The cloud of silt crept closer, billowing away like a miniature version of an apocalyptic dust storm. Soon it enveloped me, reducing visibility to near zero.
I had only myself to blame. I was the creator of this calamity, but it was unavoidable. I was stalking crawdads across a lake bottom covered with a thick layer of fine silt. Any movement near the lake bottom raised a cloud, and I was half swimming/half crawling along the bottom.
My crawdad hunt was part of an expedition by my dive club. Once every year we abandon ocean diving for a camping/diving trip in the Oregon Cascades. Crawdads are the featured entrée of our evening potluck, and provide something of interest to pursue on the fresh water dive.
Most folks looking to harvest crawdads use a trap. They’ll bait up the trap, haul it 100 yards out or so, leave it sit for a few hours, and come back later to see what fate has provided. Being divers, we opt to get up close and personal with our potential dinner. To add a bit of sport, rather than enticing them with a baited trap we sneak up on them and try to grab ’em.
The sneaking up bit works out better than you’d think, considering that from a crawdads perspective we’re a gigantic fish, trailing a big cloud of silt. Not exactly the definition of stealth. The grabbing bit is a different story. Although I’ve done hundreds of ocean dives, this was my first crawdad dive. I had some lessons to learn.
Crawdad one, lesson one, grab one. I missed badly. I forgot the refraction effect. When you’re underwater, objects appear to be larger and closer than they really are. (Hence some inflated fish stories…) A crawdad that’s two feet away will appear to be more like 18 inches away, so when I grabbed I came up short. Either that or my arm got a lot shorter than it used to be. After a few more grabs I started getting the range, but that did not spell routine success.
One of my more crawdad experienced dive buddies (we’ll call him Cobra Dave) suggested positioning your hand about six inches above the creature before a strike. Rather than running away they take a defensive stance: reared back a bit with arms spread wide. Evolution has probably taught them this makes them hard to swallow by the average fish. Evolution has also given the crawdads another gift, those buggers are quick!
When I attempted a grab, all pretense of defense vanishes and they bolt. But not forward like a human or a fish might do, they go backwards and don’t lollygag about it. So, in addition to refraction, this adds another adjustment factor as to where to direct the strike.
Once my hand landed where I hoped the crawdad would be, even if I had the range they sometimes still escaped between my fingers. In any case, the strike always raised a cloud of silt, so I couldn’t see if I had success or how good a grip I had, I could only go by feel.
If I did score a hit a second problem posed itself. What to do with the little beastie? For this problem we carried mesh bags in our non-cobra hand, but we still need to get the bags open and insert the new crawdad without any prior prey escaping.
You might ask, was it hard to find the crawdads? Not really. They were often out in the open and you could swim right up to them without a lengthy search. But once you settled onto the bottom, that apocalyptic silt cloud would raise up and cobra time was limited.
There were occasional navigation challenges. We had five divers in the water and we were all creating our trail of silt clouds. Sometimes I’d run into another divers cloud, or maybe get turned around into one of my own. Usually I could just swim through, but a couple of times it was so thick and large it would persist – I had no sense of direction and about 6 inches of visibility. Fortunately I did have a compass and could figure what direction the shore was.
Ultimately our crawdad hunt was successful; we scored enough so all the divers and their significant others could have a few for diner. I didn’t do too badly for a rookie, but have some catching up to do before I harvest as well as Cobra Dave. In the meantime, the crawdads are safe for another year.
Some of you may wonder why the heck I’ve called those little bugs crawdads when “everybody” knows they’re really crawfish. Or maybe crayfish. Possibly mudbugs or fresh water lobster. If you’re an Aussie you probably call them yabbies. It seems that what we call these critters depends on your regional dialect. There are a number of other words, phrases, and pronunciations that are regionally specific. A couple of years ago the New York Times came out with a 25 question test that asks what you call things, and based on that generates a map of the US showing what regions most closely correspond to your phraseology, and three smaller maps for cities that reflect your more distinctive answers. It’s pretty interesting. Check it out here.