Sirens of Springs Remembered

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  • 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

Fishing Report: Orleans County, New York Lake Ontario, Lake Alice, Erie Canal for October 13, 2016

The cold temperatures and frost of Monday night and Tuesday morning should go a long way in convincing salmon that it’s spawning time. Even though daytime temperatures will be back up in the 70’s this week, tributary temperatures are definitely heading in the right direction.

Some solid reports have Brown trout and even some Atlantic salmon entering the mix. The best action is still occurring around the mouths of the tributaries and from small boats working the shoreline.

There are fish all the way up to the dam on Oak Orchard, but not as heavy as you would expect at this time of year.

Basically it seems that everything is about two weeks behind where you would expect it to be. A good rain would go a long way towards bringing things back to something close to being normal.

On Lake Alice the cooler temperatures have moved many of the species back to the weed beds around the lake. Bluegill and Crappie are still being taken from the Waterport Bridge but not in the numbers they were a week ago.

Don’t lose out on some great fishing, food, friends and prizes at the St. Mary’s Archer’s Club Catch and Release Derby which will be held on October 19th to the 21st this year. It is truly one of the great events of the fall fishing season.

From Point Breeze on Lake Ontario, the World Fishing Network’s Ultimate Fishing Town USA and the rest of Orleans County. We try to make everyday a great fishing day in Orleans County.

Email: sportfishing@orleansny.com

Summer Crappie Tales

Summer crappie often seem to be unfindable. You drift, troll, cast around your favorite waterways for other species and then, once in a while, you catch a crappie. What then? Secret lures? Yes!

Secret Lures for Finicky Fish? Indeed.

Summer crappie are often hiding in plain sight. You know what I mean? We often drift, troll, and cast around our favorite waterways for many species and then, once in a while, we get surprised and we shout to our partner or the day, “Hey look! It’s a crappie!” Then we go on doing what we were doing and never catch another one. But we want to!

Crappie are School Fish

The one crappie that we caught on a lure that was probably not meant to catch crappie is a great signal for just one thing. There are more! That one cooperative fish was the alpha leader in a pack of crappie and he made the first move. Oftentimes, if we switch to a smaller lure, a more usual crappie lure, the fish will often be more than just a little cooperative. They’ll slam your lure.

About Secret Lures

Secret lures are really a misnomer of language-use among anglers. Yes, there are lures that are hot one day or two days, but most of the time, a hot lure that works for only a short while and has a much longer story as to why it worked. The sun angle, the sun-ray deflecting wind riffle on the surface, the water clarity in a certain lake zone, speed of lure, depth of lure, rod action imparted to the lure, all that and much more.

This life-like spin-jig with this little holographic tail made by Blue Fox Lure Company has fooled more crappie in the last few months than any other crappie lure I have ever owned from over the last six decades.

Then once in a while we find a lure that seems to work for all, or at least many, occasions and we have to wonder how and why. It works everywhere and sun angle makes no matter, and all the rest.

My grandson and I were fishing a Florida waterway last winter and at about 45 minutes before sunset, he switched to a new lure he received at Christmas. It was a small spin-jig lure made by Blue Fox Lure Company with a very small spinner blade and a flesh colored tail that has some holographic flash material embedded in the tail, a tail that is very, very flexible.

Lazy Fish Will Slam Convincing Baits

He used a Palomar knot to tie on the lure and on the first cast, wham! He hooked a fish and reeled in a 14 inch crappie. This seemed hard to believe since we had been fishing the water for about an hour and has tried so many different lures without success. He caught 10 more fish in the next 20 minutes before we got called to dinner by his grandma.

We went back the next day during the day and he did the same thing again! Okay, I had to see this lure and study it too. It’s not much different than so many other lures similar to it, but this lure has just the right amount of flash and right amount of life-like wiggle in the tail to convince the unconvincing crappie that it’s time to gobble, not just feed. They slam this lure!

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Lure Action, Flash, Sink-Rate – they Matter

I was not totally convinced though, really, so when I fished a bass tournament in Kentucky Lake this last May. After the tournament and as sunset approached, I headed for the docks and tied one of these lures on. On my first cast, wham! A 13-inch white crappie! Over the next several minutes, I caught several more.

Since I live in New York, what were the chances this one lure would work this way in so many places? I had to find out. So I called my grandson and he agreed to help me with this special lure test –we all need an excuse to get out from cutting the grass when mom and dad have those plans. What are grandpa’s for?

