As a teenager, my friends and I lived to fish.
We were regulars on the Lehigh River near White Haven and Fishing Creek in Benton every spring as we pursued trout.
When summer rolled around and the trout waters warmed, we switched our tactics and focused on panfish and bass. Farm ponds, swamps, lakes - you name it we cast a line in it.
Our baits were simple. We used mainly nightcrawlers and bobbers for panfish, occasionally getting “fancy” worm-tipped jigs or shiners for crappie.
When it came to bass, rubber warms and jointed Rapalas topped the list, followed closely by poppers, buzzbaits and rubber frogs.
But there was one exception.
When we went north into Wyoming County to fish for smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River, crayfish and hellgrammites were the old standbys.
Our fishing trips on the river always began with bait collection. We’d catch soft-shelled crayfish in the shallows and carefully reach under stones to grab a hellgrammite before it got away.
Catching bait was almost as fun as catching smallmouth bass, and it became part of our river fishing routine.
But soon, one half of that routine may no longer be allowed.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission may vote on a proposal at their October meeting to ban the possession and transportation of any live crayfish.
Because invasive crayfish, such as those purchased for bait, are taking over some waterways and disrupting entire aquatic ecosystems.
Rusty crayfish, which is native to the Ohio River Basin, have taken over the lower Susquehanna Drainage - the river and its tributary streams — according to PFBC biologist David Leib, who spoke on the issue during the agency’s commissioner meeting in July.
In some waterways in the southeast, the native crayfish population has been replaced entirely by the invasive variety. Even some of the state’s renowned trout streams - Yellow Breeches in Cumberland County, Spring Creek and Fisherman’s Paradise in State College, and Penns Creek in Centre County, for example — have been taken over by invasive crayfish.
What harm can a non-native crayfish bring considering there are already crayfish living in the waterway?
According to Leib, the non-native species have higher metabolic rates, meaning they eat more. Crayfish are omnivores, eating everything from plant matter to animals, basically anything they can get their claws on.
They also consume fish and amphibian eggs, mussels, snails, caddisflies and other invertebrates.
When the invasives invade, with their big appetites and larger size that outcompetes the native crayfish, the food chain under the water can be dramatically altered.
Aside from appetite and size, another way that invasive crayfish outcompete the native variety is by sheer numbers. Leib said native crayfish might populate a waterway at one or two per square foot of stream bottom. The invasives, on the other hand, can dominate at a rate of 20 per square foot.
Invasive crayfish aren’t unlike an invasive plant, such as Japanese knotweed or mile-a-minute vine, both of which can grow rapidly and quickly smother out their native counterparts.
So what can be done?
On the bright side, according to Leib, invasive crayfish can only be spread by people who intentionally release them into the water. That includes anglers dumping their bait buckets at the end of the day and even those involved in aquaculture and decorative ponds.
Because people are the main avenue for invasive crayfish, the solution is simple: don’t release them into any waterway.
If the PFBC board votes to ban the possession of all crayfish, that means old pastimes such as collecting them for bait for a day of smallmouth fishing on the river will become a thing of the past.
It’s sad in a way, but understandable. After all, if the invasive crayfish continue to spread, many of our native aquatic ecosystems may also become a thing of the past as well.