Sirens of Springs Remembered

springcrappies1

  • 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.

springcrappies2My 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.

springcrappies3This 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.

Dr. Ronald W. Straw, Matt Straw’s dad, flew 19 combat missions in B-25’s as a Captain in the 14th Army Air Force—the Flying Tigers—under General Claire Lee Chennault in Burma.

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

Fins & Feathers Day

Let’s call the fourth Saturday in May what it really is.

Maries River Smallmouths – Jefferson City native Randy Boeller drove all the way back home from Houston, Texas, to catch this hefty smallmouth from the Maries River.

To my knowledge, the fourth Saturday in May is the only date on the calendar when Missouri anglers and hunters all have something to rejoice about.  That’s because the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is opening day for squirrel hunting and for catch-and-keep fishing for black bass south of the Missouri River.

This year’s squirrel season runs from May 28 through Feb. 15, 2017.  You can fish for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass year-round, and you can keep these three black bass species all year anywhere north of the Missouri River and in impoundments statewide.  Though in most streams south of the Missouri River, you may not legally keep black bass until the season opens.  This is designed to give bass protection during their spawning season and during the part of the year when Ozark streams are at very low levels and bass are concentrated in small pools.

Note that I said “most” streams south of the Missouri River.  The area where black bass fishing is restricted excludes what is commonly known as “swamp east Missouri,” the low area that is part of the Upper Mississippi Embayment.  This includes all of Dunklin, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Scott counties, most of Butler and Stoddard counties and tiny bits of Ripley and Cape Girardeau counties.  The actual boundaries are much more precise than this, being demarcated by highways as described in the Conservation Department’s Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations.  The booklet is available wherever fishing permits are sold or online at http://on.mo.gov/1LwnqRA.

There’s no trick to finding places to hunt squirrels.  Anyplace with trees is sure to have bushy tails.  If you don’t own such land or know anyone who does, there are literally hundreds of conservation areas that are crawling with squirrels.  The Conservation Department makes it easy to find an area near you with its online Conservation Area Atlas. The database is searchable by county, activity or type of facilities.

What might be slightly more complicated is finding the right kind of squirrel.  To me, the “right” kind are fox squirrels, which are about twice the size of gray squirrels, and consequently are more likely to add up to more than one serving apiece.

In principle, finding fox squirrels is easy.  They inhabit open woodlands and areas where wooded acres are surrounded by open ground, especially agricultural land.  This means southwestern and northern Missouri for the most part.  However, you can find fox squirrels throughout the state where forest borders on pasture or row crops.

Black Powder Squirrels – A small-caliber muzzleloader is a good tool for hunting squirrels in the summer, when foliage dictates close shots.

Most of the bass you catch in Ozark streams will be smallmouths, those bronze-backed masters of the aerobatic hook-toss.  In a few streams, however, smallmouths have been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of spotted bass.

I’m not normally one to intervene in a fair fight, but in this case I think anglers have legitimate cause to take sides.  For one thing, the spotted bass’s fighting ability pales in comparison to that of a smallmouth.  Add to that the fact that spots are significantly smaller, on average than smallies, and you’ve got a no-brainer.

To let anglers weigh in on the smallmouth-spotted bass battle, the Conservation Department has removed the minimum length limit for spots on all or parts of the Big, Bourbeuse, Courtois, Meramec rivers and on Huzzah, Blue Springs, Dry Fork and Mineral Fork creeks.  Taking home a limit of six spotted bass of various sizes lets anglers enjoy fish on the table without reducing the supply of hard-fighting smallmouths.

More restrictive length and creel limits apply to smallmouths on various other streams where the Conservation Department is trying to build trophy smallmouth fisheries.  Before heading out, be sure to check the section of the Fishing Regulation Guide for regulations specific to the area you plan to fish.

Stream bassing in Missouri isn’t all about the Ozarks.  Several streams in Northern Missouri have good smallmouth bass populations mixed in with the dominant bucketmouths.  The South Fabius (pronounced (Fabby”) River, which runs through Knox, Lewis and Marion counties north of St. Louis.  This Mississippi River tributary is virtually unknown outside of Northeastern Missouri, but it is notable enough to be included in the Conservation Department’s “Padder’s Guide to Missouri.”

Plenty of other northern Missouri streams also have excellent black bass fishing.  North of the Missouri River there are the North Fabius, Grand, Chariton, Salt and Platte, and in the south you have fine Ozark Border streams, including the Lamine, Moreau and Maries rivers.

