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How to catch more crayfish

By Matt LindNZ Fishing World
How to catch more crayfish

Nothing is more kiwi than catching a feed of crays. I’d hazard the guess that they’re one of the main reasons that most people get into diving in the first place.

The exorbitant prices that keep them off the menu for most New Zealanders make them the ultimate DIY gourmet delicacy.  I don’t need to tell anyone reading this that fresh seafood you’ve caught and cooked yourself tastes far better than any 5-star restaurant meal. 

Like most divers my entry into the under water world was driven by the hunter-gatherer spirit with crayfish at the top of the list.  Growing up, both my parents were teachers which meant we had plenty of time off involving epic camping trips around the coast every summer. 

Crayfish species

We have two species of crayfish here in New Zealand the spiny red rock lobster (Jasus edwardsii) and the packhorse crayfish (Sagmariasus verreauxi).  The spiny red rock lobsters, or simply “reds” as they’re usually referred to, are by far the more common and are found throughout New Zealand waters as well as parts of Australia. 

Crayfish are a valuable commercial and recreational species

The packhorse crayfish (packies) can also be found throughout New Zealand but they’re far more common in the north.  Packies are pretty easily distinguished from reds in that they’re a green colour but the main difference is the size. 

Packhorse crayfish are the largest lobster species in the world and may grow up to a whopping 15kg. Unlike reds a packhorse crayfish is measured by the length of the tail instead of the width and has to be 216mm long. 216mm is a big tail.  I’d estimate the weight of a legal packhorse cray to be well over 2.5kg. 

I guess people just grab these small packhorse and either don’t know the difference or think because it’s still a big cray (by red standards) that they don’t even think to measure it. Personally I don’t take packies as I’m pretty sure the population is in a bad way with the average size much smaller than what can be remembered by the old boys I talk to.

After hatching, crayfish larvae drift in open water for about a year as part of the plankton group.  During this time they fall prey to all kinds of predators and may drift for impressive distances.  Because of this the number of eggs hatched plays a huge role in total stock numbers unlike more localised species such as snapper where fluctuations in water temperature etc can play a bigger role in recruitment. 

After the larval stage they settle on the bottom as puerelli and begin their lives as crayfish as we know them.  Like all crustaceans, crayfish have a hard exo-skeleton that does not grow rather they make new ones and shed the outer shell as they get bigger. 

During the moult they discard their outgrown shell and have a brief ‘soft’ phase as the new shell absorbs water and swells as it hardens.  They are very vulnerable to predators during this time and you are not allowed to harvest them.

Crayfish are vulnerable to predation during the softshell stage

It takes a little while for the shell to fully harden and it is difficult to distinguish from reading the fisheries rules what constitutes a soft or hard shell. The accurate assessment of a crays’ shell seems to be up to the discretion of the individual fisheries officer. 

One officer told me that if there was any movement at all when you squeeze the horns above the eyes together it would be considered a softie which is the guide I use.  Another officer told me that wasn’t the right test at all (although he didn’t offer a definitive alternative) so use that advice with caution!

Big female breeders

It takes about seven years for a cray to reach sexual maturity and they may live until they are thirty.  The females produce eggs that they hold under their tail for months after fertilization before being released as larvae. 

The number of eggs produced is directly proportionate to the size of the female cray so in the case of crayfish, the big ones most certainly are the breeders.  All females will tend to be in berry at the same time and it’s obviously best to leave them alone during this period. 

The boys are still fair game though and you can tell them apart without grabbing them by looking at the size of the front legs (or killer claws) which are much bigger on the males.

As well as being one of our most important recreational fisheries the crays are also one of our most valuable commercial exports.  Live crays fetch big bucks on the Asian and American markets and there are plenty of New Zealanders who make their living meeting that demand. 

99.9999% of those commercial crays are caught in pots but in one little corner of the world there are still a few people doing it the hard way and catching them by hand.

Hunting crayfish is on of the best ways to increase comfortability under the water because it is so active and consuming.

Chatham Island invite

I’ve made several trips out to the Chatham Islands to spearfish and have always been intrigued by the stories of the commercial divers out there who spend huge amounts of time in those shark infested waters harvesting paua, kina and crays. 

