Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Local knowledge—it’s the earthy flavor and time-tested confidence in the voice of a weathered character who can forecast the weather, crop yield, and animal behaviors with just a finger in the wind and an eye on the past.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few such minds.  Most were outdoorsmen, and could unfailingly concur on a single truth—turkeys start gobbling, shad start running, and crappie start biting when the dogwood buds grow to the size of a squirrel’s ear.  In central Virginia, that system is more practical and manifestly observable than any calendar or watch of any ability.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    The latter prediction has been the most valuable to me.  Crappie will bite year-round, but after the new year has brought sufficient sunlight and warmth to bud the state tree, the water temperatures in our stillwaters have largely warmed and teased shoreline vegetation to the surface, providing the tuxedoed panfish cover in which to stage their spawn.  Around these grassbeds, crappie become much more accessible to a pair of youngster in a john boat.

    During my younger years, my family and I almost always ended up at my grandparents’ lake house on the Northern Neck in early spring.  The lake held my interest more than the house did.  There were fish to be caught in what was then my playground, and crappie were no minority in its waters.

    My cousin and I typically launched the small boat that was kept tied up to the dock two or three times per day, returning for meals and in the instance of any bouts of dangerous weather.  At 35 acres, the lake was easily navigable with the small trolling motor mounted on the stern, which we commonly re-designated as the bow for simplicity in navigation. 

    I was often assigned the captain’s role.  With crappie on the mind I would point us towards some distant creek mouth or cove and we would be freed from the constraints of land, lake breeze in our hair.

    Finding ourselves in an intimate arena, attention was turned to our tackle boxes.  We regularly took crappie on Roadrunners, small spoons, grubs, Beetle Spins, and crankbaits, but there was no science to our choice.  Whatever struck our fancy found its way to the water.

    One particular morning, we enjoyed good success in the upper end of a creek throwing small crankbaits and landing some quality fish.  It seemed that the skinny areas held the best fish.  So I would man the motor, positioning my cousin in the bow for a long cast through a narrow lane of shrouding laurel.

    Concentration was paramount in making the deep cast, but as the bow of the boat slowly slid into position, the voice of a hoarse dragon erupted from the thick bushes adjacent.  Heron Cove was so dubbed when we discovered a nesting green heron as the source of the commotion.

    Composure regained, my cousin made the cast.  Thump.  His crankbait collided with a stump.  He kept reeling, and connected with the papery mouth of a big slab.

    The long, riverine nature of the lake and a handful of recently purchased gold spoons came together in my mind one day early in the season, when the white flowers of the dogwoods were still scarce among the hardwood banks.  With the aid of the trolling motor and built in rod holders, we quickly developed a trolling system, and with the speed set just fast enough to keep our lures out of the woody snags on the bottom, patrolled the lake in search of a suspended school.

    Crappie are highly mobile schooling fish.  So when we landed the first fish just minutes into the routine, I experimentally employed an old trick, tying 20 feet of fishing line through the hole left by the hook in the fish’s mouth and tagging the end with an inflated pink balloon.  The rest of the afternoon, trolling was abandoned for following and placing casts around the bobbing balloon.  

    Evening came.  After dinner we took to the water once again in search of our ballooned friend.

    We found him in a favorite evening cove and freed him.  With Roadrunners we beat the banks, the evening light slowly creeping out of the scene as we competed for numbers.  We were tied somewhere in the 30s, but short-striking fish caused many to lose the hook at the boat, sometimes even breaking free and back into the lake after they had been hoisted from the water.

    The light was soon gone and the temperature dropped.  Sweaters broke out when the water lapping against the hull was our greatest perception of place.  A classic breeze filled our senses, and we were comfortable, amid a murky southern lake dimpled with the snowy petals of dogwoods and a sporting springtime tradition carried on.

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