Both are flat sided with large mouths and a general form that is simply pleasing to the eye. These panfish are found in nearly every lake and river and size from the Ohio River north, but it's in Lake Erie that they seem to reach their largest size, maybe because of the super abundance of food in the form of minnows, insects, and small crayfish. In many lakes a 10 incher is a very good fish, but in our big lake they routinely stretch to 12 inches, even 14 or 16 inches of thick bodied panster that will put a bend in the rod and take plenty of space in a sizable skillet.
Each spring when water temperatures begin to approach 60, these lovely fish begin to move into Lake Erie marinas, along shorelines, and patches of brush and drowned timber. By 60 degrees, they're beginning to fan out nests and by 65 they're usually actively spawning. It's prime time for fishermen, and whole families buy buckets of emerald shiners and go seeking a cooler full. Even those who don't normally fish often try for crappie, and being plentiful, they're a kids fish just as attractive as bluegills, but usually a good deal bigger.
Why the attraction? That's hard to say, but one reason is that they require little equipment and that less than costly. Some favor long cane poles that will allow the angler to lift his rig almost straight up and down and avoid hookups in fallen timber. They'll dab their minnow here, leave it for a minute or two, then move a bit to there, working all sides of brush, logs, and other obstructions. Some favor a fly rod of nine feet or so, and do the same or use "crappie rods" also long, but lightweight and made of space age material.
Whichever the equipment, lines end is almost invariably a No. 6 hook with splitshot a few inches above and a thin pencil float that a fish can pull under with little resistance. Bites are deliberate, and many anglers like that too. No zipping strikes that will see a customer spitting the hook before you can even pick up the rod. Instead, they tend to bounce the float a time or two, then either gently draw it under or slowly move off with their lunch. Plenty of time to make a move and hoist a silvery flapping fish to your waiting hand.
Since crappie are found from side to side of Lake Erie, they could be waiting anywhere, but it's in the shallow western basin that their numbers are greatest. And while many anglers or families simply find a good spot and toss out their minnows, those that catch the most are those willing to move. Sit down, bask in a warming sun, and idly watch the floats and you'll probably get a little action from time to time as fish swim in, out, or cruise past. But move and move again, skim the cream, then try a new spot and that bucket will fill much faster.
Lake Erie marinas can be magnets for spring spawning crappie, and those who get permission can make a fine haul in the best of them. The technique here is much the same - adjust the float until it's riding about six inches above the mud, then ease quietly along dabbing the shiner on all sides of every piling. They're still in loose schools at first, so 20 pilings might produce nothing, then one a half dozen fine fish.
You can improve on this tactic and save time in rebaiting by using a couple of little 1/8 or 1/16 ounce jigs with twister tails. White and pink are the best colors and I like to tie one on lines end and a second on a short side line about eight inches above. Bait the hooks with a waxworm then jig them slowly up and down around any piling or obstruction. This rig will not only produce crappie, but bluegills, perch, smallmouth bass, even channel cats if they're present.
East, Middle and West Harbor will produce at the proper time too, especially East which has lots of shorelines with good cover, perfect places to dab a minnow or jig. And I've found a few marinas along Catawba Island and Marblehead that produce excellent catches when fish are in and spawning. And other places from Huron to Vermillion have their hotspots. It's the best game in town, this early spring crappie hunting, and the patient seeker will hit a real jackpot sooner or later.
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Hooks & bullets
• Looking for some April entertainment? Reflector readers might enjoy the Progressive Catawba Island Boat Show held on April 27 through 29 at the Catawba Island Club in Port Clinton. The show will offer lots of boats of many kinds, a chance to see what's new in accessories, and maybe even a very good deal in a new boat. Don't miss it this month.
• With boatyards, backyards, marinas and clubs now coming o life, spring commissioning time has arrived. Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS) has a Spring Commissioning Checklist to help boaters start the season right. The Checklist is a lengthy one and important to use before first launch. It contains tips on everything from inspecting hose clamps to looking over cooling hoses for rot, leaks, and cracking. Check it out on Google.
• Most readers aren't aware of it, but our beautiful oceans are in real danger these days, and the problem is plastic. According to a recent National Geographic episode there are half a million pounds of plastic in every square kilometer of many parts of the oceans. Several species of sea turtles eat pieces of loose plastic thinking they're jelly fish and die, and even deep sea fish are turning up with plastic in their systems. An estimated eight million tons end up in the oceans each year, placed there via rivers that range from the Ganges to the Nile and Mississippi, and plastic bottles and other containers have been found even in remote spots like South Georgia Island stacked up on the beaches. What can be done about it? Ask your Congress people to encourage more work on biodegradable plastics and recycles as much as you possibly can. Every bit is sure to help.
Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his blog at outdoorswithmartin.com.