For those anglers looking to do something really different this autumn, head north of the Great Dividing Range and chase one of our lesser known native species – the Murray crayfish. If that sounds appealing, you don’t have long because the open season runs for only 4 months a year from May until August.
Unlike the yabby, the Murray cray hibernates during the warmest months of the year. But when water temperatures start to plummet mid-year, Murray crays become active. Every year, my network of fishing mates chase Murray crays in the lower reaches of Murray River tributaries. It’s a welcome change of pace from our normal fishing expeditions and provides us with a great opportunity to spend more time doing less!
Just like line fishing, you’ll need a recreational fishing licence unless you’re exempt. You’re permitted to catch crays with your hands (not recommended) or with up to 10 baited lines (no hooks attached). However, most anglers pursuing Murray crays use recreational hoop nets, specially designed for catching crays. Not to be confused with hoop nets often used for yabbies, these cray nets have heavier gauge metal hoops to keep them down and stable in moderate river flow, heavier duty mesh and larger holes between the mesh to allow juvenile crays to escape.
All hoop nets must be labelled with your full name and address. They must also be attached to a float on the surface. This helps anglers to find their nets in low light conditions and ensures that passing boat traffic knows where not to drive. Different coloured floats can be useful to differentiate your nets from your mates, or to distinguish between different baits. Some anglers use soft drink bottles as floats. They tend to be readily available at low cost, easy to see, very buoyant, have ample room to write your contact details and can store the string when the net is not in use.
The legal minimum length for Murray crays is measured along part of its carapace (main body shell). In Victoria, the legal minimum carapace length is 9cm. There is also a bag/possession limit of 5 Murray crays per person with no more than 1 of those crays exceeding 12cm carapace length. Berried females (those carrying eggs under their tails) must be returned to the water unharmed immediately, regardless of their size.
How many hoop nets can I use?
A maximum of 10 hoop nets per person may be used except in the following waters where mo more than 5 hoop nets per person may be used.
Glenelg River system (excluding Rocklands Reservoir)
Goulburn River system (excluding Lake Eildon)
Kiewa River system
Latrobe River system
Mitta Mitta River system (excluding Lake Dartmouth)
Ovens River system
Tarra River system
Including any tributary stream flowing into those waters and any impoundment on those waters.
We have used a number of different baits in our nets over the years. We have a preference for fish carcasses, particularly carp, although carcasses of saltwater species purchased from the local fishmonger also work. Other productive baits include kangaroo tail, which can be purchased from some butchers and pet food suppliers. Sheep heads were traditionally good bait but they’ve become hard to source over the last few years.
It’s very important when craying to secure your bait tightly in the net. Plastic automotive cable ties are very effective and can be pushed through various baits easily. Cable ties should be placed at both ends of any bait. The bait should be positioned in the centre of the bottom hoop. This will maximize your catch rate and help prevent crays from dragging your bait out of the net.
Reading the river and knowing where to drop your nets is important. I prefer to drop my nets in different depths initially. This way, you’re more likely to discover that particular depth at which the crays are most active. Once you know this depth, use your sounder to relocate your other nets, thus improving your catch rates.
Nets set in shallow water often catch larger crays, particularly in low light conditions and after dark. From my experience, a rising water level will further improve your catches from shallow water. Clear water tends to see better cray catches in deeper water.
If you’re fishing for crays in a river with fast current flow, it’s especially important to think about where you drop your nets. Nets placed upstream of a snag pile, are likely to end up drifting downstream and may well get snagged. Even if you manage to retrieve your net in a repairable condition, you’ll have wasted that net for that fishing session because most of the crays will have bolted by the time you finally unsnag it.
Don’t get me wrong, submerged timber is great cray habitat. Like any fishing, it’s just a matter of how you approach it. Ideally, set your nets downstream of snag piles. There’s often a back eddy behind snag piles. It’s slower moving water and a good spot to drop your net to avoid it getting flushed too far downstream.
When considering where to drop your net, think about the soil type of the bank you’re fishing. Murray crays particularly like to inhabit clay banks, where they can excavate a stable, long-term home.
Anglers should also consider the type and abundance of vegetation along the river. Banks that support good numbers of willow trees can be very productive early in the season. In May, the willow trees start to drop their leaves. This continues over about a six-week period providing the Murray crays with a large amount of food. Cumbungi and overhanging gum trees are also cray friendly vegetation types.
Cooking crays is easy. Wash off the mud and boil in salted water for about 5 minutes. You’ll know that they’re cooked because they’ll float to the surface and will have turned orange – similar to prawns when they’re cooked. I recommend that you use a pair of scissors to access the meat in the tail. The trick here is to cut from the tail towards the body on the belly side of the cray. This will avoid the tough and spiky shell on the cray’s back.
The two main pincers are worth the effort – eat them the same way as you would the claws of a mud crab. A pair of pliers might be a last resort if you need some extra grunt to crack the shell.
I serve crays with some sweet chilli sauce. And don’t be fussed about eating them cold either – they can be a fine chilled entrée with your first beer.
Some of the most popular destinations for crayfishing are the Goulburn River, including Lake Nagambie, and the lower stretches of its tributaries. Waranga Basin, south west of Shepparton, and the lower Ovens River are also worthwhile destinations.
The Murray River as far downstream as Swan Hill, including Lake Mulwala, is also productive water - just remember to have your NSW fishing licence though!
One of the great things about crayfishing is that secrets are hard to keep. All nets are buoyed so you’ll quickly get a grasp on the net placement strategies other anglers are employing. If you get the chance to ask a few questions, you’ll learn a heap from some of the old timers, but just make sure to give them some room on the water when setting your own nets.
Being in the outdoors in May, June, July or August can get pretty chilly, especially if you’re camping out by the river. Remember to take warm clothes, gloves and a good sleeping bag. Insulating yourself from the ground is essential so make sure you’ve got a good foam mattress for a good night’s sleep.
Murray crays are considered a ‘threatened’ species in Victoria and are thus afforded special protection. An 8-month closed season, minimum legal length, slot limit and bag limit combine to ensure that Murray crays are around for our grandchildren to enjoy. I suggest that you take only what you require for your immediate needs and leave some for next time. And make sure to return those berried females quickly and unharmed so we maximise their spawning contribution!
When returning crays to the water, I suggest you do it in the same location that you catch them. This means they don’t have to travel far to get ‘home’ and ensures you’re not ‘in possession’ of undersize crayfish when Fisheries Officers inspect your catch.
I reckon those people who have never tried this style of fishing will be pleasantly surprised. Crays are a real treat on the table and it’s a style of fishing that lends itself to family involvement. It doesn’t demand high levels of skill, like casting lures for cod, nor does it require huge amounts of time on the water. It’s relatively cheap to buy the basic components, particularly if you’re handy in the shed and don’t mind saving your recyclable plastic bottles for a week or two.
NSW Murray Cray Fishing Regulations
New South Wales and Victoria share the same fishing regulations (minimum carapace length, slot limit, bag limit & closed season) for Murray crays, however, anglers may not take Murray crays from notified trout waters in NSW. Check www.fisheries.nsw.gov.au for more information.