Crawfish, spring forever linked in south Louisiana

Lyle Johnson
These crawfish weren’t used for bait. In the boiling pot they went.

Crawfish. Springtime and the word crawfish just gets something going in the blood of most southeastern Louisiana folks and a whole mess of others that live here now. Yes, even those that have immigrated here for some reason or other usually get over the appearance and learn to understand just why we love ‘em.

December usually brings the beginning of the harvest from crawfish ponds and gets the craving started. They are a bit pricy but a few pounds usually does the trick. By late February and early March the pond crawfish are in full swing, much bigger, a little cheaper and the Atchafalaya Basin crop begins to come and the desire for those boiled mudbugs is at a fevered pitch.

I remember back when I was a kid, our family usually took part in an early spring tradition that is still in existence today. Crawfishing with set nets. Last year we got the opportunity to do this in the Bonnet Carre Spillway because the Mississippi River was so high, the pins were pulled and the basin was flooded with rich, muddy water and the crawfish population literally exploded.

But in my youth, our goal was usually to find a ditch or a spot in the swamp and catch enough mudbugs for momma to make one of her trade mark crawfish stews. I know crawfish tails are available year round and you can get them on the menus of many great restaurants, prepared just about any way you’d like. But if you’ve never tasted a stew made from ditch crawfish, you’ve never tasted the best. They are usually smaller, much tenderer and possess a taste that can’t be copied by the ones you buy.

Every now and then I see a daddy with some rubber boots and a few kids by the roadside and my mind travels back in time. Back to a time when my dad packed up a car load of us kids (there were eight of us) and set nets to try our fortune at catching a five gallon bucket full of crawfish for supper. Hmm, might have to find me a ditch and catch me a bucketful of those special crustaceans.

It’s not that difficult to pull off. Get a dozen or so set nets, usually at a hardware store. Next, buy a few pounds of beef melt for bait; a few of our local stores have it for sale. You’ll need a 6’ pole of some sort to set out and pick up the nets and a bucket to collect the harvest in.

The ditch you choose will need to be a larger one that holds from 6” to 12” inches of water with some grass in it. Put the net as close to the grass as you can; a hole might need to be made to insert the net in. make sure it’s resting completely on the bottom or your success rate will be poor. Leave the nets in the water about five minutes. You’ll have to move often, it doesn’t take long to catch what’s in a spot.

This time of the year is also perfect to use small crawfish for bait. All the rain we’ve been having creates optimum conditions for the drainage ditches to be filled with the perfect size mudbugs for catching just about any kind of fish that swims.

A dip net and some rubber boots is all one would need to harvest enough of them to make a day’s worth of bait. Find a location that has some type of grass, that’s where they’ll be. They can hide in the grass and use it for a food source also. An open ditch seldom has many crawdads in it. Reach out as far as you can and scoop all the way back to where you stand. When you scoop, make sure the net passes on the bottom, that’s where they live.

Dump them all on an open spot in the grass and get started. Put a little of the grass in the bait bucket so they can stay moist; no water is required to keep them alive. Sometimes you’ll catch grass shrimp and that’s an added bonus; throw them in too!

Size matters. The smaller ones are the size to catch panfish. Bream, goggle-eye, chinquapin can’t resist a live crawfish. The medium ones are the best to use for catfish. They’ll eat the smaller bugs but you’ll catch the little catfish as well. Medium to large will be really good if you like to catch bass with live bait. This takes a little more work but it’s worth the time if you enjoy fishing for bass.

The rig for panfish is pretty simple; a cane pole will do just fine but a rod and reel will work also. Use a long shank, #4 or #6 hook so the fish can’t swallow the hook in case you choose to release the fish. If the hook gets swallowed, the fish probably won’t survive.

A split shot two or three inches above the hook lets the bait sink a little faster and a cork set according to the depth of the water; keep the bait about 6 inches off the bottom. My favorite way is to use just a hook so the bait will sink slowly and all those wiggling legs just can’t be resisted.

For catfish, a 1/0 hook is big enough to land a big one and will catch smaller ones also. I usually tie the sinker on the bottom and the hook up the line. The temperature of the water usually dictates how far off the bottom I set the hook. Catfish don’t always swim along the bottom.

For bass, a 2/0 hook would be a good choice. Rig it weightless and don’t use a cork either. Bass are structure oriented, so the best places to put the bait would be a stump, the base of a tree, in some lily pads or a patch of grass. You don’t have to leave the bait in one spot very long, move it around because this is one offering they’ll hit pretty handily.

Although the weather has been a little wet as of late; take what nature hands out and use it to your advantage. Whether you use the crawfish for bait or you catch enough for one of those world class stews, you can’t go wrong. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. So until next time have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God truly bless you.