If you picked a crayfish imitation every time you fished for smallmouth bass, you could do a lot worse. Fact is you’d be hedging your bet. In many locales, for a significant portion of the year, as much as 60 to 70% of a smallmouth’s diet is crayfish. Experts will tell you that crayfish were made to order for smallmouths. Behavioral naturalists theorize the powerful jaws and mouth structure of a smallmouth evolved to snatch defensive crawdads from their rock-strewn hideouts. In other words, smallies are crayfish-eating machines.

If you picked a crayfish imitation every time you fished for smallmouth bass, you could do a lot worse. One reason crayfish and smallmouth bass have such a common relationship is availability.

One reason crayfish and smallmouth bass have such a common bond is availability. There are at least a hundred different species of crawfish in the world and a good portion of them can be found in the USA. Most states have at least a half dozen or more crayfish species and they vary greatly in size and coloration, but one thing they all have in common is they are potential smallmouth fodder.

Some species that are now found in the waters of the northern tier of states in prime smallmouth country are not native. The rusty crayfish, which found its way into lakes and reservoirs via angler’s bait buckets and migration, compete with and displace native species of crayfish, but to a hungry bronzeback, it doesn’t make much difference. Do you want a rib eye or a NY strip? The bait industry is largely responsible for the introduction of non-native crayfish species that have spread exponentially and, in some cases, have severely altered habitats.

What anglers need to discover is which species are most common in the waters they fish, figure out the habitat they prefer, get an idea of the average size that bass are keying in on and their color. Generally, darker-colored lures that imitate something scooting along the bottom are going to get eaten. Colors range from dark green or brown to red or even bluish colors. Anglers need to discover which colors predominate in the waters they fish to match the hatch.

“How much smallmouths key in on crayfish depends on the body of water,” suggested smallmouth aficionado Scott Dobson. “Crayfish are most active when the water is warm, but that’s all relative. Crayfish in Florida might be very active when the water is in the 70s, but a cold front that drops water temperatures into the low 60s will shut them down. Conversely, in the northern tier of states crayfish will be active in much colder water. When the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, crayfish start to get active, but I’ve witnessed active crayfish in extremely cold water, especially in late winter. It’s not uncommon to see crayfish crawling along the bottom when I’ve been ice fishing. I’ve observed hundreds of live crayfish blown up on shore in late fall after a big blow when the water wasn’t much above freezing so they must have been active to be subjected to the waves. Crayfish are still very active when the water is in the 38 to 44-degree range in northern climes. I regularly catch smallmouth through the ice. You have to believe that crayfish are available to bass all year long.”

Crayfish seem to be the most preferred prey during the warm weather months and their consumption decreases as the year goes on in favor of baitfish, but no self-respecting smallmouth is going to turn down a crawdad. The preference, though, is somewhat confusing, considering crayfish don’t provide nearly the protein that a baitfish does. More than half of a crawdad’s live weight is non-digestible claws and shell or exoskeleton. Still, crayfish can make up as much as 80 percent of a smallmouth’s diet early in the season. Given a choice, bass prefer smaller, softer crayfish versus larger, intimidating adults. Their preference early in the year may be dictated by the lack of other forage. As the season progresses, YOY perch, bluegills, gobies and minnows become larger and more readily available and a larger portion of their diet.

One absolute is that if you’re trying to imitate crayfish, your lure had better be on or close to the bottom. “Crayfish are bottom creatures,” stated Scott Dobson. “So you need to be fishing near bottom with whatever you’re using if you’re looking at imitating crayfish. Crankbaits do a good job of imitating an escaping, panicked crayfish. Whichever crankbait you use, it needs to reach bottom regardless of the lip design. You may need a deep-diving bait that can reach 35 feet or a square-bill that is ideal in 3 or 4 feet or water.”

Fortunately, anglers have a lot of options when it comes to crayfish and crankbaits. Some classic crawdad imitations include the novel Arbogast Mud Bug and the archetypal Bomber. More recent creations include the timeless Rebel Deep Wee R Crawfish, Luhr Jensen Kiadad, and the Bomber Real Craw. The Strike King 3XD, Live Target HFC, and Storm Arashi Square 5 are more recent creations that modern anglers turn to when smallies are munching on crawdads. Again, regardless of the lure, it needs to be bumping bottom to interest bronzebacks chasing crayfish. Colors run the gambit from bright red to dark olive, sporting extremely detailed, realistic color patterns.

The original soft bait crayfish imitation has to be the Uncle Josh Pork Chunk. Its shape simulated the pinchers as a retreating crayfish and was the standard as a jig trailer for decades. Today, with the explosion of soft plastics, there are more crawdad imitations than you can shake a stick at. Major manufacturers like Berkley, Strike King, and others offer multiple shapes and configurations of scent-enhanced crayfish baits. Many of their roots can be traced back to the original Sweet Beaver design, but with added pinchers, appendages and details.

Crayfish imitations for smallmouths tend to be the most detailed because in the clear waters that smallmouths frequent they have a good chance to check the bait out before committing or not. The tendency for smallmouth lures is to use smaller, lifelike craws, like Z Man’s (zmanfishing.com) CrusteaZ, that are better suited for rigging on a shaky head jig, drop-shot or split shot. Some of my favorite smallie craws include Net Bait’s (netbaits.com) Paca Slim and its slender profile, the ZOOM Bait Company’s (http://zoombait.com) Ultra vibe Speed Craw, which is hollow and can accommodate a tube jig hook inside, and Lake Fork’s (LFTlures.com) Craw with its realistic appendages and tubular body. There are dozens of other soft plastic convincing crawdad imitations to choose from.

“Traditionally, crayfish concentrate big fish,” offered Scott Dobson. “When you find a situation like that it’s pretty hard to beat soft plastics whether it be a detailed, very realistic craw pattern or just a tube. There was a time on the Great Lakes when about all smallmouths ate were crayfish. Now you’ve got gobies, an abundance of native darters and sculpins, and an explosion in the minnow population, but it’s still hard to find a smallie that will turn down a crayfish.”

Dobson said his go-to crawdad imitation is a Zoom Speed Craw. “The Speed Craw is just a phenomenal bait,” said Dobson. “Fish it on a football, Arkie-style jig. It’s ideal for casting and has a light-wire hook that’s plenty strong enough to land the toughest smallmouth, but comes loose when you get snagged.”

If you’re headed to any of the country’s top smallmouth waters better go prepared with a good assortment of crawdad-imitating lures.