River Bottom Boys Guide Stephan Scudder shows off the best of Lake Fork with a black and white crappie. (Photo: Scott MacKenthun)
Everything Grows Big in Texas, Crappie Included
by Scott MacKenthun
Jacob “Bubba” Scudder was just a week past his 13th birthday when he was shot in the face with a pellet gun while playing with friends. The tragic accident took the boy’s life on that January day nearly four years ago.
Jacob’s father Stephan misses his boy every day; their best times together were on the water fishing.
“My son wanted to fish with me all the time,” Stephan recalled. “If I was heading to the lake, he wanted to go with me.”
After Bubba’s death, Stephan’s calling to the water grew stronger and fishing became his life. Two years passed. Stephan decided it was time to honor Jacob in the only way he knew how, by starting a fishing guide business.
“I operated ‘Bubba’s Crappie Guide’ for a year,” Stephan added, “and I kept running into the same guy. We were fishing the same lakes, fishing the same spots. Over time, we became real good friends.”
That friend, Dan Langston, operated River Bottom Boys guide service. Stephan went into business with Dan, merging Bubba’s Crappie Guide into River Bottom Boys. Today you’ll find Stephan working his day job, fishing Crappie Masters tournaments, and guiding clients through River Bottom Boys Guide Service.
“My son was very outdoorsy,” Stephan recalled proudly. “I always said from the day he passed away that I would continue outdoors in his memory, no matter what. Everything that I have accomplished, I feel like came from a helping hand from above. I feel like my son does have some impact on how I fish and where I am today. Now it’s about helping other people. Showing people that you can go out and catch fish and have a good time.”
“I always said from the day he passed away that I would continue outdoors in his memory, no matter what.”
~ Stephan Scudder, Texas Crappie Guide
LAKE FORK, TEXAS
It’s mid-August and even before the sun is up you can feel the heat coming. While most folks hear Lake Fork and dream of the reservoir’s giant largemouth bass, the black and white crappies are a frequently overlooked draw to the famous lake.
Now more than 40-years old, Lake Fork’s timber still stands, although much of it is only standing below the coffee-colored water line.
The crappies thrive in Lake Fork’s 27,000 acres, feasting on huge bait balls of threadfin and gizzard shad, baby freshwater drum, and even cannibalizing on young crappie recruits. Aided by high productivity and long growing seasons, crappies at Fork reach the 10-inch minimum size limit at age two (whereas crappie in many lakes take three years to reach that 10-inch length). A year or two later Lake Fork crappie can land in the 14- to 16-inch range.
Today we’re going head-to-head with an intense style of fishing that requires modern electronics, superior boat control, and the right interpretation and mental spatial mapping to put it all together. After turning out of the marina and opening up the throttle, Stephan is pulling us into a tangled mess of treetops. A single pontoon sits anchored 50 yards away in the thick of it, a pair of anglers ending a night of catfishing just as the sun is over the horizon.
“I had some fish here yesterday, so we’re going to see if they’ve stuck around or moved,” Stephan says.
Stephan pulls out a pair of Todd Huckabee Trident rods, 13 feet in length with fast action tips.
“I’d go 16 feet if I could,” he says with a grin as he hands me the rod.
The length, I learn, is for superior reach. You can always choke up on the rod, but you can’t add more length. We’re running 20-pound braided line in high visibility colors. With so much wood, a little abrasion resistance is necessary and you want to break off clean without stretch from snags. Another reason to spool up with braid is the superior sensitivity helps transmit bites to the long rods. The braided line runs down to 1/8th or 1/16th Slab Syndicate Hand Ties. These are real fine feather jigs – the slightest move has them quivering in the water. There’s no bait in the boat today – we’ll be finessing slabs with hair, feathers, or plastics. A few inches above the jig is a small kicker weight, a hollow core lead wire weight pegged in with rubber stoppers that has just enough weight to get the bait down true on drops but without requiring upsizing of jigs or impacting jigging action.
There is no such thing as blind fishing with Scudder. He heads to the bow and drops his trolling motor with Garmin Livescope transducer mounted. Stephan’s technique is a learned behavior, new only to those willing to put in the hours with Livescope units. With transducer mounted to his electric trolling motor, Stephan has gotten good at positioning the sonar head, and then compensating for drift and wind and managing his boat’s control. The trick is to keep the bait visible the entire time, watching the fish and lure working around a stump or log.
If he positions incorrectly, say behind some wood that casts a shadow and blocks the SONAR, you can’t see your bait. I join Scudder on the bow, apprenticing side by side with the guide. We move around until he spots a fish on the screen, then moves close enough for me to make the drop.
“Right there, about 11 o’clock,” he instructs. “Drop it down…There, see your bait on the screen?”
I watch the hand tied jig trickle down and dance as I twitch it.
“Lower it just a little. They don’t want to have to move too far. You have to put it right on them.”
I drop the bait slowly as instructed, and just as quickly the bait disappears to an ascending mark in real-time as my rod tip arcs downward. I lift the long rod up, hoisting a flashing white crappie over the gunwale. Crappies on Livescope has made fishing into search and catch.
Stephan takes us along the timber edges, searching for more fish hanging in the wood. We pull a few more fish before he says it’s time to check another spot. We cruise a few miles down and pull in near a mix of timber edge, power line abutments, and American lotus stands.
Scudder pulls out a package of plastics from G-Daddy Baits in Oklahoma and we’re stringing up more Todd Huckabee rods to have a changeup pitch ready for the crappies. Scudder hands me an immaculate two-inch minnow body, clear in color with a mess of red and silver sparkles inlaid. A pair of dot-ended chartreus kicking legs drop off the bait’s rear.
“That’s ‘The Bubba’,” he proudly announced, handing me a Crappie Shad bait bearing his son’s nickname. “These babies are great for everyday fishing but perfect for tournaments because you can catch 100 fish on one.”
Rolling it in my hand, I can feel the hard bait body paired to the supple and soft tail. We pair the plastic to a collared jig and dance it in front of a few marks hugging the wood. It doesn’t take long and Scudder lofts in a gorgeous black crappie while I lasso one of the bigger whites of the day. We keep at it, catching a few more.
Scudder has given me a taste of the best that East Texas has to offer and the finesse methods that help him target big fish with clients and on the tournament circuit, resulting in a fine day on the water with a good mix of black and white crappies and my personal best white crappie at 15-inches and a shade under two pounds.
“That’s what it’s all about,” smiles Scudder as he assessed the day from the docks. “Helping people catch personal bests, teaching new skills, seeing a dad and son as it starts to click for them and they get it…there’s no place else I’d rather be.”
(Scott Mackenthun is a fisheries biologist and freelance outdoor writer from New Prague, Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)