We headed for a small lake with very warm water last week, as it has been a really hot summer in the northeast. We were only shore fishing this time, so we walked softly and worked our way in between reeds growing along shore to get our casts in toward some submerged structure we knew about.

summercrappie4The first cast went out, the lure sank to about 4 feet and my grandson started his slow retrieve. The lure about 10 feet and wham! A short fight and here he comes up the bank with a 14-inch crappie! No way you say, right? He caught 6 more on 10 casts and said with a big smile, “I think this is enough for 10 fish sandwiches that Grammy makes. Can I call her to see if she will cook em up?” Grammy never says no to that question.

Since then, we have used this lure a few more times and caught crappie, perch and bass that were all way too big for such small lure.

The message that seems to be driving through, the message that we learned totally by accident, is that sometimes in summer, winter, fall and spring, downsizing your lure size is not a bad thing!

We normally use large lures and catch larger fish than most folks, but this lure with the unique action and reflection and controllable sink rate, is one of those lures you just put into the “special category.”

Live, Learn, Share

So I’d like to ask all of you out there in crappieland, when you find your next new lure that works so well that it seems the fish cannot resist, please take a few minutes to share your success with a kid. Get him or her started on catching fish like you do and let’s get together to share and discover the outdoors with others through the fun of fishing.

Tight lines.

Spring Crappie Fun

Learning the String of Seasonal Transitions

springcrappiefun1Dogwoods and wild flowers punctuate the forest with color, yet crappies remain in pre-spawn mode.  Spring is well underway before crappies begin to crowd ever-closer to spawning habitat.  Foraging remains the priority.

In many environments, crappies begin to filter out of dense wood cover as new weed growth rises from the bottom.  Plants offer an entirely new menu of invertebrates and the minnows that pursue them.  New cabbage growth is especially attractive for crappies, but elodea, coontail and other weeds, will draw them too.  Not unusual to see crappies in two feet of water or even shallower when the first weeds pop up and many anglers fail to search for these extremely shallow fish.

Reeds become increasingly important to crappies as water temperatures approach 65°F.  The relatively hard bottom that reeds thrive in is preferred by nesting crappies.  In the absence of reeds, crappies may move back into wood to spawn.  Reeds, stickups and wood cover offer the kind of vertical cover they like for spawning.

Before spawning, crappies are moving around from wood to weed cover and back.  They also move shallow during stable weather, then move out past the first breaks into 10 or 15 feet of water to suspend lethargically during cold fronts.  Then, as the spawn progresses, not all crappies spawn at the same time.  Crappies that use small bays and canals spawn early, followed by crappies in larger bays, and finally by main-lake spawners, where the water warms slowest.

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Soon after spawning, female crappies abruptly leave to sulk and recuperate in deeper water, while males remain to guard the nests for several days.  Soon after, all crappies begin to spread out into various summer patterns.  Some go to breaks near deep weed lines.  Some follow plankton veils in open water.  Some find brush piles, lay downs, or stake beds.  Some may relate to boulder fields, rocky points, or off-shore humps.  In most cases, crappies alternate between suspending near those cover options and burying themselves within that cover.

So these many movements within such a short period of time keeps anglers on their toes.  My favorite program for finding crappies fast, then catching numbers, from this point in the season (early/mid-May) right through fall is the same every year.

I start each day with a fast, 7-foot ultralight rod from G. Loomis or the St. Croix Panfish Series coupled with a spinning reel the size of a Pflueger President ESP30—not a tiny reel, but not a big one either.  The spool is filled with 4-pound Maxima Ultra-green monofilament and the lure of choice is a 2-inch Kalin, Berkley or Yamamoto Grub, on a 1/32-ounce jig head from Gopher Tackle or Northland.

The idea is to swim the jig slowly on a horizontal plane and the 1/32-ounce head creates the perfect speed for crappies.  Not too fast and not too slow.  The presentation is simple.  Cast, allow the jig to sink anywhere from a foot to 8 feet, depending on the depth of the cover or bottom in the area, point the rod tip down and slowly reel.  Keeping the lure horizontal, not rising or dropping, requires a very slow retrieve.  Watch beside the boat to create the cadence.

springcrappiefun3Monofilament line keeps the light jig from falling too fast in spring and as the water warms into the high 70°F range, I switch to 4 or 6-pound Berkley Fireline in order to speed things up.

