Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Crappie Evening

First my car got stuck on the snow-covered lake. Then the truck got stuck. Finally, with the car sitting back at the landing on solid ground and everyone squashed into the truck, we reached the honey-hole.

Leaden skies hung low over the snow covered lake. Two other little ice fishing houses sat just off the pine-treed point as we parked the truck at the third point of the triangle. Out came the sled with the pop-up shelter.  Out came the five gallon pails filled with rods and holders, ice scoops, and minnows. The power auger growled to life, and soon we had about nine holes, six tip-downs, three people keeping watch, and three people jigging.

“The crappies start biting at about four o’clock,” said Larry, our friend and fishing guide, as he slipped the last hook under the dorsal fin of a crappie minnow.

3:58…4:00…4:02…4:04... “There’s one!” someone shouted as the pole in the rod stand tipped down. My mom quickly grabbed the pole and set the hook. Hand-over mittened hand, she pulled up the line until the brilliant scales of a black crappie slid out of the hole and onto the snow. Right on schedule.

The next fish got away, though, as a rusty angler (who will remain nameless) tried to pull it straight up out of the hole. Also known as “papermouths,” crappies have tender mouths that can’t support their own weight, and a hook will pull out easily.

After that, I kept busy watching the other tip-downs, delivering crappie minnows into waiting hands, and scooping ice from the holes as the water skimmed over. Running through deep snow in my clunky boots, I felt like a little kid again. The three holes closest to deeper water were the most successful, presumably since the hungry crappies encountered these first as they moved from the deep lake into the shallows off our point.

Black crappies prefer habitats with little or no current, clear water, and abundant cover. Schools of crappies find shelter in plants and underwater structures, such as logs, stumps, and rocks. Crappies feed some early in the morning and mostly in the evening. Smaller crappies eat plankton and small crustaceans, while larger fish eat insects, crustaceans, small fish, and minnows. Their predators include larger fish, great blue herons, snapping turtles, kingfishers, and of course, anglers.

With shimmering light-green scales densely patterned with dark spots, and rows of dark more spots on their fins, this colorful and numerous member of the sunfish family is a popular game fish. While their original range was likely confined to the eastern US and Canada, black crappies now inhabit all of the lower 48 states.

It was not even 5 o’clock when I dumped the fish bucket out on the snow to count our haul. “Seventeen…eighteen…nineteen…we just need one more to make twenty!” Freezing rain was pelting our backs, and we took turns brushing the skim of ice off each other’s jackets. The biting wind began to steal our inner warmth.

Larry started to pack up the shallowest tip-downs that were not catching anything. I took the pole from my friend when he decided to crawl into the clamshell tent with the propane heater to warm up. Up and down. Up and down. I pulled the line up just to make sure that the minnow was still alive, and tried to make sense of the red flashes on the fish finder. I think I was more focused on trying to jig correctly than on actually catching anything when my bobber bobbed. With a little yank and a yell, I set the hook and hauled up our final fish.

The faint odor of fish slime rose from our mittens as the truck heater warmed up. We bounced and jostled back onto solid ground, heading toward our dinner. In the back of the truck was a pail of beautiful fish whose dinner we had interrupted. Some days it sure is good to be part of the food chain!

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