Fishing season is almost upon us and this year I have big plans for going after the South’s number one game fish…the Crappie. This fish is known around the country under such aliases as the “paper mouth” or “sac-au-lait” or “calico bass” or even “speckled bass”. Whatever you prefer to call them crappie are tremendously popular because they are fairly easy to catch and they are delicious.
Crappie fishing in the south isn’t just popular…it’s a way of life. Many people save up their vacation all year and use it to go crappie fishing. They monitor forecasts and local reports and they use historical data to try to time the best two-week period for fishing success. They want to be on the lake during the crappie spawn when the fish all come up shallow to mate. If you don’t know anything about the crappie spawn picture a high school dance where there has been some drinking going on. Picture Barry White songs, some slow dancing, some romance, and if anyone gets in the way of it there will be a fight.
We are still a month away from the high point of the spawn though, so the fishing is a little different. It’s late February and the fish are still hanging out in deeper haunts. A buddy of mine from our firms IT department and I decided that we’d hire a guide to take us crappie fishing so we could get up to speed on current gear and tactics. This would enable us to optimize our entry into the sport. With a good education up front we wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel.
As our day drew near our hopes soared higher but the temperature forecasts all dropped lower. In a week’s time the forecasts went from low temps in the 40’s to a low of 32 degrees on the morning of our departure. By the time we actually got to the ramp it was 29 degrees and there was a thin coating of ice on the boat. One mis-step could send us slipping overboard. Now might be a good time to say that I am a fair weather fisherman. I DO NOT fish in the cold. I define “cold” as any temperature where I need to wear gloves. This was cold. With ice on the boat this was looking more like one of those Alaskan crab-fishing reality shows more than a crappie fishing trip in central Mississippi. As far as I see it the word “Ice” should never enter my fishing lexicon.
As we boarded the boat I noticed that my partner looked slightly under-dressed for the conditions. He assured me he’d be fine.
Without any fanfare we launched the boat, left the marina harbor, and blasted toward the middle of the lake. A word about Sardis reservoir is in order here. This is an Army Corps of Engineers flood control lake. It has a huge earthen dam at one end that is covered in rip-rap and the lake itself stretches 13 miles from the dam to the other end where the Little Tallahatchie River feeds into it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, “rip rap” is the term for a collection of big rocks that you line the shore with to prevent erosion. By “big” I mean they are stones that weigh perhaps 20 lbs and each the size of a small watermelon. Now picture millions of these rocks piled up along the dam. These rocks form a wall 100 feet high by two miles wide in front of us. By now you should be picturing the Great Wall of Mississippi. It is a massive amount of stone and there is no way you can look at it and not wonder how long it took to get all those rocks in place. As you move up the lake it transitions from the deep open water near the dam to a middle section that starts to have some standing timber (picture tall telephone poles sticking up from the middle of the lake), to the upper end that is almost entirely full of old dead standing timber with logs and debris under the surface.
Since the crappie were still hanging out in the deeper water we’d start near the dam. As we motored to our spot the first thing I noticed was the crowd. There was an armada of boats perhaps 40 strong all huddled up on one spot just up the lake from us. Our captain had us away from the crowd where he had caught a bunch recently. With any luck we’d catch fish here and not have to deal with the armada.
The technique we would use today would be “spider rigging”. This involves arranging 8 rods in holders that fan the rod tips out around the front of the boat in an arc of about 180 degrees. The rods start off with the first rod pointing straight off the left side and they go all the way around the front of the boat and to the other side until the 8th pole is sticking straight off the right side. With the poles arranged like this you simply ease along at ½ a mile per hour and when a fish hits one you simply lift it out of the water. It’s so easy a caveman could do it.
As we were getting seated behind the rod holders I noticed that the sun was coming up but the temperature wasn’t. Adding to the problem was that the wind was now picking up. Before we had caught our first fish the wind had built to perhaps 15 MPH out of the east. 15 MPH was bad…but “from the east” was far worse. From that direction the wind is able to push down the length of the lake with no interference. With nothing to break its momentum it whips the lake into a heaving fury of white caps and rollers that rock the boat, play havoc with bait presentation, and cut through your clothes to chill you to the bone. It seemed as though the wind would first turn us to ice cubes and then smash us into the rip-rap covered dam, breaking us into smaller ice cubes...crushed ice if you will.