Even when crappies won’t bite the grub, the most active fish will follow it, so wear polarized sunglasses and watch closely.  A white, yellow, or chartreuse grub is easy to spot, providing a better chance to scan behind it before crappies spook from the boat.

Once crappies are found, the jig-grub combo may keep right on catching them and may not.  I always have an 8-foot St Croix Panfish Series rod rigged with a small Thill or Northland slip float handy, just in case most of the crappies are spooky or less active.  And, it’s critical this time of year, to be prepared with 2 or 3 different kinds of bait.  Crappies can switch overnight from minnows to invertebrates and back again.  Typical on my boat to find a scoop of crappie minnows, a few dozen panfish leeches, and at least 100 wax worms, maggots, or angle worms on board when chasing crappies.

Critical, too, to use jigs with at least a size #4 hook for crappies, or size #4 to size #2 Aberdeen hooks.  Big crappies can shake loose or rip free from those smaller hooks on the 1/64 to 1/16-ounce jigs we commonly use.

As the blooms of spring fade and the greens of the forest darken, crappies make all kinds of movements involving transitions between different forms of cover and from one kind of forage to the next.  They won’t move far, but anglers have to be prepared to search a little every day.  The rewards are resplendent in sparkling hues of green, gray, blue, and purple, not to mention those golden-brown fillets sizzling in the pan.

Spring Crappies: Wood to Weeds Dynamics

Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 2 of 4

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In the fall, when weeds begin to die, an exodus takes place.  Refugees with and without vertebrae begin flocking from the decaying flora to more stable environments.

First the insects leave their dying source of food and cover, followed by the minnows and panfish that feed on them.  The most logical refuge for these epiphytic insects becomes wood in the form of brush piles, lay downs, stake beds, logs, and stickups.

In spring, these movements reverse. Eventually. But when spring comes early, with unseasonably warm temperatures arriving weeks ahead of schedule, anglers often find nothing but dead weeds on the shallow flats in their favorite panfish bays.  Though often frequented by crappies right after ice-out, these flats can be devoid of fish life altogether until new weed growth reaches a certain height—tall enough to provide cover, and dense enough to draw insects.

Famous crappie-walleye pro Tommy Skarlis, assaulting a wooden sanctuary for crappies in the backwaters of the Mississippi River in spring.

Most years, the first place to find shallow crappies in early spring will be around wood cover.  Bluegills, too, will be crowded into the branches of fallen trees at this point—especially when big bass, catfish, or pike are on the prowl in the warming waters of those first bays to light up with fish life.

Consummate crappie pro Kyle Schoenherr (All Seasons Guide Service in Illinois), demonstrating how crappies will find and utilize the most dense wood cover available in spring.

A single log laying along bottom, or angling to the surface with one end exposed deadhead style, can hold dozens of crappies.  Amazing how a float rig resting three feet from that log will sit quietly forever while a float pulled right up against it will go down over and over again.  Crappies can crowd into the shadows of a single log like sardines stacked in a can.

Float rigs define the best choice for approaching crappies and wood in spring.  Until waters warm above the 50°F range, crappies may seldom chase a swimming or moving jig with much enthusiasm.  And a vertical drop beneath a pole float or a slip float offers the lowest opportunity for snags.

Down South in lakes like Reelfoot in Tennessee, reaching in toward wood cover with long 12- to 16-foot poles with 6- to 8-pound monofilament lines, vertically dapping around wood cover with slim “pole floats” from the Thill Shy Bite series is popular and effective.  The rig is weighted with a couple split shot and a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig baited with a minnow or worm.

Up North we’re more likely to pitch with 7- to 8-foot ultralight rods, 4-pound lines, Northland Lite Bite Balsa Slip Floats, and lighter jigs in the 1/80- to 1/32-ounce range.  Because crappies tend to be targeting small invertebrates this time of year, anglers should be ready to try wax worms and maggots when minnows fail to produce.  Slip floats slide down to a bead and a swivel separating the main line from a leader when reeled in, creating a smaller package that is easier to pitch with accuracy.  When the float lands, the rig weighted with split shot and a jig slides straight down until the float reaches the string or neoprene stopper on the main line, providing less opportunity for the leader to drape over branches and hang up.

Always think about the angle of the sun and where the shadows will be. Though early spring means cold water, and crappies may be “sunning” in the open water nearby, it pays to fish the shaded side first most days.

Next week: Part 3 of 4 –The Crappie Compass.