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Gerald Almy: Tricks for catching more crappies

Gerald Almy

What do over 20 million anglers have in common across the country? They love catching crappies. While these black and white speckled fish are fun to catch at any time of year, they are a particularly intriguing quarry in late winter and spring.

Many people wait until the redbuds bloom to head out after these scrappy panfish. But good action is possible right now. And if you decide to keep some “speckled perch,” their flesh will be firm and delicious when from the cold winter waters. The fish will also be schooled up in tight groups as they gather before heading into shallow areas near shore to spawn in March and April.

These are the perfect fish for family outings and for introducing newcomers to the sport of angling. If you try to introduce a novice to fishing on a difficult trout stream or a bass lake when the largemouths are on in an “off” mood, you may temper their enthusiasm for the sport before it even begins to take hold. But let that same person join you on a crappie foray where fish are being fought 10 or 15 minutes and you could well have an angling convert for life on your hands.

Both black and white crappies are found in Virginia’s lakes, rivers and ponds. Sometimes you’ll find a mixed population, such as in Buggs Island Lake. In other waters one species may predominate, such as Lake Moomaw, where black crappies prevail.

Black crappies have a deeper body than whites and a high, arched back. The marks on white crappies form nine vertical bars while black crappies have more random speckles on their sides. Black crappies have seven or eight dorsal fin spines, whites have only six. As a rule, white crappies predominate in more murky, silty water, while blacks favor clearer water.

Crappies reached a new stature last week when they were a featured question on “Jeopardy,” the ABC TV quiz show.

Over the next few weeks we’ll run down some of the top tips I’ve learned from sharing the boat with crappie experts across the country over the years.

RIG UP A SPINNING OUTFIT

Two kind of outfits work best for crappie fishing – a cane pole and a spinning rig. For most situations a light or ultralight spinning outfit is ideal.

Choose a 5 ½-by-7- foot-long rod with an open-faced spinning reel spooled with 4-to-8-pound line. As a rule, light action is better than ultralight, so you have a bit of backbone to set the hook and work fish away from snags, blowdowns or bridge pilings as you fight them.

With this outfit you can drift fish in open water, cast to shoreline cover with lures or deliver live bait beneath a float to the edge of brush and docks. It’s fun to fish with and you get the most sport with the light outfit when you do hook into your quarry.

Become a kid again — buy a cane pole. Some people consider these strictly child’s toys, but a long, light rod that you can use to reach out and put baits or lures next to cover is actually a very efficient angling tool. You can use the humble bamboo pole or modern fancy versions made of fiberglass or even graphite.

A small reel can be attached, or the line can simply be tied to the end of the rod’s tip. Nine to 12 feet is a practical length range. Another option is to buy an 8-to-9-foot fly rod, fill a spare reel with 6-to-12-pound monofilament and use it like a cane pole.

This type of outfit is perfect for working along the shoreline in areas with scattered trees in the water or brush piles, since it allows you to drop a jig or minnow straight down into open pockets in the tangle of cover without getting hung up. If no fish bites, you simply lift the bait or lure back up and drop it beside the next likely looking branch or tree trunk or dock piling.

When a fish strikes, set the hook and quickly work it up out of the tangles and then over the top of the cover out to open water or straight into the boat. This rig also works well for dropping lures or baits right alongside bridge pilings, where crappies often hang out before and after the spawn.

TRY FLY FISHING

Yes, you can dap minnows and jigs with a fly rod, but you can also catch crappies using a fly rod in the traditional manner – by casting streamers. Start with an 8-to 9-foot rod that balances with a 5-to-7-foot weight line. Use either a high-density sinking tip line or a floating one in a weight-forward design. In the latter case you’ll want to add a split shot or two a foot above the fly. Use a 7-to-9-foot tapered leader with a 4-to-8-pound tippet. Good fly patterns include the Clouser Minnow, Woolly Bugger, Zonker and Grey Ghost, in sizes 1-4.

Cast the fly to cover or open water just off from brush and let the streamer sink a few feet. Then begin a slow retrieve in short, spurting strips. If that doesn’t produce, try a steady hand-twist retrieve. Chances are you’ll soon feel a sold tug on the line and will see just how much fun catching crappies on flies can be.

Next week: More strategies for catching crappies

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.

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