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A Calico Time of Year

by Joseph D. Cornwall

 

Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
April 2004

 

Photo courtesy of Mike Farrell

They are known by a number of aliases; calico bass, strawberry bass, speckled perch, sac-a-lait, and papermouth are just a few. I am not aware of any studies on the matter, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that crappie are the single most sought after fish in the Buckeye state. Every spring as the sun melts away the gray doldrums of winter thousands of enthusiastic anglers head to lakes and ponds in search of silver treasure. 2003 was a banner year on many lakes, a couple of my favorites giving up more crappie over twelve inches in that single season than most folks recall seeing in the four preceding years combined. With some luck 2004 will be equally generous.

The white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) is, by nearly an order of magnitude, the more common of the two crappie species. The black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus) demands a habitat where the water is clear and where there is an abundance of submerged aquatic plants and a sandy or muck bottom. The aggressive white crappie is more tolerant of silt and clay, and flourishes in the stained and turbid water which is far too common in Ohio. Fortunately for us, both species are active minnow feeders with similar spawning habits. And even more fortunately, both species love a well presented fly and are an ideal target for the long-rodder. As a bonus, the prolific crappie is absolutely wonderful on the table and makes no demands that the angler feel guilt about keeping a stringer. Eat what you want, they’ll make more!

Crappies spawn in spring when water temperatures are between 60 and 65 degrees. Male crappies gather in shallow areas of dense weeds or brush and fan nests two or three feet apart. Females come to the shallow nests to deposit the eggs and may spawn several times in a season, ultimately laying as many as 300,000 eggs per adult. Spawning can be a noisy affair, it is easy to hear and see crappie splashing along wooded shorelines. Don’t be fooled into chasing them, though. While en flagrante the crappie won’t eat. Instead the pre and post spawn adults will gather along the first break out from the nesting area; that is where they are at their most vulnerable to a well presented fly.

To be successful in the pursuit of the calico we must first understand a little about its personality. Crappies don’t “school” in the typical sense of the word, but they do roam in loose groups. While a crappie may be found on a lake’s bottom, or even rising to a dry fly, the species is noted for its habit of suspending – hovering a few feet over structure. They are notorious for refusing to move more than a few inches up or down to chase artificial or natural bait. Crappies eat plankton, insects, small crustaceans and especially fish such as minnows and immature rough fish. A quick examination of an adult member of the species will show large eyes set high on the head, all of which suggests they see well and are sight feeders. Crappies also hear well and can be easily spooked by noisy boat handling or careless wading. That said, a bit of careful deduction coupled with a dash of observation and a dose of stealth will combine to provide success more often than not.

Papermouth don’t make many special requirements of a fly fisher’s tackle. As the moniker implies, the crappie has a thin and delicate mouth prone to allowing a hook to tear free. For this reason sharp, light wire hooks are best. The crappie’s flat body provides enough surface area to make them difficult to move when hooked, but this fish is certainly not built for speed or endurance. I like using moderate-action four to six weight rods, depending on wind levels and the depth which needs to be fished. When crappies are in close and shallow, a floating forward taper line will get a fly where it needs to be. A slow sinking line can be an invaluable tool when the sac-a-lait plays its favorite card and suspends six to ten feet deep, though. Under these conditions I switch to a uniform sinking taper line like the Scientific Anglers Wet Cell II. A uniform sinking line has a tip which is more heavily weighted than the body, so it keeps a straight connection from the rod to the fly. This is important for a light biting species like crappie. Also, the sinking line should not be of a fast sinking design; two to four inches per second is plenty fast enough. Success is often dependent on our ability to make a slow presentation to a suspended target.

Weather permitting and soon after equinox (March 20, 2004 – one of two days every year when there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness) crappies will begin to swim into shallow water where they feed on stirring insect life and small forage fishes. The north shores of lakes and ponds are the first to warm and so are the first to provide quality angling. Specs will seek out areas rich in woody structure such as submerged standing timber, beaver houses and deliberately placed brush piles where they can suspend in three to six feet of water over a bottom six to twelve feet deep. It is important to keep at least ten feet away from your targeted cover - twice that much if the water is clear - as these fish can be easily spooked. Ideally you will find this cover just off a spawning flat where the old creek channel of a lake cove climbs to the shallows.

