Crayfish eaters everywhere

Having fished on Lake of the Woods since I was a kid, I have seen some changes to the lake over the years. The most significant change has been the loss of vegetation in most areas of the lake, especially when you consider the effect that this has had on fishing. For years I was skeptical when I was told that the invasive rusty crayfish was responsible for “mowing down” the weeds on the lake but after witnessing more of this vegetation loss over the years, I’m a believer.

Growing up, our family had a cabin on Echo Bay on the west arm of Lake of the Woods. It was a great part of the lake to learn to fish because it had clear water where I could see what was going on and there was excellent fishing for a variety of species. There used to be fields of beautiful, lush cabbage weeds, on most of the reefs and flats. For the past ten years or so, it’s hard to even find a single stalk of cabbage in that bay. It’s changed. The same thing has happened in most areas around the lake, especially in the central section.

Down on Rainy Lake, rusty crayfish are present but it seems like they haven’t exploded quite the same way they have on Lake of the Woods. I say that because there hasn’t been the same loss of vegetation. The big cabbage fields are still in many of the same places there were twenty years ago. We’ll see what happens down the road with the vegetation on Rainy.

Where we’ve seen the most effect on the fishing is with largemouth bass on Lake of the Woods. Largemouth bass were once prolific in several sections of the lake where they are now seemingly non-existent, as a result of the loss of vegetation in my opinion. Largemouth bass love coontail grass and where it was once plentiful along many shorelines and rock reefs, we never see it anymore and I think that has been the biggest detriment to the largemouth population. You would think they would just go to the next type of cover they could find but it doesn’t seem like that has been the case.

Now, not all is bad with regards to these crayfish because most fish in our lakes eat them, so they provide a great forage option for fish in these lakes. Over the past week I have seen walleye, bass and northern pike spit up crayfish while we’ve been reeling them in. It seems like throughout the summer, smallmouth bass and walleye in particular are sticking around shallow water, under ten feet, to gorge on these crayfish.

Crayfish imitating lures, specifically crankbaits and soft plastics are effective for both smallmouth bass and walleye when they are in this relatively shallow water. You can see the crayfish in their diet when you fillet a walleye or the number of them that the bass spit up while you’re fighting them. My top lures are crayfish coloured tube jigs and Ned rigs. Crawl and bounce them along the bottom, anywhere with sand and some rock and you will catch fish.

Remember, it is illegal to transport crayfish over land, to prevent their distribution to other waterbodies. Though I have never used one or even seen one used as bait, they can be used as bait in the waters where they are caught. Always refer the Ontario Sportfishing Regulations Summary for up-to-date information on fishing regulations.

A walleye with crayfish remnants in its mouth indicating an earlier meal. Invasive rusty crayfish have devastated many local lakes over the years, causing substantial vegetation loss in usually-abundant weeded areas. —Submitted photo