"Slab" crappies -- broad-backed two-pounders that provide thick, delectable fillets -- are a rarity in most lakes and rivers around Washington. To get these fatsos, you have to drive to Virginia's Kerr Reservoir (200 miles) or Santee-Cooper in South Carolina (480 miles).
But what the local fish lack in size, they make up for in numbers. Although they will average less than a half-pound, stringers of crappies stretching from head to toe are not uncommon -- meaning 100 fish or more per boat.
Each spring, the speckled perch that have been lying semidormant through the winter quicken and begin cruising about in loosely grouped schools. As water temperatures approach 60 degrees, the fish become increasingly active and their travels take them toward brushy shorelines where they spawn in the tangles and brambles.
Males go first, hence the nickname "bachelor perch." They build beds among the roots of bushes and trees along shore. When water temperatures reach the optimum range, females join them for spawning.
Just before, during and immediately after this annual ritual, crappie fishing is at its best. The fish aren't roaming in schools in mid-lake. They aren't hanging around a few private brushpiles planted by experts.
In spring, crappies hit the shore-lines, concentrating along practically any stretch that has an abundance of partially sunken logs, brush or trees. Willows, cypress and gum are particular favorites. Lacking these, most any shrub will do; many fish congregate around dock pilings when natural cover is absent.
Depending on water temperature, you may find the crappies right up in the brush or just off from it in slightly deeper water. If you're catching smaller males in the bushes, it sometimes pays to drift a minnow or jig farther out in the lake. The females may be assembled there waiting for the right moment to move into the beds.
Right after spawning the fish also will be loosely grouped off the shallows. At this time, spinning tackle is ideal because you can drift to locate the fish and have room to cast.
Perhaps the most interesting crappie fishing comes when the fish are actually on the beds. Here a cane pole or fly rod is useful to reach out and drop the lure or minnow into a pocket of open water amid the brushpiles.
Depth of shoreline spawning sites varies with the clarity and temperature of the water. If the lake is murky, fish might be found in as little as 18 inches of water. The sound of males slapping the shallow to a froth as they scour the nests is a siren call to the ardent crappie fisherman.
In clearer water, such as that found in many of the smaller public lakes around Washington, fish spawn in water two to five feet deep.
Both black and white crappie are present in area waters. Blacks prefer less turbid water and spawn earlier than whites. They are speckled silver and black in appearance, while whites have vertical bar markings along their flanks.
Minnows are without question the top crappie bait. One-or two-inch shiners or black-nosed dace are best, but bull minnows will also take fish.
No. 2 or 4 fine wire hooks can generally be pulled until they bend and come loose when you snag up on brush, which is why most crappie fishermen prefer them. It beats rerigging 100 times a day.
Jigs, handled properly, will score just about as well as minnows -- sometimes better. Stick to small ones (1/32 to 1/16 ounce) in yellow and white; those with marabou tails have the most tantalizing action. Work these ever so gently, swimming them with slight upward lifts of the fly rod or cane pole when fishing the beds.
If fish are off in slightly deeper water, cast and retrieve a jig you have tied three to six feet beneath a small bobber. Give slight pauses in the retrieve and only an occasional light twitch of the rod tip.
Set the hooks gently when fishing for crappies: They earned their nickname -- "papermouths."
Plenty of lakes, ponds and rivers nearby host dense crappie populations, but there are a few that are especially good during March, April and May.
Lake Anna, 28 miles southwest of Fredericksburg on Rte. 208. A neverending supply of fish here, most of which run one-third to a half-pound. More and more big crappies have been turning up in recent years.
Lake Orange. This 15-year-old, 124-acre game-commission lake has a large population of crappie, along with quite a few northern pike. Boats can be rented here. Orange is five miles east of the town of the same name and is reached via Rte. 629 from Rte. 20.
Occoquan. A crappie paradise. Fish are mixed in size from one-third pound up. I know of one 3 3/4-pounder that came out this lake. Rte. 612 crosses the lake at Bull Run Marina. Boats are available there and at ountainhead.
Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs. Hurdles planted and marked in the lake hold fish before and after spawning. Fish the shorelines during the breeding season. Electric motors only on these lakes, and a $1 daily permit or $10 seasonal is required. The lakes are located off U.S. 29 on Maryland Rtes. 650 and 116.
Lake Marburg. Good crappie population. Bridges are excellent producers before and after spawning. Otherwise, hit the shorelines around brush and fallen trees. Situated east of Hanover on Rte. 216.
Don't overlook the choice crappie fishing available in the Potomac. The coves near Fletcher's Boat House are particularly good.