Outdoor / Fishing

Thursday, Mar 20 2014 09:51 PM

STEVE MERLO: Crappie mania takes over at Isabella Lake

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    Steve Merlo

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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist

We've all heard the old saying from died-in-the-wool fishermen that some would rather catch one bass on top than a dozen on the bottom, meaning one explosive topwater strike from a voracious fish beats a bunch caught down near the bottom. While I freely admit that the splashing surface strike from a bass remains one of nature's best performances, I'd much rather catch the 12 -- but that's just me.

Now, on the other hand, I happen to feel that nothing in the world beats seeing a bobber quiver once then disappear beneath the surface, signaling the strike and take of some sort of panfish. In my case, I hope the biting fish are great-eating crappies, and just thinking about catching those great gamesters sets my heart afire.

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Of course, I'm not alone, based on the crowds of people that line the banks each spring when the fish move shallow to spawn. Leaving their deep water winter haunts when surface temperatures creep up into the high fifties, gigantic schools of these prolific fish roam shallow flats and rocky, cover-strewn shorelines from three-to-ten-foot deep looking for the ideal nesting location.

With the larger females waiting in slightly deeper water, the males fan out circular depressions (called redds) then bring the girls in to lay thousands upon thousands of eggs. The ritual complete, the male remains on the nest to guard the roe and newly hatched fry, and the reproduction cycle is complete.

So successful are crappies at spawning, that without some sort of management to curb their burgeoning numbers, they would quickly overtake a lake or reservoir, eating all available feed and their growth would become stymied or even stunted.

Enter the fisherman. While crappies are not noted for their brains or their slashing strikes, anglers still love them for their aggressive behavior, making them relatively easy to catch, especially when kids are around. They are also one of the best eating freshwater fish in the world, and people come out in force whenever the bite goes off. Nothing, and I mean nothing (well, maybe a walleye fillet), beats a sizzling pan of fried crappie fillets garnished with a little lemon and tartar sauce.

Right now, Isabella Lake, our Kern River Valley gem, has turned on for the prolific gamefish and anglers are regularly catching 25-fish limits all over the lake. The papermouths are being taken on a variety of baits, but live minnows and jigs are far and away the best choices.

I managed to get away twice this week to sample the action and found non-stop 'catching' the rule. My wife, Candy and I caught more than fifty on our first trip last weekend, keeping forty for filleting and a dinner party.

On Tuesday, friends Don Crabtree and Dennis Polm joined me near Piney Point and we caught all that we wanted to clean before ten o'clock in the morning. Our 53-fish included some huge slabsides, with several well over the two-pound mark, which is huge in crappie lingo.

The bite is not a gimme, however. On both trips we had to finesse the fish with light lines and small, 1/16-ounce mini-jigs beneath a 1-inch weighted bobber. With the crappies holding at about 4-feet down over a 6-foot bottom, we had to use four-pound test to get the fish to eat our offerings with regularity. We also had to make sure our hooks were needle sharp to ensure solid hookups and jig color didn't seem to matter.

Besides the light tackle we used, one indispensable part of our rigs was the use of crappie 'nibbles', the little jar of Berkley attraction pellets that has revolutionized crappie fishing all over North America. Simply adding one to the rear of the jigs we were using ensured a solid strike almost every cast.

How we ever caught a crappie before nibbles were invented remains a deep mystery to me -- yes, they're that good.

The vast majority of fish we caught during both trips were males, with only a smattering of egg-laden sows showing up. The majority of males we caught also did not display the typical red or bloody tail fins that indicate they're already digging nests. That's great news for fishermen because that means the bite is only just getting started and should remain hot for at least another month or even longer.

Right now, the spectacular crappie fishing at the lake is off the charts, but I hope people will not over utilize the resource. My family eats fresh crappie fillets with abandon, but we never freeze them, keeping only what we can safely use without wasting them. One of my biggest pet peeves sees anglers freezing their last year's catch then tossing them out to make room for this year's. Catch what you can use and release the rest -- it's a darned good feeling.

These are Steve Merlo's opinions, and not necessarily The Californian's. His column appears every Friday. Write him at: merloworms1@att.net

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