T he old Hermann Park Duck Pond adjacent to the entrance to the Houston Zoo covered about three acres. During the late ’50s, the water was murky green and rimmed with mats of coontail moss. It was stocked with largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish, a fine place within reach of pedal power for urban kids.
I learned a lot about fishing while walking the banks of the small lake, watching, observing, figuring what might work and what was a waste of time.
One of the first really cool fishermen I remember was a kid who radiated confidence. I was 13, pretty rough around the basic points of angling, and he was older, maybe 15 or 16. He was tall and lanky, with fluid motion and dark hair swept back into a totally excellent ducktail.
He sat sidesaddle on the wooden railing of one of the old piers and used a light spinning rod fitted with an open-faced reel (a Pflueger Freespeed, I think). Although my prideful, push-button Zebco 33 was functional and reliable, it looked a bit sophomoric alongside.
The Cool Kid was rigged with a tiny Fly-Ike plug. I still remember the pattern—orange with black dots. The so-called “Fly Ike” with its twin treble hooks (made by the old Lazy Ike company) would be a dreadful payload on a real fly rod, but worked well enough on the light spinning outfit.
I watched as the Cool Kid casually flicked the limber rod sidearm, arching the little plug into an opening in the weed mats. The rod bent, the surface flurried, and he lifted a gleaming slab-sided fish into the air and onto the planks.
It was a white crappie—a good one, at least a pound. On the Herman Park Trophy Scale that was a seriously large fish.
I was stunned.
The “white perch” were rumored by Buddy and Butch and the rest of our Junior High B Team to be in the lake, but despite my pittance of small bass and profusion of runty bluegills I never had even seen one.
The Cool Kid sat there on the railing and hooked a nice crappie every few minutes. He quit with a stringer of maybe 20 flapping fish, a glorious catch beyond my conceptual limits. I never saw him again.
But I remember those green and silver fish with their salt-and-pepper sides—the bristling fins, gaping mouths, big eyes, all of it. They looked aggressive, yet somehow delicate, an intriguing combination.
I’ve had an appreciation for crappie ever since that long-ago March afternoon. I don’t target them as much as I should, but I do know this: Early spring is prime time along the shorelines of lakes and ponds, but you seldom catch a lot of white perch—unless you are fishing specifically for white perch.
By this, I mean that crappie feed primarily on small minnows. Most 1/2- to 1/4-ounce bass lures are too large for consistent results. Yes, the occasional crappie might snatch a crankbait or safety-pin spinnerbait, but scaled-down jigs and spinners (or live shiner minnows) are much more productive.
Minnows aside, crappie tend to suspend, so bottom-bumping with a worm, lizard or crawfish plastic is a poor tactic.
No, to catch a “mess” you need to rig correctly and fish appropriately. During the pre-spawning stage, when fish are moving shallow, a light spinning outfit and a 1/8-ounce payload are an excellent choice. I wouldn’t go too light with the line—maybe 8- or 10-pound test—since you tend to get snagged around the brush and stickups that crappie favor.
Or you might try dabbling around the shallow cover by using the simple approach of a long pole and a short line.
Either way, you want a thin wire hook with a long shank and a wide gap to hold in the thin tissue of the jaw (or hopefully open with a steady pull against the inevitable snag). This is a basic guideline but you get the idea. And being opportunistic always helps.
Last March I was bass fishing with a friend on a private residential lake south of Houston. As our aluminum boat eased near a cluster of shoreline willows, I put down the bass rod and picked up a spinning stick rigged with a small Blakemore Road Runner jig.
I cast to the willows, allowed the fluttering lure to settle, and promptly tightened against a confident tug. Crappie are poor fighters, not much for running and jumping, and I reeled low and lifted the fish aboard. It was about 12 inches in length, typical for a solid keeper.
At once, our bass fishing trip turned into a “perch jerking” expedition. In an hour, we strung 15 or 20 fish and released a dozen more. Several of the keepers were in the 14-inch class, a pleasure to hold and a privilege to admire. To repeat, a shining slab has an impressive aura.
As a reminder, the statewide limit on public water for the prolific crappie (white and black in the aggregate) is a generous 25 per day with a 10-inch minimum length. It doesn’t take much of a crappie to muster 10 inches, especially when you lawfully pinch the tail, but the small ones can be scaled and gutted and fried whole.
And, as everyone south of the Mason-Dixon knows, white perch rolled in yellow corn meal and fried fast and golden in a hot iron skillet are among the finest of all food fish. Regardless of size, there’s no such thing as a bad-eating crappie—`all the more reason to follow the Cool Kid’s lead a few times each spring.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]