More than 100 million pounds of crayfish are grown in the U.S. each year. Most of the tasty crustaceans are sold for human consumption but they are also used for fish bait. Bass and catfish love crayfish—it’s about 80% of the diet of smallmouth bass. For the hobbyist with a backyard pond and a roadside bait stand, or for the commercial crayfish farmer, the basic principles of raising and harvesting crayfish are the same.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Low-lying field (that can be flooded)
- Small ponds (for home business or hobbyist)
- Holding tank (optional)
- Brood crayfish
- Rice plants
- Aquatic plants
- Crayfish traps
- Dried fish
- Shallow skiff (optional)
- Refrigerator or refrigerated storage
Know your crayfish--which types are suitable for your region or already exist in your field, which types will give the best crop yield. Determine your cultivation cycle. In nature, crayfish reproduce by burrowing in the mud in late spring and summer, emerge into the water in early fall, mature rapidly and are fully grown in November. Produce year-round harvests by scheduling the flooding and draining of your fields or pond to cause the crayfish to breed and mature throughout all four seasons.
Flood your field and “seed” it with crayfish or take advantage of a resident population. Cover the field in about 8 to 24 inches of fresh, unpolluted water. Use an irrigation system such as a network of levees to hold the water in and pumps to deliver the water from a nearby canal or lake. Use a holding tank to provide the water if your crayfish farm is a very small one, like a man-made backyard pond.
Provide plenty of pond life—insect larvae, green plants, fish waste and microorganisms--for the crayfish to eat. The microorganisms live on plants that grow in the water, so plant rice, wild rice or another aquatic plant to keep the field aerated and supply sufficient food. Drain the field or pond when it is time for the females to burrow into the mud and lay their eggs. Reflood in about three months for crayfish growing season.
Place traps in the field to harvest the catch. Buy or make traps out of chicken wire mesh with small openings for the crayfish to enter. The holes should be funnel-shaped to make it hard for the crayfish to get out. Bait the traps with bits of dried fish that will break down in the water.
Harvest the crayfish by pulling the traps and removing the live crustaceans. If your field is a large, commercial operation, use special skiffs pulled along the shallow waterways by ropes. If you are running a small bait business, you can wade into your pond and hand-pull your traps.
Transfer all the live crayfish to a refrigerator set at about 4.44 degrees Celsius. The crayfish will hibernate at that temperature. Live bait works best on catfish and bass and the crayfish will begin moving around again after they warm up. Cull the larger crayfish from your harvest and save them for dinner. Bass and catfish will eat any size crayfish they can manage but the anglers who buy from you will have better luck using smaller one- to two-inch-sized crayfish as bait.
Tips and warnings
- Increase your market by offering “soft-shell” crayfish when available. This is the moult stage of the crustacean when it is between shells and irresistible to predator fish.
- Use your local USDA Cooperative Extension office as a resource when considering a crayfish farm for profit.
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