Jasus edwardsii - the red rock lobster, spiny rock lobster, or crayfish as they are more commonly referred to - are found throughout the coastal waters of southern Australia and New Zealand. They are probably one of the most prized and valuable catch for any spearo – all spearo’s have someone, be it friend or family, with a high demand for fresh crayfish! Considered a delicacy around the world, they are harvested commercially and sold at a premium price. Crayfish vary in color from reddish - yellow in shallow water, to purple and creamy-yellow in deeper offshore waters. The easiest method to distinguish males from females is by looking at the fifth walking leg (counting from front to back)- in females the fifth legs have claws which are used to tend to the eggs under her tail during the spawning season. Males do not have this claw; their fifth walking leg ends as a single point. Females also have two rows of swimmerets or pleopods on their abdomen / tails to hold their eggs, while males have a single row of swimmerets. Males also tend to have two larger front legs whereas the female’s are much smaller. Females should not be taken when they are carrying external eggs which are carried between the swimmerets on the underside of the tail. This is reffered to as a female crayfish that is in ‘berry’ (pregnant). If females are pregnant they will normally sit in a cave with their tails folded underneath them. To identify a crayfish in ‘berry look under the tail - eggs are clearly distinguished as bright red bunches that look like moss or small grapes. These crayfish must be put back into their holes. Crayfish may also not be taken if they are molting or shedding their shells. which occurs during their growing stages, two to three times a year. Crayfish normally range in size from around 1--3kg, with a 3+kg cray considered old.. There are different minimum legal size requirements for male and female capture. This is taken as the tail width measurement from the primary spine on the second segment. Males must measure a minimum 54mm in width and females must measure 60mm width.
Crayfish are mostly found around rocky reef areas where they hide in and amongst the cracks and crevices in the rocks and frequently underneath kelp which provides food and shelter. Crayfish are nocturnal creatures and can often be seen walking around on the seabed at night, scavenging for anything from small fish to crabs and other crustaceans.. Although normally found in shallower waters around the 5 metre mark, they have also been caught by commercial vessels in excess of 140metres. They inhabit rocky structures and can be found individually, in pairs or in groups. Once one crayfish has been located - there will normally be others close by, possibly in the same hole or crevice. The adult crayfish will sit at the back of the cave with the smaller crayfish at the front and it’s not uncommon for the adult crayfish to push the smaller ones forward when under attack. Crayfish can also live in the same cave or crevice alongside other creatures such as moray eels.
It is believed that it takes around eight years for an adult crayfish to reach the size at which it may be legally captured. Heavy crayfish around the 3+kg mark are considered very old crayfish. Crayfish larvae pass through an intricate process of multiple stages of development and constant molting to accommodate new developments. and it takes approximately a year to reach the adult form with a solid carapace.
Crayfish are a delicacy - by far one of the most expensive forms of seafood available – enjoyed by many and admired by most connoisseurs. They have clean white flesh and a strong gamey taste, and, when prepared properly, are succulent and full of flavour. Over cooking can result in dry, tough and tasteless flesh - the best way to prepare it is by boiling, steaming or on the barbeque.
How do I find crayfish?
Finding crayfish can be somewhat of challenge for newer divers. Freediving for crays involves dedicating time and effort - diving up and down looking under rocks and in cracks and crevices at all different levels, often below the kelp. In order to catch them – we need to spend as much time as we can underwater at their level. It takes patience and often newer spearo’s tend to be disheartened and give up too quickly. E.ventually you learn to tell which rock structures are likely-looking candidates for holding crayfish – normally big rocks with some or all of the elements: ledges, deep cracks, crevices and gutters, with kelp above them. The hardest part is first finding them; once located there are normally more crayfish close by in surrounding rock formations. “ Where there are crayfish, there are crayfish!.” If you do discover a rocky area that holds a few crayfish - search the surrounding areas thoroughly and you’ll be surprised how many more are nearby.
It’s important to map the ground that you are covering underwater so that you can work in a pattern - more ground covered,means more crayfish caught. You can easily become disorientated and end up covering the same ground more than once so use landmarks below and above the water. You need to cover as much coastline as you can, if you are aiming to catch your limit of six crayfish. Look under every likely looking rock, crack, crevice or ledge.and don’t be afraid to stick your head under rocks and kelp - you need to look deep inside the holes! Be cautious at the same time as it’s quite easy to get stuck – especially with your weight belt. More than one diver has blacked out from freediving for crayfish. Make sure you allow proper recovery time for yourself on the surface. Don’t give up! Persistence will pay off,and eventually you will find your cray.
