- Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 1 of 4
- Secrets, Simplicity…18″ Crappies
- Dad Taught Me So Much
Spring has its own unique textures and smells that recalls something familial. It draws me back Home, to spring crappies in lakes surrounded by the forests of the upper Midwest. Before the blossoms begin to bloom, I hear the Siren’s call of back bays and secluded, closed-in canals connected to bigger lakes, surrounded by gray trees, washed in gray light.
Not because crappies fight so very hard. Not because it requires any exceptional skill. Not even because they taste wonderful, as I generally prefer perch, bluegills, trout, and walleyes. But because they formed a small, but important part of the woven tapestry called Home in the mind of a little boy.
My father was a dentist and not at all a fisherman, but he had amazing carpentry skills. All in one winter, he built a boat in our open car port. A wooden boat, 12-feet long, so stable my brother, dad, and I could stand on one gunnel and it would hold a foot short of shipping water. It had a console, two comfortable seats, a windshield, a steering wheel connected to a 40-horse Johnson, and man could it fly.
Dad bought every imaginable accessory— water skies and tow ropes; inflatable toys; inner tubes; and four fishing rods, replete with slip floats, split shot, swivels, and size #6 Aberdeen hooks. A former captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he was quite thorough.
He didn’t know much about fishing and I was just 11 or 12, so he asked my uncles who said, “Buy some crappie minnows and plop them around by those fallen trees on the west shore of the lake.” So we did. That first spring we fished together several times, watching yellow-and-white bobbers drifting past the boughs of fallen trees in the west bay.
One afternoon, I pitched my bobber rig into the fork between two branches. After a minute or so, it began to move sideways and submerge ever so slowly. I waited until it was down completely and set the hook (my cousins taught me that much fishing from docks). Nice crappie, maybe a foot long. So my dad pitched right to the same spot. His bobber followed precisely the same routine and his crappie was a little bigger than mine.
Some 50 years later, I maintain no illusions that my memories of that day are pristine, but as I recall we kept taking turns pitching to the same spot for about half an hour. Each time the float submerged slowly. And each succeeding crappie was slightly larger than the last one. Dad caught the biggest one and we could get no more bites after that, so we left for my grandmother’s cabin to clean up a nice mess of fish.
This I do remember because somebody took a photo of the two biggest crappie lying next to each other beside a measuring tape. Both were over 18 inches long! In a half-century of trying, I’ve never since caught a bigger crappie. Being a young pup, I had no idea that there was anything exceptional about the size of those fish. That was the size crappies were supposed to be, I surmised. Dad, not being a fisherman, had no idea that his biggest crappie might rival the state record. And my grandmother cared about one thing and one thing only: Frying them up for dinner in that marvelous way she had, serving them with a glorious loaf of bread made in her oven that afternoon.
I remember dogwood blossoms in the trees, and a faint, sweet smell in the air. I remember my dad’s faint smile every time I brought a crappie flopping over the gunnel and onto the deck, those iridescent scales reflecting metallic flashes of purple, blue, green, and silver. After that first summer, we never really fished together again. He was busy building our house or playing golf— his favorite activity. But he introduced me to crappie fishing, which has haunted my spring life ever since.
Catch-and-release was not yet a topic in the mid-1960s, except in the presence of rare and gifted men like legendary angler Lee Wulff. People fished for fun, but it was generally accepted that you killed what you caught. I would, of course, never kill an 18-inch crappie today. In fact, we generally keep only four in the 10- to 12-inch range, releasing all specimens over a foot long. And if everyone else would (please) follow suit, maybe our kids could again see what an 18-inch crappie looks like. Even if only once.
Now I look out the window and see rain dripping from gray trees in April. Ice still clings to some of the larger lakes. I know crappies are already moving into those shallow bays to feed near spawning habitat. I sense their progress as they follow the wind, finding wood cover in the warmest water, making up for the deprivations of winter with minnows and invertebrates that gather there.
A ghostly image of Home haunts me as I gather my 7 to 8-foot ultralight rigs, stringing them up with bobber stops, slip floats, and small jigs. I can still see his silhouette in the swirling snow of that open car port, alone, slowly soaking and bending ribs and strakes into place with a series of clamps, quietly bonding us all together.
Look for Matt Straw to share Part 2, 3 and 4 of “Crappie Fishing With Straw” in consecutive weeks of “Share the Outdoors” starting today