Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Springtime is crappie time at Lake Anna; and no one knows this better than seasoned Lake Anna fisherman and guide, Chris Craft.
Photo by Matt Reilly

        Craft started fishing at a very young age, and has clocked countless hours of fishing on Lake Anna over the past 25 years.  He began fishing tournaments with an adult fishing club at the age of 16, and continues to fish tournaments on Lake Anna today. 

Craft's reputation as a crappie guide is really taking over;
and he gets plenty of press for it.  Here, Shane Baker (left)
films an installment of
Angling Virginia to begin airing in
June on Richmond Fox 35.  
Photo by Matt Reilly
        A little over eight years ago, after plenty of hard work and on-the-water research, Craft established CCBASSN Guide Service, guiding on the lake for largemouth bass, striped bass, and crappie.

        LakeAnna sports a strong reputation as a largemouth bass destination, and a productive striped bass fishery.  But despite Lake Anna’s variety of sport fishing opportunities, Craft’s reputation for crappie fishing has really taken over.  “Crappie fishing ranks number one for me these days,” he admits.  “They are fun to catch, taste great, and are a great fish to get a young angler started in fishing.”
Crappie are fun to catch, and a 25-fish limit is easily attained
if you know how to fish for them.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
        As it turns out, crappie fishing is a family affair.  Craft’s father, a passionate crappie fisherman who more than appreciates the fish’s table fare, provoked his interest in Lake Anna crappie.  On assignment, Craft delved into patterning and “figuring out” how crappie tick in the Lake.
        I was given the opportunity to witness his findings first hand, and was more than impressed.
        After meeting at Anna Point Marina, we headed straight for a creek edged with willow grass beds sporting 57-degree water.  “I start looking for crappie in the spring when water temperatures reach 45 degrees.  The temperatures for the best action are 50-65 degrees,” he professed.  

        Crappie are very temperature-sensitive fish, and are extremely mobile.  Rains or cold snaps can drop water temperatures mere degrees and cause schools to move significantly along the shoreline of spawning coves from one day to the next.  But Craft’s day-to-day monitoring is precise.

Two-inch Kalin grubs in "John Deere Green" and  "Green
Weenie" are local favorites.  Craft rigs them on a North Anna
Bait Company sickle hook.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
        Creeks and coves edged with willow grass beds are Craft’s go-to spring crappie spots.  “The reason crappie go to the grass in the spring is to spawn,” he said, positioning the boat several yards off of a favorite grass bed.  Crappie will often hold tight to grass edges, or even in the grass beds; but it’s important to leave some space between you and the cover.  “Many of the large spawning females will hold several feet from the grass edges, so I really believe that it’s key to stay off of the grass,” Craft explained. 
        The local favorite, and Craft’s personal choice, for crappie lures is simple.  Two-inch Kalin grubs in two colors, John Deere Green and Green Weenie, repeatedly get the job done.  For jigheads, a 1/16th-ounce sickle hook, engineered by Craft’s own North Anna Bait Company, is unbeatable.  A hook bend that is more of an angled corner than a bend penetrates and locks in the corner of a crappie’s mouth and stays buttoned.  Both are available at Fish Tales Tackle Shop at Anna Point Marina.
A male crappie in spawning colors
fooled by the John Deere Kalin Grub
Photo by Matt Reilly.
        It wasn’t long before John Deere and the sickle hook did their job and Chris’s rod was bent.  Lifting a slab of a male crappie, in full speckled-black or “tuxedo” spawning colors, from the water, he got sentimental:  “In terms of numbers and size, Lake Anna is the best crappie lake in Virginia,” he waxed; and he’s got the stats to prove it.  Every spring, crappie trumping two-and-a-half pounds are pulled from Anna’s fertile waters; and 100-fish days are not an uncommon occurrence.

        For this reason, Craft’s busiest month of the year is April.  “I’ve got crappie trips almost every day,” he said.  Anglers are well aware of his reputation.
        In fact, Craft’s reputation is so well-known that he’s taken on past-client-turned-associate-guide Braine Oxendine, who specializes in crappie fishing March through June, to handle overflow and crappie requests during Craft’s bass fishing season.
Brian Oxendine, Craft's associate guide, specializes in
crappie fishing, and pursues them well into the summer.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
  “Longer periods of daylight and increasing water temperatures trigger the movement from winter haunts to shallow bedding areas,” Oxendine explains.  “After the spawn ends, the crappie will move in waves out to flats, points, and docks where they can feed and recover from the spawn.  They move deeper as the summer approaches.”  Don’t let the title “Associate” fool you, Brian is a very knowledgeable and accomplished crappie fisherman.
        Together, the “Crappie King” and “Connoisseur” represent Lake Anna’s best “slab,” “speck,” and crappie fishing guides up for hire.  Moreover, both are relaxed, humorous, and fun-to-be-with fisherman at heart.  If you can’t book one of the pair this spring, try a fall crappie trip, one of Craft’s other specialties, or a combination trip.  To book a trip, email Chris at, or call 540-894-6195.  For regular fishing reports and pictures, visit