A tell-tale sign that crays are present is their long antennae, which stick out of the entrance of the holes where they are sitting. Another indication is also cray pots - if there are cray pots around, then you pretty much know that there are crayfish in the area. It’s just a matter of finding them. Since crayfish love dark deep gutters and caves make sure you check every one that you come across; a dive light is handy for this sort of exploration. Make sure you inspect all angles of the ledge or cave as crayfish can be found sitting upside down on the ceiling of the cave and at different levels in the cracks. It’s also not uncommon to find them on top of the rock formation under the kelp. You need to thoroughly inspect the whole rock formation. Crayfish hunting takes dedication and persistence!
Methods of Capture:
Once located, the next challenge is learning how to effectively GRAB your crayfish. Newer divers are usually quite hesitant to thrust their arms into caves and cracks - some flinch when the cray flicks and scrambles away. This is purely psychological - you need to tell yourself that the crayfish cannot do you any harm. Then, when all hell breaks loose in the hole, you’ll know that all you need to do is feel around for the base of the horns and grab on. Do, however, make sure to inspect holes for eels before you do stick your arm inside - some crayfish have eels for neighbours.
Once you have located your cray hole - drop your gun or float weights by the entrance to mark the spot (make sure your gun is unloaded and your float line is attached),return to the surface, get your breath back and prepare your attack. Some divers believe that a fast and hard method is the way to catch them although I prefer strategy. If need be, make a few inspection dives on the crayfish hole. How are they sitting? Which is the best approach angle? Which direction is it going to take off in? A few inspection dives are well worth a caught crayfish, as opposed to a rushed and lost crayfish.
Crayfish use their long antennae to sense vibrations in the water and to alert them to any imposing danger from predators. Be careful not to touch the antennae on your approach, as this will send them flying backwards deeper into their lair. Grabbing them by their antennae will not work either, as they are very brittle and are the first thing to snap. One of the more effective methods is to use the two-hand approach. With one hand in front of you - distract the crayfish, while using the other hand to move in behind it. The crayfish will sense your approaching hand and move to face it, moving slightly backwards. At this stage you can block it by thrusting your other hand behind the crayfish and grabbing it with both hands, from the front and back. However, the crayfish are not normally sitting in ideal positions for this to work, in which case you would have to grab it by the base of the horns. In essence – it’s distracting the crayfish with one hand and striking with the other.
For this reason, it is very important to check if the crayfish is in berry before you attempt to pull them out. If you pull out a female crayfish that is in berry, and break off a few of her legs - she is more likely to die. That’s why inspection dives are key, there’s no rush. Also if a crayfish feels soft - put it back in the hole where you found it.
Crayfish hunting does have a few hurdles to get over, but once you have made all the classic mistakes like being too gentle, or touching their antennae - you will learn how to approach them and snatch them like a pro.
A few tools do come in handy when hunting crayfish. and, as always, it comes down to personal preference.
The most common storage device used for crayfish is the catch bag, normally used by scuba divers. It can be worn around the waist however, this adds a lot of drag and weight to the diver. and if connected and towed behind a float, creates a lot of unnecessary drag in the water. For this reason it is not really a feasible option for freedvers / spearos.
Most spearos will use cray snares connected to their floats. These are made of monofilament wire and crimps, which make up 6 lassoes. When you have captured the crayfish and returned to the surface - you tighten the lasso around the crayfish under its legs and across its segmented tail - this way it cannot swim off, no matter how hard it flaps.
The other option is to tie the crayfish onto your float line by doing the same thing - lassoing your float line around their tails.
Cray snares are more trusted however, and an inexpensive security to have. The worst thing is getting back to the boat and finding out that your crays have come loose and swum off, especially after all the effort!! Crayfish snares usually retail for around $25 - which includes 6 loops, for six crayfish.
Some spearo’s swear by them and others are not so convinced. I have seen the best of both worlds - a good diving mate of mine always seems to pull out crays from darker rocks. This is because with a dive torch you can shine under the ledges and into the caves, illuminating any crayfish and any possible escape routes. The dive torch also temporarily blinds the cray - allowing you to snatch it quite easily. An excellent alternative is a small globe or LED torch that can be mounted to your mask strap, leaving both hands free for the job of catching the cray or spearing fish.
Saying that - I know other divers who catch just as many crays without the use of a torch. It’s a personal preference I guess and they sure do come in handy when it’s too dark to see the back of a cave, - makes me wonder how many crayfish I’ve missed by not having a torch to thoroughly inspect some holes.
Probably the most vital piece of equipment when crayfish diving is a good pair of dive gloves. Softer, shooting gloves will get shredded and torn in a very short time. You need to have some good Kevlar or robust rubber diving gloves - even a dedicated pair. The crayfish’s spiny horns and body are renowned for ripping and tearing any and all diving gloves, and you’ll find you fly through a few pairs of gloves in a good diving season. Solid and thick diving gloves do however, give you that added confidence for handling and striking the crayfish in tight and awkward holes and you’re less likely to come away with a few cuts.