I target early season pre-spawn fish with a floating line and an eight to ten foot leader terminating with a three foot tippet of four or six pound test fluorocarbon. A marabou or rabbit strip minnow imitation such as a zonker is a good choice and I like any color so long as it’s white. Start with a size six fly about an inch and a half long and go down in size if the fish seem reluctant. Cast beyond the target structure and give the fly plenty of time to sink to depth. Retrieve the fly very, very slowly using a hand-twist retrieve. Retrieve speed shouldn’t be any faster than two to four inches per second.

By late April the surface temperatures will be reaching into the low 60s and the crappies move into the shallow water to spawn. Again the north side of the lake is where this activity will start. You can chase the spawn around a lake for two to three weeks on the larger waters by starting on the north shore and fishing right around to the cooler south bank. Look for thick, complex cover with easy access to deeper holding areas to find the largest groups and the biggest fish. Once the spawn starts in earnest I like the same rig discussed above, but I add a small popping cork or float about three feet above the fly. I also shorten the overall leader to seven feet or so, keeping the three foot tippet of four to six pound test fluorocarbon. Cast to the first break adjacent to where the crappies are spawning and allow the fly to sink. Work the fly with short twitches that cause the float to kick up a bit of water, allowing sufficient pauses to keep from pulling the fly up to the surface. Takes will be at their most aggressive at this time of the season, but a slow and steady retrieve still wins the race.

Early season crappie feed extensively on shiners and small shad. While spawning structure is a key feature for which to look, areas offering both spawning habitat and thick baitfish populations are ideal. If you find schools of shiners or shad in deep water (six to twelve feet) adjacent to wooded flats and bank cover, you have made it to speckle-side Mecca. Shiners and shad both will follow plankton blooms, so a northeast cove bank is the best place to be after the wind has blown from the west for a few days. Constant wind direction stacks plankton against the shore and the shiners come to feed. The wind action also pushes warm surface waters to the same locale, precipitating aggressive feeding by staging crappies between their egg-laying sessions. Knowing the habits of baitfish in local lakes will help you find trophy crappies.

As the spawn winds down, or if inclement weather pushes the papermouth off the flats, I look for fish in deeper water. These fish aren’t easy to catch; the key is to keep moving. I like to slowly drift along a promising break in my canoe, casting a streamer on a sinking line in front of the drift. If necessary I use a length of chain on a rope to slow the drift down to where I can just keep ahead of the boat’s progress using a slow hand-twist retrieve. I use a uniform sinking line which keeps a very direct connection between my fly and my rod tip. Crappies under these conditions are very light biters and strike detection becomes critical. I use a two or three foot length of fluorocarbon as a leader and make a long cast downwind, allowing the fly to sink to depth. Because you are drifting with the wind you are casting with the wind – a pleasant change of pace for most of us! Count down your presentation so you know exactly what depth you are fishing and return to that depth when you catch a fish. Crappies never travel alone and where there is one there are often several hundred close friends.

There is no shortage of productive places to fish for specs in Ohio. In southwest Ohio, East Fork Lake (Harsha), Cowen Lake, Paint Creek Lake and Acton Lake are all very good waters. I have a strong penchant for those places where there is a 10 horse power outboard motor limit, so you’re most likely to find me on the smaller waters where paddle craft are safe from lunatics in go-fast rockets. Beaver Creek Reservoir, Findlay Reservoir # 2, Pleasant Hill Reservoir, Nettle Lake, Delaware Lake, Kiser Lake, Piedmont Lake, Berlin Lake, and Mosquito Lake are also good destinations. Regardless of where you choose to fish, whether large lake or farm pond, make sure you keep your retrieve slow and your presentation at the right depth and I am sure you will find the calico bass a delightful and sporty mark.

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