“Mudbugs Get in Your Craw- More Fish in Your Livewell”


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s I prepared for my first inshore headboat trip long ago, a more experienced angler told me, “They’re gonna give you cut squid for bait, and that will work. But you really need to buy some fresh shrimp and bring it. Shrimp’s the very best bait for lots of fish, and the second-best bait for every other fish.” That’s turned out to be pretty good advice.

In southern freshwater systems like the Apalachicola River, you could say the same thing about crawfish, and although it may not be literally true, it’s still great advice. Whether alive, dead, or artificial — hard crankbaits or soft plastic imitations — you can catch a lot of fish, and lots of different species from tiny bream to massive catfish and bass, using crawfish for bait.

Of course, it’s not just fish that love crawdads — otters, raccoons, herons, egrets, frogs, snakes, and snapping turtles crave them too — crawfish are an indispensable link in the food web throughout the swampy floodplain that surrounds the Apalachicola River. And even up near the headwaters, where the river is bounded by tall bluffs instead of swamps, crawfish are plentiful, and essential. [One species, the Fireback Crawfish (Cambarus pyronotus), is thought to occur only in the ravines between Chattahoochee and Bristol, and was not identified by science until 1978.] In a good year, the Apalachicola River system produces enough crawfish to support a small commercial fishery.

Crawfish may not be the foundation of the food chain – plants and plant-like microbes hold that honor – but crawfish perform the essential service of converting plant detritus into mobile, tasty protein packages that fill the gullets of egg-laden pre-spawn largemouth bass. When the crawfish are healthy and abundant, many river and wetland predators can be too.

But what makes for a good year? Crawfish need lots of water in the swamps, and in order to reproduce successfully, they need that water at the right time of year. Crawfish are adapted to a world that is very wet during the winter and early spring. At other times of year when the river is low and the swamps are dry, crawfish burrow down into the mud to await wet spring conditions. When winter storms and spring runoff raise the river level high enough to fill the sloughs and flow into the swamps, the crawfish emerge to forage, regain their strength after their long late summer-winter’s nap, and reproduce. And the fish that love to eat them move into the swamps to gorge on all of the various life-stages of the crawfish in order to regain THEIR strength for reproduction. A bad year for crawfish can be a bad year for many other species as well.

Timing is everything. Late-summer and autumn rains brought by tropical storms can raise the level of the river quickly and substantially, and thus enhance the productivity of the roughly 100,000 acres of wetlands in the Apalachicola River system. But those rains aren’t much help for crawfish, which lie dormant in their burrows during the fall. Crawfish need those high water levels several months later. Their spring reproductive cycle, from spawning until the young adult stage where they become big enough to catch in small traps, takes from 10 to 14 weeks depending on temperature and other conditions. If the river level drops significantly during the cycle so that the swamps dry out, the process is interrupted. The eggs fail to hatch and/or the young don’t thrive, and that year’s crop has largely failed. The adults return to their burrows to wait for better conditions next year.

In many (if not most) years since the turn of the century, that’s what has happened. The combination of dry winters and upstream diversions has left the Apalachicola River not high enough for long enough to support successful, widespread crawfish reproduction. And although the lack of water in the river is getting lots of attention these days — you’ve probably heard that the State of Florida recently filed a lawsuit with the US Supreme Court in an attempt to reduce upstream withdrawals and thereby leave more water in the river – too much of the focus has been upon total annual flow, rather than on restoring the nature’s annual cycles of alternating wet and dry periods. If crawfish were an endangered species (like the Gulf Sturgeon that shares Panhandle waters with them) and/or the subject of major federal and state restoration efforts (like the rockfish in the Roanoke River system in Virginia and NC), we might expect that river flow-management via federal dams would take their life-cycle needs into account. Alas, although the lowly mudbug is neither endangered nor being expensively restored, and gets neither respect nor attention.

Any creature that relies on annual weather cycles will have good years and bad. For the crawfish, today’s reality is that the bad years will be more frequent, and probably worse, than was the case before the dams, dredging, and droughts altered the natural order of things. But given enough good years of sustained high water, crawfish will again be plentiful, creating that essential link in the food chain between decaying plant matter and your favorite freshwater piscatorial pursuit. And in whatever form you carry them, real or fake, out on the river or back in the sloughs, crawfish will remain among the most important weapons in your angling arsenal.

By Dr. Doug Wakeman

Doug Wakeman is Senior Policy Analyst for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a member‑supported organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the Apalachicola River and Bay. Send email to doug@ApalachicolaRiverkeeper.org, or visit us on the web at www.ApalachicolaRiverkeeper.org, or call us at 850‑653‑8936, or Find Us on Facebook.