I’m an unapologetic panfisherman. A confirmed, card-carrying addict—brazen, committed, incurable. An unrepentant lifelong diehard, steadfast in my loyalty.
Panfish have been a piscatorial cornerstone throughout my life. My father was an equally dedicated panfisherman. Crappie, bluegill, bullheads, along with several similarly lowbrow panfish species, were as worthy and compelling to him as stream smallmouth and the occasional fat walleye from Lake Erie.
Dad also believed in and followed the wise dictum from Proverbs that says to “train up a child in the way he should go—and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Regardless of weather, season, or fishing intentions, if I wasn’t sick or in school, Dad unfailingly took me along on his angling outings. At least half of those sessions were specifically for panfish.
Panfishing is not only in my heritage and training, I suspect it has somehow seeped into my DNA. Which is why I recently set off on a minor expedition to a certain old gravel pit pond, with crappie in mind.
I love crappie—love catching them, love eating them. And given that my neighbor’s row of redbud trees was starting to come into bloom, I knew it was high time to go catch a mess of these delicious panfish.
That’s another bit of paternal angling wisdom that’s stuck: “When the redbuds are a’bloomin’,” my father would say, “crappie will be biting.”
My father had a master’s degree in botany and a minor in education. As a former teacher, he knew the importance of seeing that his son’s rather empty head got filled with useful information. Dad not only knew how to teach, he also knew what was important—and he deemed this folksy bit of accurate phenological-based lore well worth imparting to his offspring.
The pit-pond I visited is one of several on a big public-access property. I’d estimate its size at a dozen surface acres. I always fish from the bank. Even a long cast out, the water is no more than 10-15 feet deep.
My favorite spring crappie rig is a tiny jig dressed with a bit of silver on the body and a white feather wing. I suspend this jig a few feet below a balsa bobber the diameter of a nickel. It has built-in flash and action, and all I really do is work it gently along with small cranks and tiny twitches.
There are plenty of anglers who dismiss panfish. They claim plebeian panfish, such as crappie, are somehow a step below, say, bass or trout. And by extension, they view panfishermen as evolutionary inferiors, unenlightened compared to those who’ve become fixated on the sportier—and thus in their minds worthier—gamefish species.
While I’ve caught—and certainly enjoyed catching—everything from Atlantic salmon to coaster brookies, steelhead, muskies, tarpon, bonefish, permit, stripers, and all three major species of black bass, I remain forever an incorrigible panfisherman.
What keeps me fishing is not the “bigger, better, more thrilling” mentality of one species over another; rather, it’s the simple magic of the act itself.
Just as I love to watch the tell-tale surface ring when a brown trout rises to sip my dry fly, I love to see that bobber dip beneath the surface, signaling a crappie.
Should either event one day fail to touch my soul, I’ll sell my rods and reels and give up fishing forever.
It took no more than two minutes after the time I reached my bankside destination, rigged up my little ultralight outfit, and made a first cast, until that diminutive bobber dipped once…twice…then disappeared under the almost clear water.
I lifted the rod tip and felt the pleasing dynamic pulsating weight of a fish!
Crappie aren’t tackle-testing brawlers. But they’re energetic scrappers and April’s cold water and spring’s procreative hormones, seem to put an extra pizzazz in their tugs—and a surprising bend in the limber rods I favor.
Crappie are lovely fish. In the cloudy, diffused light, the fish glowed softly, as if carved from burnished platinum. Scattered dots along its flanks, reminiscent of old calico, identified this as a black crappie.
While I’d be delighted to tell you this first crappie of 2023 was a hefty 15 inches…in truth, it might have made 12 inches on a friendly ruler. Typical of the crappie I usually catch here.
But I didn’t measure it because I didn’t care. It was plenty big enough to keep and eat. A half-dozen more and my wife and I would have a meal; a full dozen would provide a feast!
Feast it turned out to be!
One silvery crappie after another came to my wares. I worked along the bank, fishing the water a few feet out. Birds sang from nearby thickets. Though I’d have enjoyed a bit more sun, at the water’s edge I was protected by a high border of willows and below the brunt of the nippy wind—air that carried the heady sweet fragrance of buds, blooms, and burgeoning life.
I culled out a few fish below the size of that first crappie, and only caught one perhaps an inch larger. So, after two hours of fishing, I ended up with a 22-fish stringer of practically identical crappie. Enough for a fried-fish feast blowout with leftovers!
Yup, we low-class panfishermen do know how to reap some mighty tasty rewards!
Reach Jim McGuire at: [email protected].