Oil up your shotgun and fishing reel.  The fun is about to start!

Fins & Feathers Day

Let’s call the fourth Saturday in May what it really is.

Maries River Smallmouths – Jefferson City native Randy Boeller drove all the way back home from Houston, Texas, to catch this hefty smallmouth from the Maries River.

To my knowledge, the fourth Saturday in May is the only date on the calendar when Missouri anglers and hunters all have something to rejoice about.  That’s because the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is opening day for squirrel hunting and for catch-and-keep fishing for black bass south of the Missouri River.

This year’s squirrel season runs from May 28 through Feb. 15, 2017.  You can fish for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass year-round, and you can keep these three black bass species all year anywhere north of the Missouri River and in impoundments statewide.  Though in most streams south of the Missouri River, you may not legally keep black bass until the season opens.  This is designed to give bass protection during their spawning season and during the part of the year when Ozark streams are at very low levels and bass are concentrated in small pools.

Note that I said “most” streams south of the Missouri River.  The area where black bass fishing is restricted excludes what is commonly known as “swamp east Missouri,” the low area that is part of the Upper Mississippi Embayment.  This includes all of Dunklin, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Scott counties, most of Butler and Stoddard counties and tiny bits of Ripley and Cape Girardeau counties.  The actual boundaries are much more precise than this, being demarcated by highways as described in the Conservation Department’s Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations.  The booklet is available wherever fishing permits are sold or online at http://on.mo.gov/1LwnqRA.

There’s no trick to finding places to hunt squirrels.  Anyplace with trees is sure to have bushy tails.  If you don’t own such land or know anyone who does, there are literally hundreds of conservation areas that are crawling with squirrels.  The Conservation Department makes it easy to find an area near you with its online Conservation Area Atlas. The database is searchable by county, activity or type of facilities.

What might be slightly more complicated is finding the right kind of squirrel.  To me, the “right” kind are fox squirrels, which are about twice the size of gray squirrels, and consequently are more likely to add up to more than one serving apiece.

In principle, finding fox squirrels is easy.  They inhabit open woodlands and areas where wooded acres are surrounded by open ground, especially agricultural land.  This means southwestern and northern Missouri for the most part.  However, you can find fox squirrels throughout the state where forest borders on pasture or row crops.

Black Powder Squirrels – A small-caliber muzzleloader is a good tool for hunting squirrels in the summer, when foliage dictates close shots.

Most of the bass you catch in Ozark streams will be smallmouths, those bronze-backed masters of the aerobatic hook-toss.  In a few streams, however, smallmouths have been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of spotted bass.

I’m not normally one to intervene in a fair fight, but in this case I think anglers have legitimate cause to take sides.  For one thing, the spotted bass’s fighting ability pales in comparison to that of a smallmouth.  Add to that the fact that spots are significantly smaller, on average than smallies, and you’ve got a no-brainer.

To let anglers weigh in on the smallmouth-spotted bass battle, the Conservation Department has removed the minimum length limit for spots on all or parts of the Big, Bourbeuse, Courtois, Meramec rivers and on Huzzah, Blue Springs, Dry Fork and Mineral Fork creeks.  Taking home a limit of six spotted bass of various sizes lets anglers enjoy fish on the table without reducing the supply of hard-fighting smallmouths.

More restrictive length and creel limits apply to smallmouths on various other streams where the Conservation Department is trying to build trophy smallmouth fisheries.  Before heading out, be sure to check the section of the Fishing Regulation Guide for regulations specific to the area you plan to fish.

Stream bassing in Missouri isn’t all about the Ozarks.  Several streams in Northern Missouri have good smallmouth bass populations mixed in with the dominant bucketmouths.  The South Fabius (pronounced (Fabby”) River, which runs through Knox, Lewis and Marion counties north of St. Louis.  This Mississippi River tributary is virtually unknown outside of Northeastern Missouri, but it is notable enough to be included in the Conservation Department’s “Padder’s Guide to Missouri.”

Plenty of other northern Missouri streams also have excellent black bass fishing.  North of the Missouri River there are the North Fabius, Grand, Chariton, Salt and Platte, and in the south you have fine Ozark Border streams, including the Lamine, Moreau and Maries rivers.

Oil up your shotgun and fishing reel.  The fun is about to start!