Almost all fish all around the world eat or will eat crabs, prawns and shrimps at some stage in their life cycle and if this is understood properly by anglers, we can use it to our advantage to catch more fish!
I remember years ago I had (still have) a big craze on keeping native fish in aquariums. It started when I was about 6 years old with empire gudgeons, crimson rainbow fish and tiny freshwater shrimps all kept in a 2ft tank. I still remember when my shrimps ended up as just tiny shells on the tank floor, having being eaten by the predating gudgeons and rainbows. In later years, gudgeons were replaced by barramundi, mangrove jacks, sooty grunter, tarpon and saratoga. If any shrimps or freshwater crabs were introduced into the tank, their fate was the same as the tiny shrimps years before. Obviously, crustaceans are as tasty to fish as they are to us!
Nowadays, after having spent years on the water fishing I have seen everything eat a crab or shrimp imitation. Flats fishing is an area where crabs, prawns and shrimp imitations shine, I’m guessing that’s because they are a such a common food source there. Species like permit (snub-nosed dart) golden, giant, brassy and diamond trevally, barramundi, salmon and even the traditional bread and butter species like bream, whiting, snapper and flathead are all suckers for a realistic soft plastic or fly variant of a crab or shrimp.
It doesn’t end there either; offshore predators at some stage of their life cycle eat crustaceans. Marlin and sailfish predate on them during their juvenile life and longtail tuna often school deep and feed exclusively on banana prawns at certain times of the year. I remember fishing with Shane Griffiths from the CSIRO who I was helping catch longtails to satellite tag in Hervey Bay, all the fish had to be over 1m long and he was telling me how longtails in the gulf of Carpentaria at times can have stomach contents in excess of 75% full of prawns. Food for thought.
So how does this relate to angling? Simply, it’s good news for us. The variety of soft plastics available on the market today that resemble prawns, shrimps and crabs is unbelievable and they are very lifelike. Z-Man scented shrimps, Zerek and Prawn Star are just some of the imitations that work well and get the bites.
I have found that you need fish them slow, like the real thing. Prawns and shrimps spend a lot of time hovering or slowly crawling across the bottom but when startled they flick backwards, often to the surface to escape predators. Most of my prawn plastics I use I’ll rig backwards so when the rod tip is flicked the prawn flicks backwards, again, like the real thing. Employing three or four hops then letting the lure slowly glide back towards the bottom is a deadly technique. This is often when the bite will come, so try to keep contact with the sinking lure without hindering its free fall and strike at any hesitation or bump! It can pay to experiment with different head weights. I use 1/8-1/2oz heads depending on current and water depth.
A few crab plastics are available and these need to be fished similar to prawn imitations. Saltwater fly fishing is where crab patterns are readily available, mainly due to fly fishers targeting harder fish to catch on these patterns. Bonefish, permit, tarpon are the big 3 in the US and they all love crab flies. The variety of lifelike crab and shrimp flies available is unbelievable; some would almost swim in a bucket of water! Here in Australia, permit, golden trevally, black-spot tuskfish and blue bastards (painted sweetlip) are regular targets for crab patterns. We have also caught queenfish, longtail tuna, pikey bream, flathead, snapper and even the odd mackerel on crabs. If fished correctly they are extremely effective on nearly everything.
I even have used live crabs to catch big whiting at night time along the mangrove edges, and grunter bream and tarwhine were also were regular catches. Live crabs have even been used to catch big cobia with some old timers using legal sized sand crabs on 12/0 hooks to catch them! Big estuary cod, tuskfish and coral trout love them as well.
One tip worth remembering when using imitation crabs is to match the lure colour with the bottom you are fishing. Sandy beaches and flats are best fished with tan or light colours where fishing around rock, timber and mud would require a dark colour. We often fish the sea grass flats on the inside of Fraser with olive or dark green shrimp or crab imitations and do extremely well. I remember fishing the deep weedy gutters on a central Queensland flat after we had been catching some big goldies on the sand bars at high tide and we were using tan patterns and plastics but over the weed gutters fish would rush at the offering only to turn off at the last moment. After switching to olive/green colours, we began catching fish again; it was an interesting lesson and showed how colour does matter at times!
Have a look at a banana prawn in a bucket; if it’s been startled and has exerted plenty of energy it will turn a pale, light colour. This is a good indication to buy white or pearl colours, as they resemble a prawn under attack. Other good colours are the darker honey or root beer colours for deeper water, however pink, chartruse and blue get the bites as well. Exactly what they resemble to a fish is anyone’s guess!
The tackle I use for fishing prawn and crab plastics around mangroves and other structure is generally on the heavier side, as fish like jacks, cod, golden snapper (fingermark) barra and mulloway around structure can really take some stopping. Quite often, a slight tap is all you will feel for the bite then they bolt for cover. On open water flats and sand banks you can get away with lighter tackle. Fish like flathead, bream and trevally are usually less structure orientated and fight clean.
Fly tackle for throwing crabs also is on the heavier size, mainly due to the fact that a big crab or prawn imitation is generally tough to throw in the wind (which is usually encountered while out on flats and beaches). I prefer a good 9 or 10wt outfit with a sink tip fly line.
Here in Queensland we are blessed with an annual run of banana prawns around February to May, this is a good time to fish prawn imitations as most of the predatory fish in the system are keyed onto prawns as there main food source. Find prawns in a hole or gutter and there will be predators not far away! It’s also a good idea to match your lure size with the bait size on the day. If you have found prawns, don’t be afraid to try different techniques, as this just might get the bite.
In mangrove systems in Queensland’s southern half from late September to May the small mangrove crabs appear. They seem to disappear during winter when water temperatures drop below 19°C. When they are about, it’s time to fish crab patterns along mangrove, pylons or oyster edges slow and deep. Big bream, jacks and grunter all love these mangrove crabs, so go for a look and you will see these crabs scooting around these areas. Catch one and have a look and get yourself something of similar size and colours and fish them in the same areas, you will be surprised.
So there you go, crabs and prawn imitations should defiantly be in everyone’s tackle box. Go get some and give them a try, the results will speak for themselves.Reads: 2448