When God created the crappie, He must have had children of all ages in mind. No other freshwater fish, except, perhaps, the bluegill, is as willing to take a bait or quite as much fun -- particularly in the season of insulated long johns.
The little crappie -- also known as speckled perch, calico bass and a dozen other local monickers -- reigns supreme from placid Minnesota lakes to massive southern reservoirs, wherever fresh and brackish waters are found.
Crappie angling brings to mind little boys with nine-foot cane poles -- the stuff Currier & Ives prints are made of. It also conjures up memories of tasty fried fillets and family outings along river banks and in old wooden rowboats. In short, it's the all- American fish.
To live in and around the nation's capital means crappies galore, smack in the middle of a season when most rods and reels are stashed away to await the warming rays of spring. But now's the time to unlimber the tackle.
Any rod and reel is suitable for crappie fishing: cane poles, short rods, long ones, the lighter the better. Real fans of this year- round resident prefer the daintiest equipment. A five-foot ultra-light rod with a tiny spinning reel loaded with no more than four-pound test monofilament line is the way to go.
The rest of the gear can be stashed in a watch pocket: a handful of 1/32- and 1/16- ounce jigs, preferably dressed in white marabou feathers or bucktail hair, are deadly on these fish. Tie on one of the tiny jigs, the knot drawn tightly to the eyelet to let the lure ride perpendicular to the line. Snap the smallest plastic float about two or three feet above the rig and cast it into the worst-looking watery obstacles you can find. Crappies are prolific, communal creatures. They love submerged brush tops and old docks. The moment the lure descends, one of them should inhale it. If not, gently shake the rod tip a bit to make the jig fluff up and dance enticingly.
If all else fails, a pail of minnows will turn the trick. Check out your local tackleshop for the very smallest baitfish. Lip-pierce one of them to the little jig, or to a plain size-6 or size-8 hook. It's a winning combination. The fun of crappie fishing can partly be credited to the species' gregarious nature. Catch one and you'll probably catch another 15.
Later, as you gain confidence, start experimenting. If the crappie schools can't be found readily, begin to search in varying depths. For example, if a bridge abutment or an old boat dock doesn't bring a bite at two-foot depths beneath the bobber, reset it to three, then to four feet. Sooner or later, success will come your way. Eventually you'll begin casting larger 1/8-ounce curly- tailed plastic jigs in a variety of colors, simply hopping them across the underwater obstacles without a float.
Unlike tidewater pickerel angling, the best crappie holes really require a freshwater fishing license. Buy one: It's worth the price several times over. And, remember, Virginia and Maryland licenses must be renewed January 1. Although some of the following spots don't require licenses, some do. CHOICE CRAPPIE SPOTS FORT A.P. HILL -- Off Virginia Route 301, Bowling Green. License needed, in addition to free military permit. See base recreation officer. Crappies, bass and pickerel are found in large quantity in A.P. Hill's ponds. LAKE ANNA -- On Virginia Route 208, in Spotsylvania County. Fish along bridge abutments and brush piles near Duke's Creek Marina, Lake Anna Marina or Sturgeon Creek Marina. A boat will help. License needed. BURKE LAKE -- Fairfax County, on Ox Road. License needed. Walk the shore or fish from a small boat. POTOMAC RIVER -- Downtown Washington. A license is not required. The better locations are the seawall at the Kennedy center; the river shore near Fletcher's boat center; Tidal Basin; Washington Channel seawall around the Titanic monument and the brushy shore in and around the Columbia Island Yacht Basin near the Pentagon's main entrance. MARSHYHOPE CREEK -- At Federalsburg, Maryland Routes 318/307 in northernmost corner of Dorchester County, Eastern Shore. Fish around the dock pilings of the public boat ramps just outside Federalsburg. No license required. BLACKWATER RIVER -- Near Cambridge, Maryland Routes 16 to 335, south of Church Creek township. Fish the Route 335 bridge abutments not far from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. No license required. WYE MILLS LAKE -- Maryland Route 213, Queen Anne's-Talbot counties line, Eastern Shore. A license is needed and a small rowboat is of great help..