Swim Creek

A few red claw crayfishes caught at Swim Creek, Steve Cooper

After a long, hot day fishing for barramundi, the bar and dining area at Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge, just north of Mary River National Park, is a magnet for anglers. Thirsts are quenched, meals eaten and fish tales are the order of the day.

On this evening in early May, the bar was crowded when a couple of locals walked in carrying a bucket full of red claw and a small saltwater crocodile. They’d almost stood on the croc and the guys decided to ‘bring it in to show the tourists’ before returning it. The small crocodile didn’t raise an eyebrow, but word of the red claw haul had the bar buzzing … among the locals at any rate.

Red claw is the northern Australian equivalent of the southern Australian yabby. The northern species has red-tipped pincers, but there is little other obvious differences. In some parts of Queensland, red claw are also known as crawchies.

We southerners thought little of the red claw catch because, ho-hum, well they were only yabbies. The locals had other ideas. In freshwater streams in northern Australia, red claws migrate upstream to breed. This migration doesn’t sound like a big deal until you find out it occurs just once a year, and lasts no more than a couple of weeks. Red claw usually weigh around 300 g, although they have been recorded at 600 g.

I’ve never been into Opera nets for yabbies. In my experience, true sport comes from tying a piece of red meat to the end of a bit of string. The yabby can then be lured to the surface and a hand-net placed underneath to catch it.

The red claws were being caught at the Swim Creek crossing, about 5 km from the lodge on Point Stuart Rd. I was told if I wanted to catch a few, all I would need would be a torch and a bucket. No net was required. I was intrigued.

Water was pouring downstream over a causeway below the bridge. About a dozen other red claw hunters were already at the crossing, including three who had made the long drive from Darwin for an evening session. The method was simple: all you had to do was walk around a small barrage shining your torch into the water. When you spotted one, you reached down and took hold of it with your hand, being careful to avoid the pincers.

Given the large population of crocodiles in the area, standing in a stream in the middle of the night isn’t something you’d expect to be a popular pastime. Nevertheless, anticipation of the taste of red claw seems to overcome any fear of the crocs. Moreover, everyone was downstream of the causeway and nobody ventured into the calmer, upstream pool. It was a large, dark pool about the size of a house block and surrounded by heavy vegetation. I was assured it would hold plenty of crocodiles.

The red claw hunters working the fast-flowing water had difficulty staying upright. How a red claw was able to scramble upstream against that fast-flowing water is a mystery. Most of the catchers stayed in ankle-deep water and some worked around trees where they could steady themselves. The more adventurous were downstream in dark spooky pools, out of the current. Every so often, the beam of a torch would pan along the darker areas of the water, checking for the telltale red eyes of a lurking crocodile.

In less than an hour, we caught half a bucket of red claw, and then it was back to camp where the catch was placed in the cool room. Lowering the body temperature of the yabbies is like putting them to sleep. Then they can humanely be boiled for about a minute, after which they are shelled and devoured.

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