There was nothing I could do. It was my turn to experience that mysterious frustration which strikes nearly all crappie fishermen. My host, who had motored me to his favorite honey hole, wavered between sympathy and bemusement. One crappie after another succumbed to his rod, while on mine, a few feet away, I couldn’t buy a bite. Same rig, same bait, same 12 feet down. Yet his minnow was irresistible, while mine seemed inedible. He puzzled over the missing element. I could only mutter, “Must be charisma.” He dismissed my conclusion, laughing, but I’ve struggled ever since to define that powerful charm some crappie baits-and crappie fishermen-have over others.
Once, when another partner was outfishing me badly, I refused to buy an old woman’s minnows unless she said words over them to improve their charisma. With a big grin and a gleam in her eye, she waved her bony hands and pronounced an unintelligible, but convincing, incantation. Nothing changed.
Nor does personal charm influence the outcome. I’ve known enough disreputable river rats to realize that a crappie is just as happy eating a reprobate’s minnow as yours. Luck helps, but relying on random luck does not keep
the skillet greased. Charisma does. What, then, is this “gift?” Gradually, from those fishermen who have it, I’ve learned that it’s not an innate characteristic at all, but something very much learned and earned. My aforementioned host, for example, knew the honey hole’s exact location. Maybe he sank Christmas trees to create it. He dangled his minnow right over the fish. What neither of us knew at the time is that crappies like breakfast in bedÃƒÂ‰even when they’re not spawning. They’ll move short distances vertically to accept easy handouts, but they don’t care to chase down dinner. Literally. And they’re less likely to move horizontally. Which is why my offering from the other end of the boat was out of the crappie ballpark.
My understanding of a crappie bait’s charisma improved dramatically when a tight-knit group of southern Illinois experts explained the physiological reason for this odd behavior. With eyes set high on its head, a crappie has limited forward vision and little or none below. But it sees 20/20 above. The species is perfectly designed to lie waiting in brush or just below the level of light penetration to make a meal out of whatever passes over it.
Long before it was well understood, the crappie’s technique of inhaling prey produced quite a few successful jig fishermen. One day my fishing-guide friend Jay Zapp tied on a crappie jig after we had taken all the bluegills we cared to clean. “Here,” he said, handing me the rod, “see if you can hold it steady in the water so that there’s no motion in the marabou tail.” Impossible. No matter what I did, the tail slowly undulated like a minnow in a holding pattern. “I haven’t used anything else for crappie fishing in the last eight years,” Zapp said.
Seven months later, while the two of us fished a windy March weather front, Jay was even more emphatic about his confidence in jigs, in particular Cottonmouth Fuzzytails. “There aren’t many things about fishing that I’d claim are absolute fact,” he said, “but this is fact: Whether crappies are shallow or deep, these Cottonmouth Fuzzytails are far superior to minnows. Not one client who has used minnows has ever outfished me. Not one!”
Later, two other members of “the group,” Ford “Hoop” Harris and Mike “Mikey” Thomas, got into an argument over whether jig eyes are important (Hoop’s contention) or useless (Mikey’s) and opted to let the fish settle it. The “eyes” have it in terms of crappie charisma. That contest worked so well that Hoop and Mikey teamed up on the 1997 Illinois Crappie Circuit to let the fish decide whether Cottonmouth Fuzzytails are superior to the minnows nearly every other contestant was using. In six tournaments, they wonn three first places-including the Illinois Crappie Championship-one second place, a seventh and a ninth, plus Anglers of the Year for most points.
How can a jig be superior to live bait? For one thing, a minnow is hooked either by the mouth or back and has some freedom of movement. That means the hook might enter a crappie’s mouth first, last or anytime in between, which means poor hook placement and pullouts. For example, if a mouth-hooked minnow is inhaled, but the hook doesn’t quite make it into the crappie’s mouth, the hook pulls out of the lips when the crappie turns to leave. Free lunch. Conversely, jigs hang by weighted heads. When the crappie inhales, from any direction, the jig’s light body, tail and up-pointed hook pivot around the weighted head and enter the crappie’s mouth first, leaving less to chance.
“Besides that,” Hoop says, “I might boat 60 crappies with one jig before I wear it out. You’ll catch two with a single minnowÃƒÂ‰or maybe one or none. After that you’re wasting time baiting, worrying about keeping minnows alive, fussing over color and size. And for all your trouble you get to fish with cold, slimy hands.”
At the center of this crappie cyclone is Fred Washburn, owner of the shop in Carterville, Ill., where “the group” and other panfish mavens hang out to swap “scientific information.” Fred retired as a cop to make bass jigs. He subsequently slid into crappie tackle and discovered that the available models were dead in the water-unanimated lures with stiff, lifeless tails. So he set out to reinvent the soft-bodied marabou-tailed crappie jig. Furthermore, while everything alive in fresh water swims horizontally, Washburn determined that conventional jigs tilted like drunken seahorses. Fred tinkered with body length until the jig leveled off in the water, and he learned how to incorporate just the right amount and type of marabou to make the tail act alive in all conditions.
For years, Fuzzytails remained the private stock of Fred and friends. Why not? Overwhelming evidence suggested that crappie fishermen, even tournament anglers, were inveterate minnow loyalists. But finally, just to test the water, Fred took a few jigs to a fishing show. To his surprise, crappie anglers were enthusiastically receptive, and the Cottonmouth Fuzzytail was launched.
The surface temperature was 50 degrees that blustery day in March when I joined Jay Zapp on the water. As the wind blew harder against the boat, the lines began to trail, and our 1/8-ounce jigs were pulled out of the sonar cone. Jay changed to modified jigs with big 1/4-ounce heads on little No. 6 hooks. “Ordinarily, a 1/4-ounce head is on at least a No. 2 or a No. 1 hook,” Jay said. “That hook is too big, unless you’re only after huge crappies that are less tasty, and don’t mind long hours with little action. Nobody stocks the modified jigs because fishermen think they look peculiar and won’t buy them-never mind what the fish think.”
Before we left the water that day, I learned two last tips from Jay, and from his wife, Marilyn, who was fishing from the stern: To maximize a jig’s tail action, shake the marabou under water until any trapped air is removed. And when your new charisma oversupplies you with fillets to be fried, “Cut them in small pieces,” said Marilyn, “and substitute crappies in any shrimp recipe.” Judging from my family’s growing fondness for crappie gumbo, that may have been the tip of the day.