THE ART OF GRABBING CRAYS
The picture of a cooked crayfish (rock lobster) on a platter, is enough to make mouths water, worldwide. This lavish seafood option is, for most, purchased at a premium price at a top quality restaurant or from the seafood market for a special occasion. As a freediver I consider myself lucky to have the option to head out on the water and catch some crays, cook them up and share with my family and friends.
I come from Queensland, Australia, where the rules that regulate the take and possession of crayfish are a little different from those in New Zealand. The main differences between QLD and NZ are that in QLD:
- Crayfish cannot be taken while using underwater breathing apparatus,
- There is a closed season when spawning occurs,
- there are over 5 species commonly encountered (only one of these has a size limit),
- Boat limits apply (maximum of 10 crays in possession per boat regardless of the number of persons on board),
- Crayfish can be taken by spear, and
- Possession of live crayfish by a recreational fisher is prohibited.
So when I’m in QLD I spear crays without even blinking an eye!
However, having a wife from Auckland, we visit New Zealand many times a year and in New Zealand of course crayfish cannot be taken by spear. Enter the challenge, grabbing crays. I am relatively new to the art of taking crayfish by hand, however, love the game. There are three main methods that I have employed to get these tasty bugs while I am freediving in New Zealand.
1. The cray snare
My initial attempts at grabbing crays didn’t go so well. The crayfish would escape deep into the cracks, holes or caves where they would hide and I would be left with antennae or a leg at best. My friend lent me a crayfish snare to use as they thought it might improve my odds. They weren’t wrong. It is incredible how unresponsive the crays are to a snare sliding down beside them. Once the snare was down behind their tail it was just a matter of opening the noose, placing it around the tail and snaring them as you pull them out of their shelter. This method is used most by scuba divers targeting crays. However, the cray snare can be a great option for freedivers if you carry it on your floatline while you are spearfishing or carry the snare in your hand while strictly targeting crays. Moreover, the snare can get to crays hiding deeper in cracks then what your bare arm alone will allow.
2. Shaft block
After using the snare, I realised that crays are not as afraid of a thin piece of metal as they are of a hand and arm. I adapted the snare technique to involve the use of a speargun shaft to block the escape path of a crayfish while taking the crayfish with your hand. Obviously you need to remove the shaft from the gun somehow before trying this. Then guide the blunt end of the shaft gently in behind the cray to block their escape path and grab them with your free hand. This method works well when crays are in a tight crack where their exit back further into the hole can be blocked by placing the shaft at the mid level of the crack behind them. The shaft does not completely block their exit nonetheless allows you enough time to get a hold of their head or antlers (the thick base of their antennae). This method does not work well if the crayfish sees you on your first dive and you need to surface and then return after you have unloaded the shaft from your gun. Often you will dive back down to see the crayfish has backed deep into its hole. Then in accordance with Murphy ’s Law a solid kingy will swim right up to you while you are floating around with an unloaded shaft in your hand!
3. Hand grab
By far the most utilised method to take crayfish when I am freedive spearfishing in New Zealand is the good old fashioned hand grab. Every time you go to grab a crayfish the conditions are slightly different and you must adapt to each situation accordingly. Like anything the more you do something the easier it gets. However, there are a few tactics that I have developed that can come in handy.
When you first see a crayfish and they see you I recommend grabbing them on that dive (on return dives the crayfish is likely to be deep in a hole out of reach). Often a crayfish will come out of it’s shelter slightly when it first notices you as if to make sure what they have just seen is real. When crayfish are approaching you it is a good time to grab them. It is as though they take a second to change gear from forward into reverse which gives you enough time to snatch them up. I recommend driving your hand hard at them in the direction that you know they will be escaping. It is essential that you get a good grip of their antlers or head. Some crayfish may need a shake from side to side to persuade them to come out of their shelter. Good gloves are a must (the Atlantis G10 dive gloves are perfect and will outlast other gloves on the market).
Some crayfish will be in caves or large cracks where it is unclear which direction they will take to escape. In these instances it is sometimes possible to grab them from the top of the cephalothorax (head). Sometimes in this circumstance you can even keep them looking at one of your hands while you slide your other hand around behind them. A fast hand movement towards the top of the crayfish head (prefereably from behind the antennae) is required. It is beneficial to apply a bit of pressure to pin the cray against the rock while you get a good grip.
Every so often you will get lucky and find a spot where the cray has nowhere to go. To ensure the capture, I recommend maintaining as much intensity with your grab as you would when a cray is at the entrance to a deep crack. You don’t want to spend the rest of the day kicking yourself for missing an easy grab on a good cray.
Written by Bart MacKenzie, November 2014
On a recent trip out of Auckland to the Noises, I was lucky enough to cross paths with a nice kelpy looking, 5kg snapper.
I had found a ledge that dropped from 3m down to about 8m and had noticed there were a couple of butterfish buzzing in and out of the kelp. I sunk down to the bottom and waited for one to come out of the swirling maze of kelp. Sure enough after a short while a butterfish appeared and I got a good shot on it and secured the fish. I always remove the guts from butterfish immediately. This ensures that the fish do not develop a weedy flavour and also makes filleting a whole lot cleaner. After landing two butterfish and gutting them at the ledge I moved on. About ten minutes later I returned to the ledge from the shallow side, my intention was to snoop over the ledge to where the guts of the butterfish may have attracted the attention of some snapper. I breathed up and dived down to the bottom, probably five meters from the drop off on the shallow side.
As I started to approach the ledge a school of snapper started to file from the depths up onto the shallows. The fish didn’t even notice me lying on the bottom. After about four fish had passed by, a decent fish came up over the ledge. I took aim, the fish turned and started to swim away, I took my shot which went into the fishes right shoulder and out through its right cheek! After a short intense fight I had the snapper’s gills in my hands.
When a spearo manages to land a decent snapper many thoughts would come to mind. I’m sure most spearo’s would be stoked and relieved that after snooping so many potential spots that this spot finally contained a good snapper. Most would be happy that a tasty dinner is ensured for them and their loved ones. A few would be thinking about how quickly they could get a pic of the magnificent beast onto some form of social media! However, one of my first thoughts, coming from a fisheries biology background, was "how old is this fish?"
While I was filleting the fish I removed the otoliths (ear bones) of the snapper. These are found at the base of the brain encapsulated in bone. I was able to get some friends of mine, in the business of fish ageing, to prepare the otoliths and take some pics for me (this involves cutting a fine section through the centre of the otolith and then mounting the section in resin on a microscope slide). To my amazement the fish was 22 years old! This fish must have swum past a few hooks in its day!
After a little research I was interested to find that snapper from New Zealand waters around the 5-10kg mark are commonly 20 to 50 years old, with some snapper from New Zealand having been aged at 65 years. Snapper growth rates vary greatly between individuals and also in different regions. Generally, it is believed that fish from Tasman Bay and the west coast of the North Island grow quicker and larger on average than other regions in NZ.
So next time you take a good snapper for the table give a little thought to the fact that your fish may have been around for quite some time and may, in fact, be older than you!
Old Man Snapper