Crays and Crabs

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! This article is juicy and will have you salivating! Dan Kaggelis takes you through the best terrain to find and catch these tasty crustaceans, the way to catch them and best of all……..the way to cook them!

When it comes to crustaceans, the mud crab and the crayfish would have to be two of the most sought after species in Australian waters. Unknowing to many anglers both the mud crab and crayfish are much more accessible than thought and with a bit of know how it’s not that hard to find them on your own dinner plate.


This is a good example of where you could find a crayfish.

This is a good example of where you could find a crayfish.

The Types……

Crays are found right through Australian waters and in many different varieties. They are different to lobsters as they have no pinchers or claws. For the sake of this feature I will concentrate on the more northern species of crayfish, which include the Painted and Ornate Painted Crayfish, however many of the techniques and locations will apply to more southern species. Firstly, telling the difference between a Painted and an Ornate painted Cray is relatively easy. The Painted Cray is green in colour and has much shorter dark antlers or feelers compared to the Ornate Painted Cray. The Ornate Painted Cray is much more colourful with mixes of blues, reds and oranges and has banded feet. They tend to have much longer antlers or feelers than the Painted Crayfish. The Ornate Painted Cray tends to grow much larger than the Painted variety as well.

Ornate Painted Crays have a size limit based on their carapace size in QLD whilst Painted Crays have no size limit. There is also a total boat limit of 10 crays per boat of combined species as well as an individual limit of 5 crayfish per person.

Icing down your crabs will slow them down and make them much easier to handle.

Icing down your crabs will slow them down and make them much easier to handle.

The Locations……

Both crays can be found in the same areas and the best way to target them is with a small spear gun (be aware that in other states apart from QLD taking crays with a spear gun is prohibited) which can be manoeuvred into small tight areas and under ledges or with a lasso style harness. You can catch them by hand but make sure you are wearing heavy gloves as they are very prickly and will tear open your hands quite easily. Contrary to what many believe, you don’t have to be a supreme free diver to target crays as they can be found in as little as 2 feet of water and are mostly found in water less than 10 feet deep. Therefore all you need is to be a competent snorkeler and you are in the game as it is illegal to use an air apparatus to target crayfish. Berried or egg bearing crayfish can also not be taken as well and should be returned. This can be difficult after being speared so take care around September October as this is when they are most likely to be in egg bearing season.

When looking for likely Cray spots the best place to start is around inshore reefs and reef fringing islands. Many islands have small bays which are littered with isolated rocks and coral bombies which have hidden ledges or caves at their base. These are where the crays love to hide during the day especially if the bottom is covered in sand. In some places the diver will have to dive and check under these ledges but on the majority of times, their long antlers and feelers can be seen from the surface protruding out of the caves. When finding a crayfish its best to remember or mark down the spot as it will always harbour more crays in the future. Crayfish love to move around at night and move from hole to hole so caves are often replenished overnight. Once you find a few crays you will find a pattern in terms of the structure to look for. Isolated rocks and bombies are the best but you can also find them in multiple numbers along long shelving ledges.

The author with a brace of Ornate Painted Crayfish

The author with a brace of Ornate Painted Crayfish

When being captured the Crayfish will often give off a high pitched grinding noise which some people believe attracts sharks. This is caused by the antlers rubbing at the base not from the tail as many people believe. It is best to dispatch your crayfish as soon as possible by knifing them in the base of the carapace under their body. This will kill them immediately and when placed in an ice slurry, will preserve the meat the best.

Crayfish can be targeted all year round though Ornate Painted Crayfish tend to be in bigger numbers during the cooler months when they migrate. Crayfish also become easier to find in winter as they move out of their holes to get the warmth of the sun making them easier to see. Painted Crayfish are around in numbers all year.

The Meat……

When cooking your crayfish the majority of the meat can be found in the tail section. The tail is easily removed from the body and can be split in two for grilling or boiling. There is also plenty of meat in the legs as well as at the base of the antlers.

The Safety……

When chasing crayfish the most important rule is never dive on your own as you should always have a buddy in case something happens in the water. The next tip is take your time around caves and holes as other things like stone fish and eels can inhabit holes which crays live in. Make sure you wear proper gloves and protection for your arms as well. If you do get scratched it is important to disinfect the area straight away as coral cuts can cause serious infection!

Tying up your crabs make them easy to handle, however it is certainly an art and takes plenty of practice

Tying up your crabs make them easy to handle, however it is certainly an art and takes plenty of practice


Like most anglers, soaking a few pots and chasing a few mud crabs is a much enjoyed pastime. Whilst crabbing may seem pretty simple it can actually be a little more technical than many realise. The first thing to remember when chasing a feed of mud crabs is that they tend to ‘run’ at times making them easier to catch. With some creeks it may be after a big flush of fresh water from the rain whilst in others it may be the onset of bigger tides which get them out of their holes and feeding. It is important to know how your own system works and this can only be worked out through time on the water. However, once you have established a pattern you will soon find your pots producing plenty of crabs.

