Story & photos by Keith Sutton
It’s spring again. Dogwoods are blooming, and crappie are biting in the shoreline shallows of many lakes in my home state of Arkansas. It’s a season many anglers look forward to with great glee … me included. So, recently, I visited one of my favorite crappie lakes to see if I could get a bite.
I was fishing with my son Josh and our friend Todd Huckabee. We had been fishing just minutes when Josh, working a jig beside the bank under a blooming dogwood, hoisted a huge crappie into the boat—a fish that weighed more than 2 pounds. Todd quickly followed with another dandy slab. I got snagged in a brushpile, but soon landed a crappie, too—a 1-pound-plus black crappie full of fight.
Crappie are very prolific and grow quickly. In many good lakes, the average size is about 12 inches long and 1 pound, but in better waters, anglers also catch quite a few from 14 to 16 inches that weigh from 1-1/2 to 2 pounds. Sometimes a skilled or lucky fisherman will catch a crappie that tips the scales at 2-1/2 to 3 pounds or more. Fishermen call those “barn doors,” and they are caught only rarely except in blue-ribbon waters. No matter where we fish, however, when crappie are found and a fishing pattern develops, it doesn’t take long to catch enough 1- to 2-pounders for supper and usually enough to share with friends and neighbors, too.
When my fun day of fishing with Josh and Todd was over, I took home 40 fillets from 20 fat crappie that filled three quart freezer bags to the brim. 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 for good reasons.
Consider, for example, in many states, crappie are found in nearly every lake, and many streams and ponds, too. 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 typical 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 a beautiful fish. 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 two species of crappie—black crappie and white crappie—have always been found in waters throughout my home state of Arkansas, but this is not necessarily the case elsewhere. The growth of the crappies’ range in other parts of the country during the past century shows how very popular they are.
Black crappie originally were found only in the eastern half of the United States except for the northeastern seaboard. The range of this popular panfish 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 as well, 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 love 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. We love being on the water where they live. We love fishing for them. And we love eating them.
Now I find myself about to savor that last and 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 cornmeal. When each piece is ready, I drop it in the skillet. The fillets sizzle as they cook.
“He has a lot to recommend him,” beloved author Havilah Babcock wrote of this extraordinary 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 crappie fillets sizzling in the skillet, I feel like a hungry cat watching a crippled bird. My gastric juices churn. I salivate like a wolf smelling blood.
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.