New to NZ, Sam Boothroyd had to start from scratch on his journey to catching his first cray. Now that he rarely comes home without dinner, he talks us through his last year and gives us some insight into how he improved his skills so rapidly.
Before I moved here, I remember watching videos of people spearfishing and freediving in New Zealand and just being in awe of the vis., the shoals of fish and the crays! To watch people dive down and wrestle these crazy looking bugs out of cracks and caves made my blood pump in excitement for what could be, but nothing could have prepared me for the challenge ahead.
Six months of free diving brought home just how hard it was to find and hunt these tasty buggers. We spent every other weekend down in Kaikoura and the diving opportunities were incredible with schools of blue moki and butterfish surrounded by swirling kelp and cold blue water. It is heaven and I can’t get enough of it no matter how many times a seal pops up next to me and scares me silly – I will always be drawn back for more. Hours and hours were spent freezing myself while searching every nook and cranny I could find, but I was only greeted by bare cracks, marble fish and those little red crabs whose legs look so tantalizingly like the almighty crayfish!
The first crayfish I ever saw was at Kaikoura in our usual dive spot – the seal colony at the tip of the peninsula. We had already been for an hour-long dive, but I managed to persuade dad to let me in just one more time. The water was murky and we were shivering, but I had a good feeling. Five minutes in, I dropped down to a perfect looking ledge and had begun to work myself along it when I spotted two wavering antennae – my heart skipped a beat I swear. I hit the surface and freaked out; this was it! I dropped down after a big breath up and went in and grabbed him. I hadn’t appreciated how spiny crayfish were, but I figured it out pretty quick. Up I came with two antennae, no crayfish and several holes in my hand. My first crayfish encounter, and one I will never forget.
There were many more moments like this in that same section of coast, but I eventually got one. It was very small – about the size of my hand – but a crayfish none the less! I watched in fascination as it powered away with its little tail, and so the addiction started.
The writer is now hooked on freediving for crayfish after working on his skills over the last 12 months.
One moment early on in my free diving career will always haunt me. My dad and I were out spearfishing, and dad released a slightly undersized crayfish. It shot off and latched onto my groin and it didn’t want to let go, digging its legs in deeper. While I wrestled it off my delicate parts, my dad nearly drowned from laughter! A painful experience to say the least!
The next step forward in my journey took place on a dive with a mate. We were planning to kayak around Pepin Island, east of Nelson, and dive wherever looked interesting. We hadn’t exactly prepared for how big the island was and only just made it back before dark. At the first spot we found, there was a rock with a large crack running the length of it which popped up from the bottom (about seven metres) to just under the surface. I checked it out several times before I noticed a crayfish right in plain sight. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but I got him! A nice legal buck and my first crayfish that I could eat! I was stoked and eating it only fuelled the fire of my crayfish addiction; by far my favourite meat!
As the diving opportunities are limited in Nelson, Dad and I planned a big trip to the North Island! We flew to Auckland and then drove to the Coromandel where we’d booked a ‘Learn to Spearfish Charter’, run by Jeremy Viall. I was beyond excited for the diving to come. We headed out early morning to the Alderman Islands from Tairua and were greeted by crystal clear vis. The bottom was 15 metres deep and I could see fish from the boat. I was mesmerized; being used to 1-5m vis. in Tasman Bay, I was lost for words. The words that did come from one of the spearo’s mouths got me even more excited – apparently there would be big packhorse and red crays just in the shallows. I jumped in.
After a few hours I noticed a group of the guys who were out with us diving in a cave so I went to check it out. Just under the surface were about five crayfish nestled deep into a crack. The tide was coming in and was making it harder and harder for me to be able to get a breath without smashing my head against the rocks. I eventually wrestled one out and boom, a crayfish! A quick celebration then onto the next spot. There were rocks filled with packhorse and red crays. Dad and I managed three overall which I was happy with. I flew back to Nelson with a cooler bag between my legs filled with crayfish and fillets, thinking, “please don’t leak!” Epic trip!
My breath hold was still holding me back a bit at this point. By the time I had found a crack and spotted crayfish, I was out of air; but as they say, practice makes perfect. So, on car journeys and before I went to sleep I would hold my breath, and through a combination of doing this and diving, I managed to reach a level which makes hunting crayfish comfortable.
Kaikoura is now somewhere where I can confidently go out and find a crayfish or get a feed. The trip up north taught me a lot about habitat, technique and what to look for. Grabbing the crayfish was a huge challenge and it’s only now, over a year since moving to New Zealand, that I can reliably come up to the surface with the crayfish I find. If I can, I will have several dives to check out the crack or cave, the crayfish, the size of each crayfish and plan out my attack. Knowing exactly what you want to do when you take your last breath is a sure way to come home with a feed. Gloves are a must! Dad and I forgot our gloves one weekend and left with an empty catch bag and some very bloody hands. We bought some cheap gardening gloves and we were out again, this time coming home with big grins and a colourful chilly bin!
A holiday up north to Waihau Bay over Christmas provided me with a chance to feed my growing addiction. The first evening after a great day’s fishing, I snuck a quick 10-minute dive on the way back to the slipway, which made me realise just how far I had come. I pulled up three crayfish, all keepers, in only five or six breath holds. The next day after a full belly of crayfish from the night before, I jumped in at this little cove we’d spotted and within a minute, was boasting my personal best crayfish at 1kg!! I was stoked. It was a perfect dive. I had breathed up, duck-dived, dropped down until I was level with the crack and then eyed up two crayfish, each one filling the crack surrounded by big black urchins. I didn’t think. I went in hard and grabbed her out perfectly around the horns! I dream about that dive every few nights!
Over my diving journey, I have learnt a few things which make catching crayfish easier and safer. Being comfortable is very important: your mask should feel comfortable and not steam up and you should be warm and perfectly weighted. You should also have a dive buddy watching over you. I can’t stress enough how important it is that we dive safely and within our comfort zones. If a crayfish is too deep in a crack or just too deep in general, leave it, there will be others. “One up, one down” is the technique my dive buddies and I use. It allows each diver a chance to catch a crayfish while also being safe, and it allows us to watch each other’s progress. A dive float with a flag is also essential as it provides a way for boats to see our location, and it also holds our catch bag.
Sam and his dive buddies work a 'one-up, one-down' system that sees them keeping an eye out for each other, even though their pursuit of crayfish and paua is in relatively shallow water.
Freediving for crayfish is a sport that has captivated me. Crayfish not only taste good but look beautiful and are an animal that I have come to love. They play an important role in our ecosystems, eating kina and dead fish, and we need to respect them, only taking enough for a feed. On all of my crayfishing dives, I leave the little ones alone to let them grow healthy and strong in the hope that they will have the opportunity to breed. I will also leave legal crays if I have enough for a feed.
Needless to say: I am addicted!
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