I was dressed in most of the heavy hunting clothes I had so I could tolerate the weather. The guide was dressed warmly too as he is out there all the time and keeps a range of clothes on hand. My buddy from our IT department however hadn’t dressed as robustly. If there had been no wind he might have been OK. But with the wind we had today it was clear that he could be in for a very rough morning.
After perhaps 15 minutes we had our first line get hit. I quickly jerked the rod out of the holder and there was a nice eatin-sized crappie onboard. This weather might be turning rough but I was optimistic about the fishing. Another 20 minutes went by with no activity but the wind. The wind was relentless. It had the whole lake frothing. After a while another rod bent over and I snatched another fish from the cold rolling waves upon which we bobbed. My buddy froze in silence next to me keeping a vigilant watch on the rod tips.
It seemed as though we were being tortured. We were sitting side-by-side in chairs on the bow of the boat so we bore the full brunt of the rocking motion. It was as if were on one end of an aquatic see-saw. The waves were coming from behind us so when they hit the back end of the boat it would lift, because we were on the bow it would send us down into the trough left by the previous wave. Then as the wave passed under the boat it lifted us high into the air. Over and over and over we rode up and down those waves. All the while the wind whipped and we watched the rod tips like hawks watching a field mouse. We ignored everything around us and watched the rods with laser-like focus.
No luck vs. Bad luck
After an hour or so of riding this freezing, windy, see-saw with little action our focus began to slip. I had been silently watching a boat ramp about a mile and a half away. There was a mid-size four door car sitting in the middle lane of the launch ramp and it had been there for a long time…much longer than it would take to launch a boat…and there didn’t appear to be a boat over there anyway so I had no clue why he’d be parked there. After a while I saw a small figure to the left of the ramp…right down where the water meets the rip-rap…and there were flashes of white crossing him diagonally perhaps every two to three seconds. Amid the howling wind my brain was slow to process things but my logic circuit eventually completed and I realized what I was seeing. The guy I was seeing in the distance was bailing water out of his boat with a white bucket. He’d dip the bucket down into his boat and then swing it up to the right as he tossed the water out.
When I announced this to my fishing partners the captain immediately laughed and pointed out that the reason we didn’t launch from that spot this morning was that the three foot rollers that were making our life so difficult were smashing directly into that boat ramp. Through ignorance, lack of thought, or perhaps inexperience this guy had backed his boat into the maelstrom. I’m guessing that he took water over the back of the boat in the process of backing it in, and when he managed to get the boat off the trailer it promptly sank. The wind and the rolling waves then pushed his boat up against the rip-rap and concrete like a piece of flotsam…where it was currently trapped.
I could imagine the sound it made each time the waves smashed and ground his hull into the concrete and rocks. He was bailing as fast as he could but it wasn’t looking good. Mother nature had 50,000 surface acres of water to use against him and he had only a ½ gallon bucket with which to defend himself. Ironically he was bailing water back into the lake so mother nature really had an infinite supply of water to throw back at him. From our vantage point it looked like he would lose this battle.
Since the fish still weren’t biting and we were tired of watching rod tips riding up and down three feet on the waves…the guy on the boat ramp became our only entertainment. Nobody’s life was in danger and there was nothing we could do for him so we just watched. He’d bail water until he got tired and then take a break, during which I imagine mother nature filled the boat back up. At one point I saw him start unloading gear from the boat in an attempt to lighten it or perhaps save what he could from a lost cause. I quickly checked on David to make sure he wasn’t frozen yet. Then we all looked back toward the boat ramp guy. Even from this distance you could see his frustration as at one point he threw his bucket violently to the ground. It was too far and too windy to hear any of the activity but I had a real good idea of the words he used when he threw that bucket onto the rocks and none of them are fit to print here. We weren’t having any luck…but I realized that this is what they mean when they say that having “no luck” is better than having “bad luck”. We had “no luck” fishing…the guy on the ramp had “bad luck”.
