Michael Pearce

Attack of the crawdads

Crawdads enter pillow traps through funnels. One end of the trap can be opened when it's time to remove the crawdads.
Crawdads enter pillow traps through funnels. One end of the trap can be opened when it's time to remove the crawdads. The Wichita Eagle

CHEYENNE BOTTOMS — They came en masse from the murky waters, so numerous that if one stopped, others crawled over it or pushed it aside.

And each of the dozens carried long, whipping antennae, a mass of churning legs and a set of oversized, garish claws.

Many people would have thought the super-sized crawdads scary. Larry Fry was glad to be amid them.

"Prairie lobsters is what I call them," Fry said as he toted about five gallons of them.

"Crazy," Rick Tomlinson said as he watched Fry add those crawdads to more than 500 others in a plastic tank in his truck.

"I've been catching crawdads out here most of my life and it's never been anywhere near this good."

In 10 summer trips to the sprawling wetlands, Tomlinson, Fry and friend Jason Black caught about 8,000 crawdads.

Raised in Great Bend, Tomlinson and Fry have long looked on the crustaceans as a source of summer fun and fine eating.

For decades, they'd caught them on liver tied to string and crude homemade traps.

Black, a serious crawdad-catcher in his native southeast Texas, suggested investing in quality gear.

Some online looking and $180 later, the trio were the proud owners of about 30 pillow traps.

Made of woven wire, the pillow-shaped creations let crawdads enter traps baited with dead fish through funnels.

I lucked into an invitation to help run the line about 10 days ago. It was quickly obvious the traps were only as good as where they'd been placed.

"Moving water's the key," Tomlinson said.

His theories are that the moving water attracts crawdads from nearby calm water looking for food.

Swift-moving water also may bring them from upstream.

This rain-rich summer has meant plenty of water coming into Cheyenne Bottoms.

Wildlife and Parks workers have been helping the crawdading cause in their efforts to divert water to assorted pools in anticipation of fall waterfowl migrations.

Water flowing through concrete control structures became crawdad central for the trappers.

Traps placed in or near such flow for two hours often held one- to three-dozen crawdads.

Most were four to seven inches long.

When he found several traps full, and a steady line of crawdads marching from the water and up the angled sides of a water control structure, Tomlinson grabbed a fishing net.

It was like dipping minnows from a baitshop tank. Every scoop was at least half-full. He filled several buckets in a few minutes.

That structure was our last stop the night I helped.

Lights shined along the edge of the structure showed an amazing procession of crawdads. They stretched from as far as we could see into the water to 20 feet up the edge of the structure.

Ones Fry and I nudged into the water to keep from smashing them were instantly replaced by others.

As Fry emptied nets bulging with crawdads, Tomlinson handed me the long-handled dip net.

Halfway through my first scoop, I commented it felt like the net was half-full of mud.

"That won't be mud," Tomlinson said. "Lift the net."

The sweep of maybe 10 feet had netted about 50 big crawdads. A few more scoops and I filled a bucket.

That night we cleaned a kiddie pool half-full of crawdads; snapping tails from bodies and pulling fins from tails.

The result was several gallons of grape-sized chunks of white meat.

The traps were again full and the netting good the next morning.

Mid-morning, with a few minutes to kill, Tomlinson and I headed back to crawdad central with just the net.

It was only two hours after we'd last emptied the traps and netted the spot.

In 12 minutes of scooping, the same small area netted more than 300 crawdads.

"Crazy is all I can say," said Tomlinson, who netted catches of more than 500 and 600 from the same spot on following days. "I've seen it good out here, but never so good you could just net them up like this. I'd hate to think how many crawdads there must be out there."

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