Story & photos by Vic Attardo
Matt Outlaw uses a garden rake when crappie fishing. Actually what he’s wielding is a cross between a rake and a clothes pole. With his rake/pole Outlaw reaches across the water, placing the curved pointy part into a bed of thick weeds and then starts scraping, or scratching, the floating weeds apart..
He continues this procedure until he’s opened a space about the size of a hubcap, something big enough to lift a large crappie up and through.
It’s only a perception, I suppose, whether Outlaw’s extended crappie rod is longer than the rake/pole — when applied to their respective tasks they don’t seem that far apart in length. The funny thing is that after Outlaw has inserted a jig in the hole he’s just created in the thick weed bed, he’s leaning and stretching not that far from the rod tip just above the aperture.
There’s a lot of body English involved in both these operations and your sense of balance in a small boat should be pretty steady.
The real fun comes when Outlaw feels the slightest twitch on the end of the rod’s short line. Then there is no hesitation. There cannot be if success is desired. With a swift rod action only — no working of the reel — he tightens any slack that may have wiggled its way onto the line and with a power lift he yanks the crappie straight up through that hubcap hole.
Yes, success. A gleaming silver-sided crappie framed atop the glossy green and decaying brown of entangled hyacinths.
It you think this is one of the more unusual and preposterous ways to deal with shoreline growth, that’s what I originally thought. Different, certainly: effective, hell yes. And then I got into the raking of the leathery hyacinth leaves, finding my way around the ungrounded bulb roots and string-like filaments beneath the fleshy balls and I could see that there was no other way to first separate the plants, then open a space and finally lift a crappie into the air. I watched another boat come along. They worked the same trestle area that Outlaw and I plied but they didn’t have a hooked rake and so were limited to the hyacinths’ outer breaks and wider openings.
They didn’t do nearly as well as we did.
Taking a step back (but not off the boat) you have to admire the abilities of Nature. She has certainly created a plethora of aquatic vegetation, a lot of styles and a lot of configurations of what fishermen unfortunately call, “weeds.” There are probably more water-bound green species than crappie anglers have devised ways to work them. But as inventive anglers we keep trying. Outlaw’s rake-and-separate methodology, which I’ve since applied to other intensely thick or swampy areas from Vermont through the South, is just one. I should say I thrive on studying and then mastering new ways to separate fish from their liars.
Along the banks of the St. John’s River in central Florida you’ll find alligators basking on the bank. Gators don’t bother me even though an unsolicited fortune teller at a party once declared I would die by the bite of a reptile. Scary, but then again I hang with a lot of unusual people. But what does bother me on the St. John’s are the thick shoreline weeds as tough to penetrate as a bank’s ATM machine. I’ve stood on the bow of low hull boats and cursed those weeds so fervently they stood no chance of future salvation. Then one day I turned around in the boat and asked my partner if he had any half or three-quarter ounce jigs.
“Who uses three-quarter ounce jigs?” he asked.
“I will if it can penetrate these thick stems,” I said.
Us crappie anglers have been brain washed into using lightly weighed small jigs. We play mainly with 1/16 to 1/4 ounce and the like. Larger jigs are just not, at least along weed filled shorelines, our normal repertoire. I didn’t expect to find any jig so large in my friend’s boat.
However it so happens that on some stop at some tackle shop at some place in the wide world he had picked up an assortment of jigs in a plastic box, mainly because fishermen have a tough time passing up the new and unusual and because he liked a couple of the multi-tone colors and undersize hooks. I found this assortment in the corner of one of his boat’s compartments and there in the box’s side slot were two, just two mind you, heavy open-hooked white jigs that would smash a squirrel’s head if I could deliver them fast enough. They were three-quarter ounce jigs with an undersize 1/0 hook instead of the typical 3/0 for such a weight.
I tied one, dropped it between the stems that would hide a stalking gator, or nasty snake, and yanked up a couple of really hefty crappie. For over an hour I worked those heavy jigs adorned with a tube into the deep stems and connected with St. John’s crappie that no one else was catching, That went on until I lost both jigs when their wide gap hooks became embedded in the stalks and I couldn’t free them on six-pound test. Note to self and all other followers of this advice: bring an extra spool carrying eight-pound, even ten-pound test line if you don’t want to loose heavy jigs. I did on a subsequent trip to the middle St. John’s and because the water is so stained the crappie weren’t shy about the ten-pound test at all. Pro-like, I caught a lot of nice crappie.
The Team Way
Who says when you’re faced with shoreline weeds that you have to work into the impenetrable jungle. Sometimes you can work the outer edges, or the inner line of the outer edge, or the outer edge of the inner line for that matter — just as long as there is more open than matted water where you’re dropping your jig.
That appears to be the way Indiana’s dynamic duo of Matt Morgan and Doc Watson sometimes do it. Sure they may go into the ruff stuff but they certainly don’t neglect the easier ruff for the sand trap far behind. Then again there may be an open channel through all those weeds, a natural opening or one recently split apart by an ice breaker of another crappie boat. Morgan and Watson certainly don’t neglect those.
Where we were fishing in central Florida the lily pads flowers were still in their tight buds. A few turtles were bumps on the logs. Understand that lily pads, as thick and full as they are, don’t compare to hyacinth jungles. It’s the difference between a garden maize and a dense thicket.
But before going any further on the ways and means it’s important to note that M&W use a special hook to rend them of weedy trouble. When using a bare hook and minnow they employ an Eagle Claw 214 ELF. It’s an Aberdeen hook made with light wire. Also when using a double minnow rig, their line is as heavy as 15-pound test. This is their post-spawn rig of the summer and fall.
“If we get hung up, all we have to do is bend down, pull up on the main line and we’ll straighten the hook, then we bend it back.” I can’t remember if it was Matt or Doc who said that, does it really matter?
This set up is another technique for fishing shoreline weeds, and a very cleaver one too.
“With the 15-pound fluorocarbon line, the tag end tends to stand out better with the light wire hook. With the right size shiner (two-and-a-half inches) it looks natural.”
But M&W also utilize a lighter line and a lighter jig when the pads aren’t summer tough. Then they apply their “dip it and stick it” technique using a 1/16 ounce tube jig.
All of us crappie anglers have worked a lot of shorelines and a lot of weedy shores. There are a lot more ways to do it than these three techniques, but honestly these have been good weed whackers lately.