An invitation to join two mates on a fishing trip hunting red claw conjured up childhood memories of growing up in the bush and spending afternoons at the nearby dam trying to catch these tasty crays.
Squatting on the grassy edge of the dam with 4ft of mum's white cotton tied roughly to an inch square piece of steak was the true meaning of a fishing outing.
Catching red claw (known as crawtchies to some and freshwater yabbies to those living outside Queensland) actually required a bit of knowledge and skill. You had to know where to drop the bait, be able to detect the red claw eating it, slowly retrieve the wire sieve and then lift it from the water. With any luck, this would score you a dozen or so of these delicacies and that much-anticipated pat on the head from mum on your arrival home.
But the thoughts of a six-year-old on the edge of a murky dam were quickly forgotten while plans were made for the trip to Fairbairn Dam near Emerald.
First up, we needed to decide which baits to take. We were discussing this when out of the blue, my mate of many years, Wayne ‘Woody’ Woods, asked me if I could bring a few cakes of soap because he had raided the bathroom and had to leave one cake for his wife and two teenage daughters.
I must have looked pretty surprised because Wayne burst into fits of laughter, and then went on to inform me that soap was made out of vegetable oils and as red claw were vegetarians, they often enjoyed nibbling on a block of good old Sunlight.
I never realised just how many things you can use to hunt red claw and the bait list looked pretty interesting in the end, with pieces of rockmelon, apple, lettuce, half-baked potatoes and a bag of red claw pellets from the local stock merchant.
We had 12 specially made red claw pots (each one would carry a combination of the baits in small hessian bags) and three large eskies, to accommodate the hundreds of red claw we could possibly catch during the trip.
After reaching the now booming town of Emerald it was a short 12km drive to the Fairbairn Dam through flats of citrus trees and vineyards.
We’d booked accommodation at the picturesque Lake Maraboon Lodge and Caravan Park, which is perched high on a hill, overlooking the massive Fairbairn Dam and its now dwindling expanse of fresh water.
Fairbairn Dam was constructed in the early 1980s. They erected this massive dam across a narrow section of Lake Maraboon/Nagoa River and waited until it filled, which occurred in 1984.
Some land clearing took place prior to the final construction of the dam and today there are hundreds of submerged trees, some property fences and even remnants of a graveyard.
With our pots baited and ready, we headed out in the fully loaded 3.5m tinnie. Our destination was Dead Mans Bay – a name locals have given to a particular area of the far side of the lake.
The first few hundred metres of the trip were without incident as I watched black ducks, swans, cormorants and seagulls search for an afternoon feed. Then we entered a virtual forest of stark trees standing at all angles as if waiting for rescue from their water-logged grave.
The odd splash of tortoises dropping off low branches signalled their displeasure at our company when suddenly the boat jolted and the 20hp Yamaha lifted slightly. I glanced nervously towards driver Burnsie, but he told me that it was just a branch.
Several more thumps and 15 minutes later we had reached our destination and as I looked back towards the resort, there was nothing but those stark trees. I could then believe stories of newcomers who spent hours, even nights, trying to find their way back to the comforts of the campsite.
Burnsie and Woody started picking locations for the pots. We dropped the pots in about 4-7m of teatree-coloured water and each as close as possible to the biggest tree we could find. Red claw tend to congregate around larger pieces of timber as they like to hide under logs or find knot holes in the tree trunks.
We lowered each pot and set the floats either over a close branch or on the water. Then we scattered a handful of red claw pellets over a 2m area around each float. Red claw make their way gradually to the scent of the pellets, chewing them up before finding the real fruit salad in the pot.
The pots were also placed in some sort of order so that they wouldn’t be too hard to find in the forest.
The night passed quickly as dozens of tourists, some in decked-out Winnebagos and others in simple tents, joined in community barbecues telling tales about which part of Australia they had driven from to try their hand at red claw fishing.
Early morning was as picturesque as the sunset, with the tips of the lake’s forest gleaming in whites and yellows. Screeching cockatoos and noisy families of happy jacks ensured few at the lodge slept in.
Although I was more than eager to check our pots, my mates advised me that the first night’s fishing was usually poor as the word and scent had to get around the lake while the second and third night would be much more productive.
After more thumping, dodging and weaving through the timber we arrived at our first pot. I gasped as no less than 15 brown and green red claw crawled across the base of the pot. Most of them were between 15cm and 20cm with the occasional 25cm specimen thrown in.
All captives, despite their size, were unceremoniously dumped into a large plastic bin. The red claw is an introduced species into most of Central Queensland’s dams, lakes and streams, and in many cases it is illegal to return them to the water, regardless of size or sex.
The pot was rebaited and we set off for the next one, and the next after that. Most pots held between 10 and 15 red claw.
Our catch of more than 140 red claw from 12 pots on the first morning quickly paled into insignificance when the first of our pots broke the surface on the second morning. Even today I am astounded at just how many red claw can make their way into a pot half the size of a crab pot.
More than 60 red claw made up a seething mass of bodies, legs and pincers in the first pot. During this second run, the pots held between 30 and 75 red claw – thank god we had brought three large eskies!
On return to base camp, the boys gave me a crash course in shelling and de-veining red claw. We popped the shelled ones into an esky of ice while whole reddies went into a separate container.
Several hours later we headed off for an afternoon of fishing in one of the creeks running into the lake.
On morning three we made our final run before heading home and I firmly believed that we had fished the lake out. However, Fairbairn Dam and the red claw held one more surprise, as again the first pot surfaced complete with another 60 or 70 red claw. This continued through the run, with the largest specimen for the day just on 30cm.
What a fantastic trip! I never expected such huge numbers of red claw and Fairbairn Dam is definitely a beautiful spot to spend a few days. The return journey to Rockhampton certainly felt shorter knowing my wife and family would finally believe I had finally been on a successful fishing trip!
Red clawing doesn’t require expensive gear and can be fun for everyone in the family, so why not grab a cake of soap and some fruit and get out there hunting?
RED CLAW RUNDOWN
Red claw’s scientific name is Cherax quadricarinatus. The male has a distinctive red patch on the outer side of its claw.
Red claw were accidentally introduced into Central Queensland impoundments after the establishment of red claw farms in the region. They are native to far northern tropic streams and rivers but have spread south rapidly during the past 15 years.
There are two types of red claw. One lives in burrows and digs in the holes of waterways and dams (the blue claw) while the other lives under and in vegetation or other structures.
Reddies can be found in Fairbairn Dam, Callide Dam (Biloela) and in smaller numbers in Lake Awoonga (Gladstone).
Red claw tend to become dormant during winter months although considerable quantities are still caught. The best results will be achieved when the water temperature reaches 28 degrees or above. Red claw prefer to feed at night, although they can be easily caught during the day, especially in deeper water.
There is no limit on the number of red claw that can be taken. Although it is not illegal to return red claw to the water in Central Queensland, the Department of Primary Industries requests that anglers do not return them as they are not native to the area. In their native habitat in the tropics there is a bag limit of 40 and females with eggs must be returned to the water.
Reddies are usually caught in string-type, oval-shaped pots with two openings. In Queensland waters there is a maximum of four pots per person. The pots and floats must be marked with your name and address and entrances to the pots must have a wire ring to stop tortoises and other species from entering or being caught.