Bob Mitchell: Crawfish catching in Flat Creek

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Now that the temperature is warmer, and people are beginning to think about things like fishing, it seems appropriate to talk about how it used to be catching crawfish in Flat Creek.

You realize, naturally, that this is all about the days when the creek ran year around with better water tables and was most surely cleaner than it might test these days.


Back in the early l950s, there were a couple of fellows in Cassville who made a pretty good piece of change for themselves as catchers of softshell crawfish. At the best of my recollection they got a nickle apiece for the fish bait, and fishermen were perfectly willing to shell out 60 cents a dozen for the ideal fish bait.

Harold Miller and Jimmy Ketchum were the best around at prowling Flat Creek at night when the crawfish of a softshell variety came out from under the creek banks. Using carbide lights and a water bucket, these two, not together but separately, would enter the water at their favorite location and head upstream, picking the bait like they were picking strawberries. At times, they might each enter the creek in the Black School house area near the Edmondson place.


Seldom would they straighten up until they had filled that water bucket that trailed behind them or was in the opposite of their catching hand. And, seldom did they pick up a hardshell crawfish that was not marketable at that time.

They might continue upstream until they got to the Pilant bridge, or perhaps they might go to the Crystal Springs bridge before they completed their task.

Now it doesn’t seem like much these days, but back then, 60 cents a dozen meant quite a bit to some of us. You see, one didn’t dare head for the river with less than 10 dozen of the baits in an ice-cooled container. One hit by a catfish that you failed to hook knocked the bait off, and fishing on credit wasn’t any good at all. Fishing on credit was a term used for a bare hook.

Ice house

The Railway Ice House in Cassville, which sat where Arvest bank is today, was headquarters for the crawdad market. Miller worked there, and Ketchum had an arrangement with Herschel Horine, the operator.

Between them they would fill orders, often taken for them by Horine, and put them in a container in the cool temperatures. Anglers could pick them up as they headed for the river and get their supplies of ice at the same time. That was a “cool” arrangement for both the bait catcher and the fisherman.

Cost cutting

With the cost involved in getting the bait, several of us thought we would branch out on our own and catch our own the night before we wanted to go fishing. This necessitated buying a carbide light, and ideally, acquiring a pair of hip boots just in case you might encounter a snake either on the bank or in the water.

More than one amateur catcher discovered the instance of a snake either wrapping around their leg or at least brushing against them.

Anyway, most of us quickly learned that Ketchum and Miller had a corner on the market of softshell hunting. The art, while enjoyable in some instance when a group would go after the bait, just didn’t find many of us that accomplished to be successful.

Corydalis cornutus

That is the scientific name for the hellgamite, who many thought was the best fish bait to be found anywhere in the river. They were found in the ripples and could either be caught by hand or by placing a screenwire scoop below some rocks and turning them over. If there was a quarry beneath the rock, it would wash into the scoop.

Actually, hellgamite was a larva that eventually becomes a dragonfly. And, those who touted them were correct that they were ‘a good fish bait.’

Bill Barber and I used to be pretty good at catching them on our trips to White River. But, we both learned a valuable lesson one time — not to put them in the pockets of our swimming suits.

The many-legged creature had a small, but extremely sharp, pincher at the tip of their heads, and they knew how to use it.

Clean water

You understand these creatures were plentiful back in the days of clean water in this part of the country. Also plentiful were softshell crawfish at one time. So plentiful they became the prey of catchers from all over the country, practically making them extinct, as man is often known to do.

The wholesale catching on area streams in those days eventually found the Conservation Commission eliminating the sale of crawfish. Then river fishing was virtually eliminated, but, while the bait will still work, I really don’t know if there is anyone catching these days or not. If the water had remained as clean as it was in those days, and if the catchers were still around, it would be interesting to see if there was still a market available for them to practice their trade.

They were part of the good old days, which through one means or another, man has caused to disappear from the earth!

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat. He is a 2017 inductee to both the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame and Missouri Southern State University’s Regional Media Hall of Fame.