Few Floridians had ever thought much about the relationship between crawfish and bass until Kentuckian Corbin Dyer came to Lake Okeechobee in 1985.
While live crawfish and artificial imitations have been standard bass baits throughout the South for years, the Sunshine State anglers had completely ignored that particular predator-prey relationship. Solid evidence of that was the absence of the jig-and-pork chunk combination as a main weapon for catching Florida largemouths.
The vast majority of America's tournament pros believe that the jig-and-pig better represents the crawfish than any other type of artificial bait, including the soft-plastic, look-alike lures. Corbin Dyer is a big believer of that, as well as the bass' preference of crawfish as a food source.
He proved both to Floridians and fellow tournament fishermen during the 1985 B.A.S.S. tournament on Lake Okeechobee.
During the second day of the tournament, Dyer revealed what he had learned about the jig-and-pig in Florida with a seven-fish stringer that weighed 31 pounds — one of the largest stringers in B.A.S.S. history. Four of his bass topped the 7-pound mark. He was forced to admit the secret he had discovered two weeks before when his jig-and-pork combo produced an 11-pound trophy in Lake Tohopekaliga.
"I had read where Florida has several species of crawfish in its natural lakes," Dyer explained. "I didn't realize that or the fact that crawfish is a major food source for Florida bass."
Florida is no different from any other southern state. Its native bass love crawfish. There are more than 250 species of the 10-legged crustacean in North America, and they are more abundant in the South than the North. Georgia alone has 60 different species, while Louisiana claims 29. Texas must have its share when you consider that the former state record smallmouth was caught on a live crawfish and the current record was taken on a crawfish-colored crankbait.
The bottom-dwelling crawfish, often called crawdads, are found in freshwater systems of all types, including natural rivers, lake and streams as well as manmade reservoirs.
And in places where bass have a choice, crawfish are a real delicacy, their No. 1 food choice. "There's a real story to crawfish that a lot of people really don't realize," said bass fishing legend Bill Dance, who is constructing a 2-acre crawfish pond near his home in Memphis, Tenn., with the help of biologists from Louisiana State University and Memphis State University. "I didn't know it until I started to investigate it.
"It's the most prevalent forage that lives in rivers, ponds, streams and lakes across the United States. The biologists say it represents 75 percent of an adult bass' diet where it is prevalent. That's because the little creature is high in protein and easy to catch. Fish eating a crawfish diet grow fast and fat."
Renowned fisheries biologist Loren Hill, chairman of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, confirmed Dance's contention about the bass' preference toward crawfish.
Hill reported that several experiments were conducted in which largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass were offered frogs, salamanders, crawfish, shiners and sunfish. The obvious top choice with the smallmouth and spotted bass was crawfish, while it ranked near the top of the largemouth's preference list as well.
"You have to remember that bass are more or less an optimum forage predator," Hill explained. "They normally take advantage of what is abundant.
"In many lakes, the populations of crawfish are limited to certain locations, depending on the substrate of the bottom or the rocks. In certain areas where the crawfish are abundant, the largemouth will be feeding almost exclusively on crawfish. Where crawfish aren't very abundant, largemouth bass, being opportunistic feeders, will seek the forage that is most abundant.
"So it is difficult to rank crawfish, but if given an opportunity with all forages available in equal concentrations and numbers, crawfish are very high on the preference list."
Crawfish, biologists tell us, are bottom dwellers that feed mostly at night. They are especially active during the spring and summer months, but crawfish-imitation baits like the jig-and-pig will produce even in the coldest months (although the bait has to be fished slowly).
When confronted by a bass, a crawfish typically flips its tail violently, making a clicking sound and creating a cloud of bottom silt that sometimes allows it to escape by slipping behind a rock or other object. Biologists say the threatened crawfish will react one of three ways: it will sometimes try to face the predator down, with its pinchers out; it will slowly back away; or it will flee in short, rapid spurts.
It is for that reason that both biologists and bass anglers try to vary the retrieve of a crawfish-imitation lure, especially with a crankbait.
"The secret to using a crawfish-type or crawfish-colored crankbait is to be very erratic in your retrieve," said Loren Hill, the inventor of the pH meter, Color-C-Lector and several lures, who is also a fine bass angler. "If you have a constant retrieve, that is not a crawfish pattern.
