Remains of the Bait

The remains of the bait: a barracouta head after a night on the Southern Ocean floor. Crayfish and sea lice have stripped most of the meat from the skull.

The longer I stay in Tasmania, the farther I’ve strayed from my original objective – travel Australia’s southernmost state by horse or mule. Instead of traveling overland, I find myself drawn back to the sea. But that’s okay. It’s hard to jump aboard a crayfish boat for a stint at sea if you have to worry about housing your equine transport. The junk shop bike I settled for has made for a much more seaworthy travel mate – especially strapped to the pilot house of the crayfishing boat “Miss Carmen”.

Miss Carmen, visible at the end of the dock, is my most recent way of seeing Tasmania.

In recent posts, we went face to face with a Tassie cray and had a listen to what one sounds like.

But what I found just as interesting as actually catching the crayfish was letting my mind wander, have a look at some things that weren’t on the agenda. It’s the old saw about letting life play out as it wants – giving up the mule travel bit for a jump on a crayfishing boat. Looking at, instead of just the crayfish, the bait.

Right, the bait. Especially after it’s soaked in the Southern Ocean overnight.

To catch a spiny lobster, fishermen bait round lobster traps then chuck them in the drink. At the end of the day, or the next morning, they pull them up so see what’s inside. The focus, as it should be, is on lobsters. With fishermen forking out thousands of dollars every time they put to sea, it’s only fair they stare mighty hard at those crayfish that pay for it all. And granted, they’re pretty remarkable creatures, as these close up photos reveal.

But what about the other stuff in the fish trap – as in the bait that’s left over after the lobsters have eaten their fill?

Aboard the “Miss Carmen”, the pots are baited with horse mackerel and barracouta heads. The flesh, blood and guts that cling to them entice the crayfish into the traps. But overnight is along time to spend on the Southern Ocean seafloor. In addition to crays, it’s swarming with crabs, wrasse, starfish, octopus, leather jackets (a type of fish similar to the unicorn fish), hermit crabs and sea lice. Any dead fish that winds up on the sea bottom is quickly reduced to bone, tooth and cartilage.

Which makes for some pretty cool photos.

First, there is the eye. After spending the night on the bottom of the Southern Ocean, the eyeball is reduced to a clear, leathery shell. In some cases, the crystalline lens, when it hardens, is all that remains.

Barracouta eye: the small white ball visible in the center is the lens.

The skeleton, cleared of flesh, turns clear. Viewed closely, it appears made of crystal.

Barracouta bones

Other body parts fare better. But not much. After only a few hours in the water, all the soft tissue is stripped from the barracouta’s jaws, leaving a ghostly set of teeth set in soft bone.


While most soft tissues are quickly eaten away, others, like the gills, are not as appetizing to deep sea creatures. When their fragments fall from the traps, they take exquisite, almost embryo-like shapes.

Gill structure

Gill fringe

In the end, though, it all goes away. Leave a crayfish trap in the water long enough and all the bait disappears. A subtle reminder of the beauty, and impermanence, of it all. And, dare I say, occasionally straying from life’s plot for a close look at something entirely unplanned.

2010-12-28 22:19:51

bernie. you always seem to find something totally amazing to show us and write about. Is that a little lice I see on the gill fringe. wonders of the deep!!

Gary and Beryl
2010-12-29 03:12:17

Say hallo to Chas Wessing,fisherman when you come across him.He was my skipper when I fished around to Pt Davey,


Carolyn Howell
2010-12-29 10:44:32

Hi Bernie,
Have you thrown the calcified clam from Oriental into the Southern Ocean yet?
Great close-up photos of the bait.

2010-12-29 21:35:49

Hey there Gary, Beryl, Peta and Carolyn. Dang, your comments make me miss crayfishing already (I’m back ashore). Good eye Peta! That is a sea lice. In fact, the baits are swarming with them when they come up – but my smashed up old camera can only capture so much. Gary, I’ll be sure to look up Chas if I’m out there. Does Black Charles ring a bell? He’s fishing a 1940 vessel called the “Jean Nichols”. And finally, Carolyn, yes, you beat me to my story! The shell was launched. And photographed. Hmmmmm….gives me a story idea…..
Happy New Years Eve! Bernie Glenorchy Tasmania


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