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Monday, April 28, 2014


I went to bed chilled the evening of our first day in Pulaski, New York, following a dangerous stunt that can only be inspired by a fish and the promise of an epic story.  My body was tired—the kind of tired that leaves your eyelids without a comfortable place to rest.  Nevertheless, I squeezed them closed.  Four-thirty would arrive early.

Photo by Matt Reilly
        There was no moon as we walked briskly, clad in waders and layered in cold weather gear, through the parking lot.  The man to formally introduce us to the river, Randy Jones (The Yankee Angler) emerged from a weathered SUV, resting his forearms on the bow of the aluminum driftboat in tow. 

        “Good morning!  Got everything you need?”

        Six o’ clock.  We slid downriver to the creaking of oars and the rippling of current on the hull.   Dark blobs emerged around every bend—driftboats anchored on spots known to hold fish.

        When the darkness lifted, Randy began rigging rods systematically, reviewing the fine points of his style of fishing.  High-sticking is the technique—maintaining a high rod tip in order to hold the fly line clear of the current and achieve a dead drift with a weighted nymph.  Casting is improvised—not the purist’s cup-of-tea, but a technique undoubtedly effective.

        We began flinging flies as soon as the sun crept over the horizon, and hooked up almost immediately.  Fish on!

        The fish soon lost the hook, but our hopes were fresh.  Three more hookups in the following minutes kept the spirit high.

        On the Salmon River, there is a definite tradeoff between leader size and number of hookups.  That being said, smaller diameter leaders result in more breakoffs and lost fish.  On the Salmon, anglers count success in hookups, not fish. 

        By mid-morning, we had fought several fish.  The bank anglers were edging closer to the boat.

        “Try to snag their line!” one of them whispered.  But such tricks are mediocre.

        “We’ll take it,” voiced, Randy, reaching out to free the jealous angler’s fly from one of our own.  No one gets to inspect a working man’s flies.

        Randy had just begun to count his blessings when hookups diminished.  It was about this time that someone let fly that Randy was not the only writer on board.  Writer to writer, I joked that the light in which he would be portrayed in this article would be directly proportional to how many fish came to net.  For his sake, I hoped we’d catch a fish.  I was starting to like the guy.

        In response to the lull, my dad opted to fish a thicker leader, to increase the chances of landing a steelhead.

        His next hookup remained solid for several minutes.  Tension mounted as rod sweeps inched the fish closer and closer to the net.  Finally, the first fish of the trip was scooped up and tailed!  The fish was unhooked, and torpedoed back into the icy river.

        Another lull ensued.  I opted to fish a lighter leader to increase hookups when my screaming reel brought action back to the scene!  I kept the fish hooked, allowing him several runs before bringing him boatside.    In the current, he surfaced, revealing a gargantuan white mouth and scarlet lateral line—a strong buck!

        Another run downstream seemed to be his last.  I swept the line over the stern of the boat, throwing the fish off balance, and guiding him into slower current to be netted.  Just a few feet from the net, a soft headshake loosed the hook and dashed the hopes of all on board.

        “You don’t want me to tell you how big that fish was,” Randy said solemnly.  “Probably 15 pounds.”  He then began painting a verbal picture of the fish in a shaken tone—a classic symptom of what can accurately be described here as “buck” fever.

        Recovered from disappointment, he jabbed:  “You might have a better chance catching a fish if you took up golf!”  I reminded him that deadlines often tempt me to take my stress out on my characters, and may even cause me to forget any fish caught at all!  Not likely, but it seemed to help.

        As the afternoon grew older, hookups increased.  In the last hour, a subtle take got my hands sweating.  I made a hard hook set, determined to drive the hook home.  A few minutes of elevated battling--upstream runs, headshakes, and long, screaming sprints downstream--followed, before I inched her close enough to be netted.  Finally!

