Crayfish, aka crawdads, are a staple of bass diets in fresh waters in most of the mid-Atlantic area. Other fish eat them, too, as discussed below, and some streams owe their trophy brown trout to a crayfish-enhanced diet.
Typically fishermen in our area think of fishing with crayfish and their imitations, called "crayfishin," as an approach for reservoirs or smallmouth bass rivers like the Potomac and Susquehanna. But these techniques are also suitable for most ponds and rivers in our area, including most Delmarva waters and private ponds.
An experienced bass fisherman of my acquaintance told me recently of his astonishment that bass he caught in the tidal area of the Potomac River were so stuffed with crayfish that their antennae were sticking from the mouths of the bass.
It didn't surprise me a bit. In the "bad old days," of keeping some fish from Delmarva ponds, I would find crayfish in the gullets of largemouth bass, pickerel, yellow perch and even bluegills.
Also in the old days, "droppin' dads" was a common, simple and highly effective technique, pioneered by Loch Raven Reservoir experts for drift fishing for bass. Again, other species would also be caught. Those days are over. See the regulations in the Maryland Fishing Guide and for fishing in the Baltimore City reservoirs. Also I know of no one selling approved crayfish in our area.
That brings us to fishing with artificial crayfish. That's not a bad place, since the right lures and techniques are highly effective. I divide the options into fast and slow retrieves and fast and slow waters.
If you watch crayfish in the water, you'll see them resting on the bottom, either hunkered down or in a defensive/ aggressive position with their heads and claws up. When they move, they scurry backward with powerful thrusts of their tails holding their claws together. They usually move in a straight line. They do not wobble, so the many flies and plastic lures with stiff, splayed claws are not suitable for fast flowing waters or fast retrieves.
Quiet waters, deeper waters slow retrieves
The standard for this kind of fishing is the venerable "jig and pig," a 1/8 to 5/8-ounce jig with a bucktail or rubber skirt and a fiber weedguard with a crayfish-colored pork chunk attached. The chunk may be the original Uncle Josh "frog" model or one of several crayfish-shaped models. How effective is this lure? Here's an extreme example. One evening at the Liberty Reservoir ramp, an angler came in declaring he had his best day's fishing. I used a De liar to weigh his 6 ½-pound smallmouth and his 8-pound walleye, caught on the jig and pig on consecutive casts during a prolonged day's fishing.
But here's the latest news. Uncle Josh is ceasing manufacture of pork lures after 93 years. However, plastic versions are getting better, though probably not as good, and can be added to jigs. These lures are ideal for working rocky ledges and humps in deeper waters, fished on the bottom — dragged, slowly hopped with an occasional 6-inch burst, or shaken in place.
When fishing pad, weed and snag-filled areas I like Reaction Innovations "Smallie Beaver" in green pumpkin red color, Texas rigged on a 2/0 hook with a 1/16 to 5/8-ounce bullet sinker above a bead above the hook. I did well with this on Liberty this spring. Many similar models are available.
My all-time favorite is a lure no longer made but still available in places, Berkey's Powerbait 4-inch "Power Pulse Worm" in Pumpkin/Fluorescent orange color rigged as above. This thing looks nothing like a crayfish — until it's in the water. This is my "go to" lure for largemouth and smallmouth bass, although some days the bluegills won't leave it alone.
These bullet rigs can be fished like the jigs but can also be bounced off wood and rocks and swum over weeds and past pads.
When fishing the riffles and runs of rivers like the Upper Potomac or Susquehanna, look for a lure that's "in the round," avoiding flatter lures with claws protruding from the sides. Zoom's 4-inch "Fat Albert Grub" in green pumpkin/red rigged as above on a 1/16th to 3/16th-ounce bullet weight has been terrifically effective. Quite commonly in the Potomac, smallmouth come in spitting up crayfish, indicating what the grub imitates. These are fished by casting directly across the current to quartering downstream and drifting and bouncing the grub along bottom using the lightest bullet weight that keeps the rig ticking bottom.
In still water, the Clouser Crayfish can be slowly twitched over weedy bottoms using a floating line, although my experience here is limited. It also works well drifted through quieter river pools.
For faster waters, there's only one choice for me, Jay Sheppard's Patuxent Special. This is another "in the round" lure that looks nothing like a crayfish until it's in the water. It's a simple fly tied on a heavily weighted size 8 or 10 hook, with a tan chenille body, Palmer-hackled in tan with a tail of red squirrel tail. Back when I could still wade, I would get below a riffle, cast this fly directly to the top of the riffle with a 5-foot sinktip line and short leader and strip back at the speed of the current or slightly faster.