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Alabama mudbugs are hard to catch

Rebecca Bearden Fireback-Crayfish-a.jpg
An Alabama fireback crawfish.
Certain crayfish live in deep underground burrows (often 15 feet) and use only groundwater to breathe and function.

For that segment of the rural population that knows their way around the woods, I commend you for your unsolicited advice. As an aquatic biologist obsessed with the study of burrowing crayfish, I have received more than my share of tips and tricks from the locals about how I should be collecting these incredible creatures, fondly known as crawfish or mudbugs, but never crayfish.

What I have learned the last few years as a researcher—I could read academic journals all day and night and still not approach the level of expertise that locals possess when outsmarting the animal kingdom.

The fact that certain crayfish live in deep underground burrows (often 15 feet) and use only groundwater to breathe and function might impress the city folk, but not rural Alabamians. There are just things about the natural world that you learn exploring the woods with just your imagination, ruling out almost any did-you-know trivia.

Part of my research involved studying the habitats and behavior of these cryptic creatures. So little is known about these animals because they are notoriously difficult to sample. In my naiveté, I assumed the most effective way to collect them was the hardest way—spend hours digging in the mud, forcing your arm down each winding tunnel, in each elaborate burrow until finally the crayfish becomes so perturbed that the individual surfaces in protest.

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Rebecca Bearden digs for crawfish. She's looking for a better way to catch them. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bearden.

It was time-consuming, but it worked. After all, I had tried the funnel traps placed at the burrow entrance recommended as “marginally effective” by certain researchers, but to no avail. These crafty crawdaddies just built their beautiful chimneys of mud right around the them. And forget the nets covering the burrow entrance that seemed to catch them when they exited. That might have worked in some other region, but these Alabama mudbugs could smell a rat a mile away. If needed, they would just dig another entrance.

But back to the locals. More than one kind soul would stop to inquire as to why I had my hand down a hole on the side of the road. (Interestingly enough, our manmade travel corridors create ditches that hold water—the perfect setup for these crustaceans.) Admittedly, I was often in a less than favorable mood when approached. I had typically been swatting mosquitoes and gnats with a mud-covered upper half, was sweaty, and about to lose hope on anything inhabiting my burrow of interest.

“Good bass bait,” a raspy male voice said one unseasonably warm spring, as if he’d just left the hardware store coffee hour with his buddies, clearly enjoying semi-retirement while watching his kids and grandkids lose money with the family farm. “You know there’s an easier way to get them out.”

“Sir, I’d be happy to take any advice,” I said, abandoning my previously horizontal position to at least look my new mentor in the eye.

“The trick is to sneak up on them,” he said. “Use fishing line with something they’d like to eat—like salty bacon. Drop the baited line in the burrow. Stay back far enough where they can’t see you. Jiggle the line until you feel a tug and slowly pull them to the top. Once they’re out, then you can grab them.”

“Thank you, sir.” I said, trying to roll out of a fire ant bed. “I’ll definitely try that.”

Sure, I thought. My future research success has just culminated in one old man, some fishing line, and salty pork.

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The celestial crawfish. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bearden.

Turns out he was on to something. The next collecting trip, I added some monofilament and bacon to my equipment list. I’ll be darned if it didn’t halfway work most of the time.

For the ones I missed, I could just hear that old man’s criticism of whatever part of the process I had failed to execute properly.

“Probably didn’t sit far enough back.” “They probably saw you.” “Bacon wasn’t salty enough.”

Regardless, I will forever appreciate the occasional passerby who wants to share their critter catching secrets. Never underestimate a man’s ability to secure his finest fishing bait.

Bearden is a biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. She writes about that but mostly about the exploits on her family's ranch.

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