It’s easy to laugh at your own misery if you know there is someone else suffering worse. So we bobbed up and down in our arctic climate and laughed at the only thing we could find humor in…that dudes sunken boat. As we laughed amid our suffering another line got hit. We pulled it in with no fanfare, re-baited the hook, and redeployed it. Our hopes of a fun day of fishing were as sunk as that guys boat…now we just hoped to catch a few fish and live to tell about it.
Boat after boat had been leaving the lake all morning. The wind and cold were too much. Of the 40 boats that were in the armada earlier there were perhaps 8 remaining.
Few outdoor adventure stories are complete without some form of hardship being involved so I guess it’s appropriate that Dave was under-dressed for the freezing cold. I’ve heard grown men complain over conditions much less harsh than what we had now…but my computer guy was mum. Maybe his mouth was frozen shut but he didn’t complain once. I could tell he was cold because every time I looked over he was in the “I’m trying not to freeze to death” position. Most outdoorsmen are familiar with this position. This is basically the one where you have your fists clenched and your arms pulled in tight up against your body and your legs clamped together and you are arched over almost into a fetal position as you try to preserve what little body heat that you have left. As the gale continued to blow we talked him into taking some gear from us.
We swapped some clothing around until we were satisfied that Dave wouldn’t succumb to frostbite. To his credit he never asked for any gear…here sat a guy who would stoically take whatever mother nature threw at him. He knew he didn’t dress warmly enough and he never once asked anyone to give up some gear so he could get warm. In fact the first three times I brought it up he refused any help. Most people in the firm think that “IT” stands for Information Technology but today Dave proved that it actually stands for “Incredibly Tough.”
Having persuaded him to take some gloves and a windproof shell we were satisfied that he wouldn’t die. If that happened then the tables would turn and the guy on the boat ramp would be laughing at us…and we couldn’t have that.
After another hour or so of suffering we decided to find a spot out of the wind, so we went back to the shelter of the harbor. When we entered the harbor it was as if we had left the Bering Sea and entered the Gulf of Mexico. The protective landscape surrounding the harbor totally blocked the wind which left us to bask in the sunshine like a lizard on a rock. I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was inside the harbor. We actually began shedding clothes because we were too warm.
The fishing in the harbor was a crowded affair. It was obvious where all the boats from the main lake had run to when they left this morning. Boats were close enough that you could talk to everyone as they passed you. It looked like a boat parade that had lost its traffic coordinator. It was so crowded that I knew we’d end up hitting someone even at speeds well under 1 MPH. Half the people on the water knew our guide and everyone had something to say. This crappie fishing is more of a social sport as there is lots of sitting around and talking involved. I now realized that this is going to be the perfect type of fishing for my wife. Once it warms up she can sit in the sun and talk for hours as I just sit there and listen and re-bait hooks.
We were out of the wind but there was still a sense that we might see more danger. There were two guys in a small boat that was perhaps 14 feet long. They were both sitting in fishing chairs on the bow which is a typical arrangement while crappie fishing. Their boat was so small however that with the weight of two men on the front it almost pushed the nose of the boat underwater. The back end was way higher than the front and they had maybe three inches of clearance before they started taking on water. If one of them stood-up too fast I imagine they would have sunk. It looked like a comic-book type drawing that you might see in a boating-safety pamphlet. I figured we’d be fishing them out of the water before long but somehow they managed to not sink it.
Everyone caught some fish in the harbor but nobody was wearing them out. The crappie, it appeared, would win today. By noon we had only 7 fish in the boat and rather than grind it out another 3 hours we decided that the best course of action would be to quit early and head to the best burger joint in MS. There is no way we could lose there.
An hour later we stood in front of the Velvet Cream burger joint in Hernando MS. I had a big cheeseburger, cajun fries, and a peanut butter milkshake in me and I was starting to forget about the cold morning we had endured. I could have laid down on the asphalt in the sun and gone to sleep if it weren’t for the traffic.
Ultimately I learned a lot. I learned the appropriate gear and tactics for crappie fishing. I learned to be careful of the wind when choosing which boat ramp to launch from. I learned that our firm has one tough IT guy. And lastly I learned that I am really going to enjoy crappie fishing for a long time to come.