When Grandpa introduced me to crappie fishing in the early 1970s, little did he know that he changed my angling life forever. Prior to that fateful date, my concentration was solely on catching that ol’ bigmouth bass. If he were alive today, he’d just smile and say, “I figured as much.” You see, it was Grandpa’s favorite fish and, to be honest, he had caught more crappie over the years than an army of anglers.
During the past four decades, my wife, Jan, and I have worked in the “crappie industry;” fishing from Canada to Florida, interviewing hundreds of crappie enthusiasts for our outdoor program, making guest appearances on TV fishing shows, taking part in boat and sport shows and presenting fishing seminars. We like to catch crappie and we love to eat crappie. Our purpose is to share our experience.
The passion for crappie began on Illinois’ largest impoundment, Carlyle Lake, at one point the most prolific “big lake” for crappie in Middle America. Lakes change; times change; thus when Carlyle began to decline we moved our operation to southern Illinois’ Rend and Crab Orchard waters. When Missouri’s Salt River was impounded by the Clarence Cannon Dam in the mid-1980s, Mark Twain Lake became our choice and remains so to this day. The 18,600-acre Army Corps of Engineers lake surrounded by high hardwood-covered hills seems to be a natural for our favorite fish. Feeder creeks and long deep coves, along with the high bluff banks, offers a variety of areas and challenges for anglers to apply their skill.
Mentioning previously that we like to catch crappie and love to eat them, perhaps further explanation is appropriate. First, our time-tested method is fairly simple. Old-timers would call our technique “dippin’” or “doodle-sockin’;” today it is referred to as “vertical jigging.” Using a 9- or 10-foot fly rod, strung with high-visibility, 8-pound test line, baited with a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig, we select a target and simply flip the bait past the spot where a crappie should be lurking and merely let the jig move to the target. The length of the line is the same length as the rod, from tip to reel. Once the line is vertical to the rod, movement of the jig is up and down, but held motionless at different depths. Depending on the time of year, most of our fish are caught within the depth range of 1 to 6 feet, even in deep water.
Many times the bite will occur as the jig slowly approaches the target. The jig simulates a baitfish coming to the crappie lair. When you feel the “hit,” simply snap the rod tip skyward and the rest is up to you. I prefer lifting the rod straight up, bringing the fish to the top of the water. Swing your catch into the boat — or if it’s too big, that’s why we have a net.
Grandpa taught us to use marabou jigs; later came plastic tubes with lead heads. Then a couple of years ago, fishing buddy Pat Mayden introduced me to C.W. Wilson and his Crappie Rocket. The Rocketman’s hand-tied hair jigs are found in many bait shops and on all of our “fishin’ sticks.” The Rocket is truly an excellent artificial crappie lure, coming in many color combos in both 1/32nd and 1/16th-ounce weights. Lure color is up to each individual; that choice is mainly influenced by angler confidence gained from past experience. Water clarity and time of year are my determining factors in color selection, but I have a fondness for the black and chartreuse combination.
You’ve noticed no mention of live bait. Well, that’s pretty simple; I have no experience, no ideas on the subject and really no need to use live bait to catch crappie. If you are a minnow fisherman, I guess that’s OK, but we need to talk.
Now that we have talked about catchin’, let’s discuss cookin’ the best-tasting freshwater fish that swims. A wide range of recipes is available, especially in outdoors writer Steve Wunderle’s wonderful book, “From Lake to Table.” During Steve’s years of working in the fishing industry, he has assembled in his writing the top recipes for fish lovers. Fishing friend Frank Wagner makes a statement common to many; “If you want to ruin a mess of crappie fillets, do something other than fry ’em.” OK, Frank: we’re listening. Soak the fillets in milk for about 30 minutes, drain the milk, roll the fish in a mixture of one-third flour and two-thirds yellow cornmeal. (We prefer Andy’s breading.) Don’t forget some salt. Get the cooking oil in fryer or skillet to 360 degrees, (test by dropping a fillet in the hot oil); if the fillet “sparkles” the oil is hot enough. Cooking time is three to four minutes. Please do not overcook and make sure you have plenty; they go quickly.
Hope you’ve gained some insight about my favorite fish. If you learn to catch ’em and clean ’em, you will surely love to cook and eat ’em.
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs at noon Sundays on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.
Congratulations to last week's What D'Ya Know winner, Tracey Morris. She gave the correct answer, 90 = Feet Between the Bases on a Baseball Diamond, to the May 8 Off the Top of My Head column by Joe Crawford.
This week's question: Other than color, which is sometimes deceiving, how does an angler distinguish a black crappie from a white crappie?