        Immediately after releasing the fish, my dad hooked up with, and landed, another!  A bigger hen—a beautiful specimen.  He held the fish for the camera; and when my shutter clicked, the scene was instilled in my mind—the last moments of our Salmon River experience; and hopefully the first of many. 

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Maybe it was the wonder of wetting a line in a world-class fishery, the hours of fishing with just one encounter with a fish, or the pure size and strength of the steelhead holding before us in the current.  Perhaps it was a combination of factors that had me standing on the bank of the Salmon River, shaken and hot with adrenaline, soaked—my waders filled—with 35-degree icy water.
        In honor of spring break, my dad and I headed north to Pulaski, New York, where spring is evidenced by the Salmon River swelling with snowmelt and the newly-arrived steelhead spawning in its waters.  The drive up began early in the morning, under a light drizzle.

        North of Charlottesville drizzle turned to sleet.  A quick glance at the weather radar threatened to prolong our 10-hour drive.  450 miles of heavy snow and sleet added two hours.
        Our tires hit gravel in Pulaski, at Whitaker’s Sports Shop and Motel.
        The next morning, after purchasing licenses and taking in a late breakfast at a local diner, we identified a point on the river map and followed the highway to the Schoolhouse Pool, on the upper river.
Upstate New York woods.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
        The first thing that strikes anglers new to the Salmon River is the intensity of its flow.  It’s a serious river, where wading can be dangerous.  At that, the water level is controlled by dams on the upper river; and conditions can change drastically overnight.
        Wading into the tail of the Pool, the water was relatively low.  Nevertheless, the current lived up to its reputation.  I stripped line from my reel.

        What happened next was almost attitude-shattering.  When I grabbed my fly to clear my leader of the rod tip, three feet of the rod tip shattered like a brittle twig!  Just as I had swallowed the initial shock, icy water began trickling down my left leg.  I glanced nervously down, to see a puncture in my waders.  So much for being prepared…
        We purchased a cheap replacement rod and wader repair kit at another local shop.  An hour later, we had a renewed shot at fishing.
        We located a small-but-fertile tributary to the Salmon, parked, and hiked to its mouth.  The mile-long walk prevented many from fishing the confluence pool, which we had to ourselves.
Steelhead roe means we're on the right track.
Photo by Matt Reilly
        Anticipating the deeper water of the main river, I tied on a bead-headed tri-colored Woolly Bugger of my own creation.  I added more weight to the line, and slid into the river on the edge of a promising run.
        Keeping my rod high and fly line off the water, the fly trailed bottom, promising the fly was in the strike zone.  After several good drifts, the line stopped, and I lifted my rod to check its source.
Photo by Matt Reilly

        The line went tight and nosed upstream before rocketing out towards the opposite bank!  A chrome steelhead weighing almost 15 pounds thrashed at the surface twice in front of me, turned, and began a long run downstream.

         Two logs extended into the river from the bank just downstream of me.  My line was angling beneath both as I sloshed towards the obstruction, rod doubled.

         Cold sweat sprouted on my forehead.  My line was wedged in the crevice of a knot on the log.  So with the cork of my rod in my mouth, I straddled a submerged tree and edged out into the river to grab the line.  Line in hand, I hand-lined the fish in several feet, cut the line from the log, and spliced the pieces.   

Backing trailing from a logjam...Photo by Matt Reilly.
         The first obstacle cleared, I edged towards the second along the river’s bank, watching my footing carefully.  The line was more simply caught on the second log.  I crawled onto a stout overhanging tree, and edged towards the snag, pausing briefly to test the line for sign of life on the end—still there.

          I grasped a shoreline sapling tightly, as I worked forward.  Suddenly, I lost my footing.  My feet swung, the water rising to just above my chest waders, soaking my chest and legs in freezing water!  Enduring, and too far to turn back, I plunged my rod and arms into the water at my feet and passed the rod under the log.  The line popped free and connected tightly with a fish one hundred yards downriver.

          But the direct pressure inspired a violent headshake in the fish.  With that, the fish was gone, and the line sagged.

          I crawled out of the water, soaked, but warm with adrenaline, disbelieving.  My own fly had produced my first encounter with a Great Lakes’ steelhead—a fish awesomely hardier and larger than any trout I’d ever seen.  The water seemed eerily quiet as adrenaline shakes set it and I shed layers of wet clothing.

          The day had turned around, but ended in a lost fish.  The trip is still young.


Originally published in the Rural Virginian