Last year I jumped at the chance to ‘go pro’ after I received an invitation from my mate Floyd to go out and help him catch his crays.

That first trip was a real eye opener and I got a crash course in what it means to be a commercial diver.  We’d need to be catching what I’d usually consider a good day’s effort in one or two dives and need to keep that up all day. 

The number of crays caught meant I was learning in a matter of days what would normally have taken me years as a recreational diver.  Floyd and I would be in the water free diving (SCUBA is not allowed for commercial divers) with a boatman supporting us. 

As we caught our crays we would hand them straight to the boatman who put them into our live tank.  Once the tank was full, which would usually take 5-8 hours in the water – we would transfer the crays into holding pots.

The first and hardest challenge is finding the crayfish.  We know that crays like rocky areas with deep cracks to hide in so that’s the first thing to look for.  When you come to dive in new areas you can spend time scouting in your boat looking at the terrain on the surface to give clues as to what it will look like underneath. 

A jagged rocky shoreline most likely continues under the water into a jagged rocky reef system whereas a pebbly beach or clay bank won’t have much structure at all.

Once you’ve found your reef it’s time to get down and spend time finding your crays. You need to get down to their level where you can look right under the rocks and into the back of caves.  Rule number two is to make sure you look around properly. Make sure you turn your head and look everywhere – the more diving you can do with your eyes the less work there is on your legs. 

When you spot a cray don’t rush straight onto it, rather take a few moments to look around.  They’re very seldom found alone and you want to take in the whole scene and plan your next moves carefully.

99.99% of commercially caught crayfish are in pots. There ares still a few people doing it the hardway (freedving) in the Chatam Islands.

One dive, many crayfish

Remember that you can grab more than one in a dive.  As a commercial diver one cray per dive simply isn’t enough.  Two or three is the norm and four or five crays in a dive is pretty common. 

Getting more than one requires a bit of planning though and when you find a nest you need to take a moment to map out your next steps. Which crays are sitting in front of a big hole and which ones have nowhere to go?  You’ll usually want to use the same hand to grab with so aim to grab the first cray by its horns then transfer it into your other hand so you can grab a second. 

If a third cray is on the cards free up a hand by holding one in your armpit.  Try and keep the crays body against your body and his legs against your arm as that way you’re less likely to knock legs off. Back out of the crack and have another look around as there will often be a big buck sitting by himself close by or even another nest. 

On my most recent trip I spent about half an hour on one rock getting crays every single dive.  I’d grab one or two then find another crack so surface for a few breaths before swimming straight back down onto the other crays. 

I eventually got scared off that rock by an enormous great white shark looking at me as I came out of a hole – the joys of commercial diving in the Chatham Islands!

Ask yourself if you really need the big one as the big crays are much harder to deal with, ripping your gloves and wetsuit. There is also a good chance you’ll make such a mess getting him out that you won’t get any other crays out of the same hole. 

A common trick is to purposely scare the biggest cray, sending it to the back of the hole and blocking the escape of its buddies. The big ones do make more of an impression at barbecues though!

Which gloves?

Take care of your hands.  Cray spikes are sharp and any cuts or nicks in your hands will go septic.  The best cray gloves are the standard Amara dive gloves – Amara is a kind of synthetic suede.  The Atlantis G10 gloves are the best I’ve come across.  These gloves give very good protection but still allow plenty of feeling and dexterity. 

Most of the big thick Kevlar and neoprene gloves marketed as cray gloves are far too thick to be any good.  The real secret though is to get some very thin gardening gloves to wear as liners.  They make a huge difference because if a spike or leg does get through the main gloves they usually do not get through the liner as well. 

I’ve heard lots of people advocate gardening or work gloves for crays and they can be good but they usually don’t have enough protection across the knuckles.  Gloves wear quickly across the knuckles as you rub them against the rocks pulling crays out. Rock torn knuckles are just as painful as cray spiked hands.

The main lesson for catching crays though is pure perseverance.  You simply will not find any floating on the surface. You don’t need to be out very deep, in fact you’re probably better in really shallow water.

You do need to be on the bottom with your head under a rock. Hunting crayfish is probably one of the best things you can do to increase your comfort in the water and bottom times as it is so active and consuming. 

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