Painted Crayfish are green and black in colour and are more common than the ornate painted crayfish all year round.

Painted Crayfish are green and black in colour and are more common than the ornate painted crayfish all year round.

The Pots……

One of the most overlooked areas of crabbing is the crab pot itself. Whilst you can buy plenty of good pots in stores today many are lacking the most important piece – a sturdy and strong bait box! It is the bait which will draw the crabs to your pot and the longer you can keep your bait intact the more crabs you will attract. Therefore a flimsy mesh bag or a wired in frame will be torn apart by the first crab in the pot leaving no attraction left. Using a heavy duty metal bait box will keep your baits intact and allow for maximum attraction. Knowing where to place your pots is also important and the muddier the spot the better. Leaving pots at the mouths of small drains is also ideal as these act as highways for crabs to move through the mangroves. Bait is also essential and oily fish like mackerel are ideal as they give off the most scent. Keeping your bait fresh is also vital and changing it out after every run will always bring more crabs.

The author with a good haul of painted crays from an north Queensland island

The author with a good haul of painted crays from an north Queensland island

The Quality……

Whilst the 15cm legal size limit is vitally important, just as much so is the quality of your crabs as not all legal crabs will yield the tasty meal crabbers are looking for. Often referred to as ‘floaters’, these crabs are often quite large but are extremely light on as they have very little meat return especially in their nippers and knuckles. ‘Floaters’ are crabs which have recently shed their hard exoskeleton and therefore have little internal fat or muscle. Whilst they may look impressive when you first pull up your pot, they are of little gain as when cooked they will return very little meat and therefore are best returned to the muddy water where they can begin filling out. Unfortunately, many inexperienced crabbers will fail to realise this as they are often tipped straight from the pot into a bin or esky without a second thought.

The rusty colour of a mud crab is a tell tale sign that the crab is full of meat

The rusty colour of a mud crab is a tell tale sign that the crab is full of meat

There are a few ways to ‘grade’ the quality of your crabs without having to risk toes or fingers. Colouration is the first big give away to the quality of your crab catch. Crabs which are ‘full’ or of high quality in terms of meat return are often very dark black when looking from above. Whilst you can get a good indication of the quality of your crabs from looking above its when you turn them over that you can really get the best opportunity to grade their quality. Once again colouration is the main indicator here and if the underbelly of the crab has a brown rust colour then you have yourself a winner. The rustier the underneath of a crab the better quality hence the term used by many crabbers as ‘rusty bucks’. Some crabs are so rusty they are almost red underneath and this is a sign that they are at their peak and have been caught just prior to shedding. If you really want to take no chances on checking for quality there is one tried and tested method which never fails. Using your thumb and pointer finger pinch the area on the edge of carapace (top shell of the crab) near the measurement point. If the crab is empty or a ‘floater’ this area will be hollow allowing you to push into the shell with ease. If the crab is full or semi full this will be solid and strong with no give at all. There are also other basic giveaways as well which include crabs with only one nipper or no nippers, or crabs with extremely soft shells.

Pinching the underside carapace will always tell you how full or empty your crab is

Pinching the underside carapace will always tell you how full or empty your crab is

The Cooking……

Once you have caught your crabs it’s now time to bring them home and cook them. Some prefer to cook their crabs whole but I am inclined to kill them and break them in two by removing the carapace and splitting them in half. This way you can clean away the gills and guts which makes for a cleaner whiter flesh. You can also cook more crabs at once this way. An outdoor boiler is a good idea, just make sure it can generate plenty of heat. I like to use a 30 litre hot water urn as there is no need for flames or gas and it boils the water very quickly. When cooking crabs its best to boil them in the water you caught them out of unless it is heavily affected by freshwater. I prefer to boil the water to its well and truly bubbling away then thrown in my crabs. Once the water comes back to the boil I then leave them in for 8 minutes before removing them from the water and let them rest until cool. Some people prefer to rest them on ice. The next step is to enjoy!

Strong bait boxes will always maximise your chances of catching multiple crabs in a single pot.

Strong bait boxes will always maximise your chances of catching multiple crabs in a single pot.

Dan Kaggelis

About Dan Kaggelis

Born in Tully, North Queensland, Dan cut his fishing teeth in the region’s freshwater rivers chasing the tropical triumvirate of sooty grunter, jungle perch and barramundi. With fishing running thick in the Kaggelis family, Dan was fortunate to experience many extended trips to the Western Cape and Gulf of Carpentaria from a young age. This instilled a deep affection for the sport. Living so close to Great Barrier Reef, offshore fishing was also very much included in recreational activities as was free diving and spearfishing.

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