Robert Boe likes to listen to his traveling angling pals spin tales of the crappies they find in faroff spots. The quarry is always huge and found in exotic settings -- Stygian forests of crappie-holding cypress trunks draped with beards of Spanish moss.
But when Boe sees how bedraggled his fellow anglers are from the 10-hour drive to such touted speckled-perch spots as Santee-Cooper, when he hears their laments of how many bucks the old gas guzzler burned, he doesn't commiserate one little bit.
Instead, he grins and pulls our a snapshot of a catch he made a couple of days earlier -- 10 miles from his home in northern Virginia, in the Potomac River.
And there's not a huge difference between his picture of fat, spawn-laden crappie and theirs, which took so much time, travel, expense and missed sleep.
Boe fills them in on the juicy details: He burned about a gallon of gas to reach his fish. He paid no boat-launching fee, for he fishes from shore or wrestles in a canoe along a public access area. And he took his handsome stringer of fish, and many others equally impressive, in a couple of hours. An average catch, he says, will run one to two dozen fish, thick across the back and 10 to 12 inches long. They almost uniformly weigh in at a pound, but some occasionally tip the scales at two and a half.
Boe isn't the only one who's discovered the Potomac's premier spring crappie fishing. Bass guide Pete Cissel has been known to ignore his chosen quarry for hours at a time when the feisty crappie are in a hitting mood. Fletcher's Boat House regulars have been finding will schools in the backwaters for several weeks already. And even Tidal Basin anglers have seen a strong influx of crappie seeking a quiet place to lay eggs out of the main river flow.
But if you'd like to tap this spring crappie bonanza, hurry.Once they spawn, our local river crappie head back to deep water and are nowhere near as easy to pinpoint and catch as during these April mating days.
Right now you can find the river panfish most anywhere from Fletcher's down to Wilson Bridge and below. Anywhere, that is, where there is a break in the main flow of current with some quiet water and brush for the fish to spawn near. Pilings and boat docks are also good crappie structures, and even sunken barges will draw fish to the banks.
And if brush is lacking, you can plant your own, as Boe does, tying cinder blocks to trees and dropping them in at prime perch locations along the shore. It will take a few weeks or so for the fish to get used to the new cover, but eventually, if the brush is anchored in a good spot, you'll have your own private fishing hole.
Getting an early start isn't vital for good spring crappie action, but hitting the tides right helps. "The best tide," says Boe, "is a falling one. You can catch some fish when it's high, but never as many as when the water's dropping."
Boe fishes minnows and jigs favoring minnows on a high tide, jigs at other times. Baitfish should be 1 1/2" to 2 1/2" long and fished on a No.2 or No. 4 fine wire hook, Gold finish hooks are the traditional favorites, but regular bronzed hooks will work just as well. Position a small float 2' to 4' above the hook and add a split shot a foot above the hook to keep the minnow from swimming up out of sight of the gamefish.
Small marabou jigs white or yellow will also dupe good numbers of crappie. These can be fished beneath a bobber if the fish are proving reluctant to strike, or without a float if the perch are in an aggressive mood. A slow, steady retrieve works best in most cases, but if that fails to produce, don't hesitate to try imparting a delicate twitching action to the lure by jiggling the rod tip.
Crappie are thin-mouthed fish ("paper-mouth" is a common nickname), so play them gently. And if you're concerned about landing every fish you hook, bring a net to scoop them up with. Otherwise, simply grab the line near the bait and swing the fish up onto the bank or into the boat with a smooth, fluid motion.
Besides the Potomac, there are many nearby area rivers that harbor good populations of crappie. The fish in all of them should be spawning right now. The Rappahannock and Rapidan near Fredericksburg, the Choptank, Nanticoke and Pocomoke in Maryland all offer good crappie prospects.
For some reason, area lakes never seem to produce quite the size crappie the tidal rivers do. They often make up for the dearth of size in sheer numbers, though. Catches of 50 to 100 fish for a pair of anglers are not unusual on some stillwater fishing locations nearby. Lake Anna is legendary for its dense crappie schools. The lakes around Manassas and Brittle, have good crappie numbers and boat rentals. Fairfax's Lake Burke has plenty of smallish crappie invading the shorelines for spawning. Maryland lakes Needwood, Triadelphia, Rocky Gorge and Deep Creek -- all boast fair-to-good crappie schools, Cordorus Lake, just east of Hanover in sourthern Pennsylvania, is about a two-hour drive from Washington and has many crappie that average a husky two-thirds of a pound. That's a very good size for lakes in these parts.
In ponds and lakes, concentrate on brush-laden coves and mini-points in coves with fallen timber nearby. If you're catching mostly smaller fish in the brush, try casting a small jig to the surrounding water off toward the middle of the lake. The bigger females could be just offshore, waiting for the males to finish preparing the beds and for water temperatures to reach the right level before they move in to drop eggs.
True, a crappie won't fool you into thinking it's a tarpon or muskie on the end of the line, but on ultralight tackle they can put up a pretty splashy struggle. And any fish you can catch without burning a tankful of gas to reach must draw laurels these days.