to have a stable platform that allows you to detect a soft strike where the bass simply swims up and sucks the crayfish in with a minimum of fuss. It pays to always get upwind of the target so that the wind doesn't blow the line around. It's hard enough to see or feel a soft bite, and anything you can do to allow the line to remain reasonably straight between the bait and the rod tip will increase your chances of detecting a bite.
How you manipulate the crayfish after it is cast out is interesting. Allow the crayfish to sink to the bottom, then crawl it slowly along the rocks by trapping the line against the rod in front of the reel with your right hand, and retrieving with a finger twisting motion of your left hand ahead of where your right holds the line secure.
By maintaining tension against the line on the reel with your right hand, you prevent the line from springing up on the spool and causing problems. After retrieving a few feet of line with your left hand, drop it, release your right hand grip on the line, reel up, then repeat the procedure. It may seem clumsy at first, but you'll soon pick up the trick of working first one hand, then the other. Using the left hand on the line for a slow retrieve makes it possible to feel every motion of the crayfish as it travels slowly over the bottom.
You can fish crayfish either up or down. Fishing a nose-hooked crayfish "uphill" means casting to deeper water and retrieving into the shallows. This works well, and makes live crayfish a good bait for the bank fisherman because bass expect to see them moving from deep water to shallow. The fishing technique used is to very slowly pull the crawdad along the bottom structure, feeling what it is doing by retrieving the line with a finger-twist motion of one hand, rather like a fly angler retrieving a fly, then reeling in the slack and starting over.
At first, it seems like all you can feel is the crayfish grabbing onto the bottom with its claws, but after a few casts, you begin to sense the shape and slope of the bottom and can tell pretty much what the crayfish is doing as you move it along the bottom. Often the strike, when it comes, is only a twitch in the line or a sideways motion. At other times, you will feel the crayfish kick rapidly with its tail to avoid being swallowed by a bass. Strikes can be subtle or smashing.
Another considerable advantage of using live crayfish as bait for big bass is they are pretty easy to keep. You can maintain a stock of crawfish for a long time in a container that will keep them cool and moist. Although they breathe with gills, it isn't necessary to cover them completely with water. It can even cause them to die if you put them into water deep enough to cover them but don't make provisions for circulating the water to keep oxygen flowing.
This spring, instead of dragging soft plastics, give the big bass in your neighborhood a real treat. Offer them a meal of live crayfish. You just may catch the trophy of a lifetime.