"Crawfish are very erratic movers and swimmers. They dart around crazily. I try to get a bait that I can jerk real hard, stop it and allow it float back up. I'll jerk the rod in all directions. And it really makes a major difference. I was fishing on Lake Texoma with some friends recently and using a crawfish-colored crankbait. I was jerking my rod around in every direction and catching fish so well that they wanted a crawfish lure on their rods. They fished it with a normal retrieve and I out-fished both of them 16 to one."
The fishing industry obviously recognizes the irresistible predator-prey relationship between bass and crawfish. A vast array of soft plastic lures imitate crawfish (one of the most popular among the tournament pros is Hale's Craw Worm made by Stanley Jigs), which are usually fished as jig or spinnerbait trailers. During the spring spawning season, these plastic crawfish are often fished similar to a worm.
The hard-bait makers haven't ignored the bass' love of crawfish either. Advancements in the photo printing system on lures have created some natural looking finishes on crankbaits ranging from lipless vibrating lures to deep divers.
The company that has exploited the bass-crawfish relationship the fullest is Rebel Lures, which makes seven models of crawfish crankbaits (ranging from a 2 3/8-inch Deep Sinking Wee-Crawfish to the ultralight Deep Teeny Wee-Crawfish, which reaches remarkable depths for a 1/10-ounce lure). More importantly, Rebel offers its crawfish imitations in 10 colors, which is important, the pros say, because crawfish in different waters often have different coloring. And some claim that crawfish change shades of color from season to season.
My personal favorite crawfish-type crankbait is the Rebel Teeny Wee-Crawfish, an ultralight floater-diver that has produced all types of gamefish in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes throughout the South. On 2- and 4-pound test line, it is an enjoyable lure to fish.
But the lure that best resembles a crawfish to the bass — and therefore produces most consistently — is the jig-and-pork chunk.
"There is no other lure that more closely resembles a crawfish in the water than the pig-and-jig," claimed all-time tournament king Roland Martin. "I have filmed a pig-and-jig working on the bottom the way you ought to work it. And I also have film of crawfish scooting along the bottom. I'm telling you that thing looks like a crawfish. It really does.
"You can't throw any kind of crankbait or worm that looks more like a crawfish. There are all kinds of crankbaits that physically look like a crawfish, but from a distance underwater, they don't look much like a crawfish coming through the water. It looks like a darn wiggling lure coming through the water. Crawfish don't wiggle like that. Crawfish work like a jig works. When that pig-and-jig comes hopping along, that looks like a crawfish, not a crankbait. There's a lot of difference."
It is that close resemblance to this bass delicacy that makes the jig-and-pig the best big-bass lure on a year-round basis, the pros agree.
Martin credited a simple black jig with a brown No. 11 Uncle Josh pork chunk with playing a significant role in most of his national tournament victories. But like other anglers, Martin often selects a color that best resembles the crawfish in that particular lake at that particular time of the year.
The jig-and-pig combination is largely weedless, so it can be fished in a variety of cover and structure situations where big bass live. And it is a good bait for covering large areas in search of fish.
For many years, Martin followed the lines of conventional thinking that discounted the jig-and-pig as a productive summer lure. Most fishermen didn't want the bother of trying to keep the pork from drying out, so they switch to a plastic trailer for jig fishing. Besides, a jig-and-pig wasn't effective during the hottest months of the year, they claimed.
During an entire summer several years ago, Martin experimented to discover which was a better summertime big- bass lure — a plastic worm or jig-and-pig. He fished the two lures equally on lakes and rivers throughout the southeastern United States, keeping a record of his catches. What he found was that the worm produced more fish, but the jig-and-pork lured the largest bass. The fish Martin caught on the jig-and-pig had an impressive 4-pound average.
"I've always believed that it produced big fish in the summer because crawfish are universal in this country and especially active during the summertime," he said.
Whatever the reason, crawfish imitations like the jig-and-pig are effective bass-fishing tools because they take advantage of the natural predator-prey relationship that exists. And the special craving that bass seem to have for this little crustacean.