Those wonderful, yummy crappie

CrappieLast week, I did something I love to do: I went crappie fishing.

I don’t get to crappie fish near as often as I want. And when I do get to go, I often discover the fish were biting marvelously the day before yesterday and the week before last, but for some strange reason, the bite at the time of my visit is sadly off.

“They got a bad case of lockjaw about the time you pulled out of your driveway this morning,” I often hear.

Not so this time. The crappie in my favorite lake were on a tear, gorging on threadfin shad to get in shape for the spawning season just ahead. Even I had no trouble hooking and landing them.

I was fishing with four friends: Jerry Blake, Jim Erickson, Darryl Morris and Brian Rodgers. We had been fishing just minutes when Erickson hoisted an almost-2-pound crappie into the boat, and Blake quickly followed with another dandy. I got snagged in a brushpile right off the bat, but soon landed a crappie, too—a 1-pound-plus black crappie full of fight.Morris and Rodgers, fishing from another boat nearby, were quickly on active fish, too. Morris landed one 16.25-inch specimen that weighed an honest 2 pounds.

When our fun morning of fishing was over, I wound up taking home three dozen fat crappie that produced two 1-gallon freezer bags full of thick fillets. I was happier than a dog with two tails.

When I told a catfishing buddy about my trip, he said, “I don’t understand why you enjoy crappie fishing so much. Crappie don’t hit very hard, they don’t put up much of a fight, and they don’t get very big. They’re hard as the dickens to figure out sometimes—hot one day and cold the next. I’d trade a hundred of ‘em for one good-sized channel cat.”

Many anglers like my narrow-minded friend don’t give a tinker’s hoot about crappie fishing. Many others, however, love crappie fishing, and with good reasons.

Consider, for example, that crappie are found in hundreds of thousands of lakes and streams throughout the United States. In-the-know anglers haul them in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Anything these sunfish lack in size, they compensate for with sheer numbers and the ease with which they are caught.

Sure, trout are bedazzling jumpers. Catfish reach huge sizes. Bass are brutal battlers. For many anglers, however, crappie are the favorites because the certainty of some kind of fishing action is far better than promised battles that never come.

Fancy equipment? No need. It doesn’t matter if you use an old cane pole or a $200 ultralight rig. Both catch crappie.

The crappie also is one of the most beautiful of fishes. Its scales are flakes of polished silver assembled like a delicate mosaic that sparkles jewel-like in the water. The eyes are golden inlays. Showy, oversize fins impart subtle grace.

All these characteristics blend to make the crappie an extremely beloved character. At least 6.1 million U.S. anglers 16 years old and older fish for crappie, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Only black bass, trout and catfish are more popular.

The growth of the crappies’ range during the past century is one indication of their popularity.

Black crappie originally were found in the eastern half of the United States except for the northeastern seaboard. The range of this species was greatly expanded, however, by introductions into eastern sections of the country where it wasn’t found originally, and throughout much of the West and Midwest. Washington received its first stockings in 1890, California in 1891, Idaho in 1892 and Oregon in 1893.

The original range of the white crappie extended from eastern South Dakota to New York, then south to Alabama and Texas. This species also has been widely introduced into new waters, and like the black crappie, it now is found in all lower 48 states. It tends to be more at home in the oxbows, large lakes and sluggish rivers of the South, while the black crappie, which thrives best in colder, clearer water, can be found as far north as southern Canada.

Crappie also have been stocked in Mexico and Panama, with populations thriving in both countries.

Another indication people like crappie is the fact that several places lay claim to the title “Crappie Capital of the World.” Among these are Weiss Lake, Alabama; Kentucky Lake in Kentucky and Tennessee; Grand Lake, Oklahoma; and Lake Okeechobee, Florida. Folks in Louisiana have gone a step farther and designated the white crappie as their official state fish.

Crappie have, indeed, won the hearts of millions. But some, like my catfishing buddy, will never be swayed. To them, crappie always will be “kids’ fish”—too small, too easy and too wimpy to be worthy of attention. For the rest of us, however, crappie always will be special.

Now I find myself about to savor the best part of the crappie-fishing experience—the eating. The sweet aroma of hot peanut oil fills my kitchen as I dredge the fillets from some jumbo crappie in seasoned yellow cornmeal. When each piece is ready, I drop it in the skillet. The fillets sizzle and dance as they cook.

“He has a lot to recommend him,” Havilah Babcock wrote of this popular panfish. “When a sizable crappie is cleaned immediately and dropped for a few scant minutes into a pan of sizzling fat, he is a fillip for the most jaded appetite.”

I’m not sure what a fillip is, but as I watch the fillets cooking, I feel like a hungry cat watching a crippled bird. My gastric juices churn. I salivate like a wolf winding blood. It is a quasi-orgasmic moment.

I bite into one of the hot, golden fillets, and in a sudden moment of clarity, I realize: this is why I love crappie fishing.

Note: Autographed copies of Keith Sutton’s latest book, “The Crappie Fishing Handbook,” can be ordered by sending a check or money order for $19.45 to C & C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, and for information on Sutton’s other books, visit www.catfishsutton.com.

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