Fishing for crayfish

A reddiish brown signal crayfish with one very large front pincher
Photo by WDFW
Washington has only one native crayfish species, the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). It is fairly easily identified by its uniform brownish coloration.

A new law requiring Washington fishers to possess a recreational fishing or shellfishing license to fish for freshwater smelt, crawfish, and carp goes into effect June 6, 2024. For more information, see the crawfish fishing regulations.

Crayfish (or Crawfish) have become the species of the day for many folks in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages recreational and commercial fisheries for crayfish. Be sure and consult the current Sport Fishing Rules Pamphlet to make sure you understand all rules. There are special rules that apply to non-native species to avoid accidentally spreading them to new waters (see pamphlet, and below). 

Crayfish are prized culinary treats in Europe, particularly France and Sweden.  They also enjoy some popularity in this country.  Demand is high enough to support a number of "crayfish farms" in Louisiana, where large numbers are raised as annual crops in specially constructed ponds.  Most of these are consumed domestically, but some are exported.  Our West Coast species is generally larger than the Louisiana and European crayfish and according to some connoisseurs, is even tastier, but it has never been commercially cultured.  Wild stocks have been harvested for many years from the rivers of Oregon and to a lesser extent, from the lakes of Washington. 

Let's Get Names Straight.  What is the Correct Name?

Crayfish.  Crawfish.  Crawdad.  Even crawdab.  Take your pick.  These common names are equally acceptable and do not refer to different species, although there are in fact hundreds, but rather reflect regional differences in the speakers.  The term "crayfish" probably arose from misunderstanding of an old word crevis, which is related to the German Krebs, or "crab."  English speakers apparently heard the last syllable as "fish" and went from there.  The scientific name for the species we have in Washington is Pacifastacus leniusculus, sometimes called the signal crayfish.  Except where otherwise noted, when "crayfish" is used in this pamphlet it means Pleniusculus.  Keep in mind, however, that the crayfish in other parts of the country or world are probably not the same species and may have quite different habits.  For instance, what is true of the Louisiana commercial species Procambarus clarkii may not be true of our native crayfish.

What Kind of Animal Is the Crayfish?

Its just about what it seems—a small freshwater version of the lobster.  Technically it is a decapod crustacean, related to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.  Pleniusculus is large as crayfish go, reaching the minimum legal size of 3 ¼ inches in about three years, but often growing to 6 inches or more in 5 or 6 years.  Crayfish prefer fresh animal food if they can get it, but they also eat a variety of aquatic plants.  People think of them as scavengers because they are not very good at chasing down live prey.  In fact, crayfish seem to prefer fresh food to decaying matter.  Their diet may change considerably as they pass from the juvenile to the adult stage.  This may help explain why juveniles rarely enter traps.  Crayfish themselves serve as meals not only to humans but to a number of birds, fish and mammals as well.

P. leniusculus mates in the fall, and the females extrude from 100 to 300 eggs shortly thereafter.  The eggs or "berries" remain attached to the underside of the female through the winter and hatch in late spring.  The young crayfish remain as passengers on the mother for several weeks, molting twice before finally venturing out permanently on their own.  In summer, a typical crayfish lake will contain immature males and females from the previous year which have not yet mated, adult males, adult females which have recently shed their young, and many newly-hatched juveniles.  A few of the earliest born juveniles may grow enough to mate the same fall, but the majority are not able to reproduce until the following fall, when they are 17 or 18 months old.  At this age, they are generally still below the minimum legal size.  Females may spawn twice or more in a lifetime.

Our native species is considerably larger at full size than the species grown commercially in Louisiana, but does not grow nearly as fast.  Louisiana crayfish farmers have a marketable crop within one year.  Our species normally requires at least three years to grow to the minimum 3 ¼ inch legal size for harvest, by which time most have had a chance to reproduce.

Different age groups prefer different habitat—the juveniles favoring shallow, weedy areas where they can find protection from predators (and each other, since they are cannibalistic), and the large adults favoring deeper areas, perhaps to avoid birds and land mammals.

Recreational Fisheries

Species Identification

It is important you can distinguish the difference between our ONE native crayfish and nonnative species that have invaded our waters. Our native crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) has a uniform brown coloration, white or light coloration at the claw joint, and a smooth surface on the claws and carapace (head and back) compared to the nonnatives. The nonnatives have pronounced bumps on their claws. Native crayfish are the only crayfish that may be removed from the vicinity of the waterbody alive. If you cannot positively identify your catch as a nonnative species, the daily limit and other restrictions listed below for native crayfish applyOur native crayfish may be threatened by nonnative crayfish, it is important not to take any actions that may endanger the status of our native crayfish.

For more information on native vs. nonnative identification see:

Fishing for Crayfish

When: Fishing is prohibited during the winter months to protect the population's reproductive capacity. Females normally carry eggs from late fall to the spring. Crayfish season is the 1st Monday in May through October 31, statewide. Check the Fishing Regulation Pamphlet for more information on seasons.

Where: All waters of the state. Crayfish are found in lakes, streams and rivers.

Gear: One star trap, one ring net or one pot is considered one unit of gear. Up to five units of gear/person may be used to collect crayfish. General crab and shrimp gear rules (see the current Sport Fishing Regulation Pamphlet) apply. A separate buoy and buoy line must be attached to any trap or pot left unattended. Buoys must be permanently and legibly marked with the owner’s first name, last name, and permanent address (telephone number is voluntary). It is ILLEGAL to set or pull unattended shellfish gear with a buoy that does not have your name on it, and only one name and address may appear on each buoy. Any angler may assist the person whose name is on the buoy while he or she is pulling the pot.  Buoys must be constructed of durable material. It is unlawful to use bleach, antifreeze, or detergent bottles, paint cans or any other container. Unlike crab and shrimp, crayfish pots have no mesh size or buoy color requirements. Many crayfish pot designs can be found online, and sporting good stores usually carry them. Some people just use a standard minnow trap with an enlarged opening. There are lots of options out there – just be sure you follow WDFW regulations. All crawfish pots must be equipped with a biodegradable device (rot/ escape cord) which must be affixed to the pot in at least one of the following ways: 1. Securing the pot lid hook or tie down strap with a single loop of rot cord; or 2. Sewing a 3" by 5" escape panel in the upper half of pot closed with rot cord; or 3. Attaching the pot lid or one pot side (serving as a pot lid) with no more than three single loops of rot cord. Cord used must be untreated 100% cotton, hemp, jute, or sisal no larger than thread size 120 (1⁄8"). This cord, when attached as described above, must be able to rot away and allow crawfish and fish to escape freely if the pot is lost. A derelict pot without proper escape cord can attract and kill for years after the pot has been lost.

How: The best time to catch crayfish is at night. Fresh fish parts make good bait, but even dog food will work. Crayfish usually are found in areas where they can seek cover. Rock piles, boulders, weedy spots may all harbor crayfish.

Size restrictions, daily limits, and more: 

Recreational crayfish harvest rulesSeasonAdditional rules
Native species (Signal crayfish)1st Monday in May through Oct 31Min. size 3¼" from tip of rostrum (nose) to tip of tail. Daily limit 10 lbs in shell. All females with eggs or young attached must be immediately returned to the water unharmed. Washington fishing or shellfishing license is required. See statewide gear rules also. 
Non-native species1st Monday in May through Oct 31Must be kept in a separate container. Must be dead before being removed from riparian area (immediate vicinity of water body). No daily limit, size, or sex restrictions. Washington fishing or shellfishing license is required. See statewide gear rules also.