Gamefish love eating crayfish—except for the claws. Here’s what that means for anglers


Rusty crayfish (photo: Peterwchen/Wikimedia)

Smallmouth bass and crayfish go together like, well, pick your favourite cliche. But how is this for a scene right out of a Grade-B horror flick? Tom Brooke Jr. was telling us about an image he saw recently of a smallmouth bass that had wolfed down a large rusty crawfish in one vacuum gulp. So, the crustacean was still alive when it arrived unceremoniously into the pit of the big bass’s belly. And that when it pushed its claw through the wall of the bass’s body. Tom said the fish survived the ordeal and the wound healed, but the claw was still dangling out of the side of the fish.

It was just one of the fascinating things about crayfish that we learned from Brooke, who teaches in the Fish and Wildlife program at Sir Sanford Fleming College, when he joined us recently on our Doc Talks Fishing Podcast.


(Swallowing a live crayfish) can’t be a pleasant process,” he chuckled. “That’s probably why they pick the juveniles rather than the larger ones. If I’m going to imitate a crayfish pattern, I’m not necessarily going to go for a big defensive one. I’m gonna go for a nice middle-of-the road crayfish that’s worth the effort in size.”

Brooke’s comments brought to mind why finger-size tube jigs and the original Ned rig—both of which look like clawless crayfish—have appealed to bass and bass anglers for years.

We were also keen to quiz Brooke, who specializes in crayfish biology, about the rusticus strain of crayfish that he studied in 87 different lakes in southern Ontario, especially since the species has now swarmed into our home waters of Lake of the Woods.  For the past 30 or so years they’ve steadily moved northward up the massive million-acre body of water, colonizing four or five miles each year. And in the process, the big aggressive “rusties” have eliminated or greatly reduced most of the native crayfish populations, removed copious amounts of critical weed growth and become a primary source of food for walleye, bass, yellow perch and even northern pike and juvenile muskies.


Even walleye can’t pass up a freshwater lobster dinner

Tom filled us in on the fact that rusties are native to the Ohio River drainage area and that they were likely introduced to our waters by bass anglers who used them as bait. And wouldn’t you know it, that comment inspired listener Ray Nowak, who lives in Northern Minnesota, to share a note with us documenting what he saw happen years ago.

“In the1970s, there was a fairly large and consistent group of fishermen who vacationed for years at White Pines Resort, located in Snake Bay, on Lake of the Woods,” Nowak said. “These fishermen were machinists from Cincinnati, Ohio on the Ohio River. They were smallmouth and largemouth fishermen and they brought coolers filled with hundreds of crayfish they caught in the tributary streams flowing into the Ohio River.


“These were older men who I met when I was in my mid-twenties. Since I was fishing smallies, they offered me some of their bait. I was into artificial lures and didn’t use many of the crayfish. But they were definitely using rusties. And each year as their vacation ended they released dozens of them into the lake.”

Nowak went on the say that he and his wife are avid muskie anglers and noted with alarm, the destruction of weedy spawning and nursery areas on the lake.  “My wife and I catch between 50 and 75 muskies each summer,” he said, “but each year the number of small sub- 36-inch muskies seems to be declining. For me, it is a concern.”

Gotta confess, we’re uneasy, too, not only with rusties eliminating critical fish habitat, but with the billions of crustaceans munching on walleye, bass and muskie eggs.

If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating biology of crayfish—both native and invasive species—the habitat they favour, how they breed and why fish find them so delectable, click HERE.