With the pressure being exerted on our dwindling crayfish stocks increasing all the time, it becomes even more important for the recreational diver to maximise his or her chances of scoring one of these tasty little crustaceans, writes Ian Miller.

In times gone by it was merely a matter of finding a likely looking piece of rocky coastline and dropping over the side, because the chances of finding a slot full of crays was relatively high.

Times have changed! Those close and easy to get to dive sites have been largely cleaned out, making it necessary to travel further and dive in more remote and dangerous locations. Many areas, such as the west coast, North Cape and many outlying islands have their own inbuilt protection because of big swells and often severe weather. This limits safe diving and often makes crayfishing uneconomical for commercial operators.

There are, however, exceptions all around the coast. More experienced divers often have a few favourite spots not too far away that hold crayfish most of the time. The inner Hauraki Gulf, for example, has a series of caves and archways that are closely held secrets. The astute diver will ‘farm’ these spots, making sure to always leave alone that big crayfish at the back of the hole. He is the resident cray and will attract crays back to the hole for years to come.

Most crayfish are not resident. In spring, crays group up after spawning and march off into deep water to feed. Where they actually go remains a mystery to this day, but the good thing is that they return in the autumn and disperse along the coast.

Crayfish live in a rugged, rocky habitat. Because they are nocturnal, they tuck themselves up in crevices and caves by day and only emerge at night to feed. They can often be found walking around on the sand at night.

Locating a likely looking area is not difficult. The fishfinder/sounder on your boat will show where the big drop-offs are. The more rugged the undersea terrain the better, as it is more likely to have the big slots and caverns you are looking for. Scan up and down the coast for evidence of big rock slides – crays love hiding out in the boulders and often these spots can be accessible from the land.

Take your Time

It’s time to gear up, get over the side and get the adrenalin pumping. I must admit, after 40 years of chasing these things, I still get excited when I find myself in really good cray country. There are no hard and fast rules for finding crayfish, but here are a few of the things that work for me.

Don’t swim too fast, especially if you are under the kelp canopy. And you need to be! Crayfish, even with their tell-tale antennae, are still masters of disguise and very easy to swim straight past. That’s something you don’t need when these days you may only see one crayfish in a dive.

Keep lifting out of the canopy looking for higher structure to head for. Often in this situation you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by a swirling mass of different fish. This is what I call an ‘event’ area. There’s lots going on and if there are crays around this is the most likely spot to find them.

When you finally see some feelers sticking out from under a rock or ledge, avoid the temptation to rush in and make a grab at them. Instead, swim slowly around the immediate area. The chances are there will be more crays around within a few metres of each other. There may even be a hole with three or four inside. Crayfish do tend to hang out together.

Now is a very good time not to experience ‘buck fever’. If you rush in you may get one fish, but you will also stir the area up so much you won’t even be able to see where the others are! It now becomes a strategy exercise: work out which way the current is running and work back up into it. That way, if there are a few crayfish in the group, you may end up with your limit rather than one or two.

Straight Grab
Part two of the strategy is working out how to actually go about catching these things sitting around waving their feelers at you! Surely this must now be the easy bit? Believe me, it’s not! This is where the fun really begins.

There are several items of equipment integral to successfully capturing crayfish. A good torch is very handy, so you can see into the back of some of those holes. A good catch bag is essential, to ensure the catch doesn’t escape after all your hard work.

Most important of all is a good pair of snug-fitting gloves. The best ones are made from a combination of neoprene and amaara. This is a very strong synthetic leather resistant to puncturing that still provides good feel. Old fashioned gardening gloves will work, but in a crunch situation you will probably lose your quarry. Over the years there have been dozens of different cray snares, nooses and holders of every description. All of them probably have their place in the right situation, but once you master the ‘straight grab’ technique, it will account for 90% of your captures.

Cunning and Speed

Catching crayfish by hand is a combination of cunning, speed and a whole lot of fun. It mainly centres around how deep the hole is. If the back of the hole is only a couple of feet deep then the cray is in trouble! It becomes a matter of putting your hand in, finding both the horns and wrestling him out. If you encounter resistance, just jiggle him backwards and forwards a few times and he will let go. If you just keep pulling you will very likely snap his horn off.

If you can see that the hole goes right back, that becomes a whole new ball game. Make sure you don’t touch his feelers or that will be the last you see of him. Keep your preferred hand low down and slide it under his feelers until he becomes nervous and makes to back off.

At this point move your body up and forward until he again gets nervous and ready yourself to make a strike. Your aiming point is around half a metre behind the cray’s tail because that’s where he will be by the time you clamp your hand around the base of his horns! Don’t be tentative! Hit him as fast as you can.

Should you manage to only get hold of the end of a horn, just hang on until all the tail flapping ceases. This where your good gloves are worth their weight in gold. You can now walk your fingers up the horn to get a better purchase and with a stroke of luck maybe get hold of the other one. Capture complete!

Tail Noose
The only artificial device I would recommend is the telescopic stainless tail noose, and only because these days a couple of crays is all you may see. Often in big country, crays are sitting in crevices way down out of arm’s reach.

You can then wave your hand or even touch his tail and he will back up. Pull the loop firmly tight and it’s game over! Back on shore, it’s now time to prepare your catch for the feast. There are many schools of thought on the best way to kill a crayfish. The one that has always worked for me is to place him head down in half a bucket of fresh water. It takes them 10 minutes to go to sleep and be ready for the pot or B.B.Q.