“Mr. Heath, I’m not feeling well today.” Volleying two very fake coughs, my boss spins around in his chair, and with a half-cocked smile on his face, asks me what’s wrong. “I’ve got spring fever sir, and it’s bad. I don’t think I’ll be able to come in tomorrow.” I supply a fake sniffle and another round of coughs just to seal the deal. “So, I’m guessing the fish are biting these days?” Busted. “Yes sir, they are biting like crazy right now and I think it would help my condition and my overall attitude at work if I were able to catch a few.” Shaking his head and knowing full well he’ll be getting a few filets on Monday, he tells me to have fun and bring a doctor’s note.
After being peer pressured by the Oswald brothers to stay up late on Thursday night, I’m driving through Gun Barrel City in search of a breakfast burrito and a cup of coffee, a large coffee to be precise. I see my old brother from the water already parked at the pancake house, waiting for his customers to arrive. I honk at him as I drive by, and he does a double take, followed by an immediate phone call: “Laner! What are you doing in these parts?” “I’m going fishing with Chuck, man. Russ and Red bought me a spot on their guide trip, and I get to go with them. If I was you, I would stick to sand bass today. There won’t be any crappie left.” We give each other the standard lines and trash talk, make an inside joke about David Bowie, and in four minutes flat I’m at the old office.
I pull up as Russ and Red are unloading their gear. It’s always good to see them, and as is usually the case, they are good spirits. We walk down with our weapons of choice, only to find Charley Rollins preparing the boat. Seeing that we’re already well-armed, he doesn’t bother pulling out the rods and tackle boxes. I miss the familiarity of this place: The smells of the water and its creatures, the sound of distant carp breeching the water. The damp morning air, full of unknowns and optimism about what the day holds for us. I take as much of it in as I can as I place my rod in its holder.
The ride to our first spot is not a quick one; the morning is way too dark to move quickly. We’re shooting docks today, and we need to let some shadows form so we know where to aim. The wind is almost non-existent, and despite what the weather man had to say, there are almost no signs of rain in our immediate future. “What color you goin’ with?” I hold up a bag of dark gray baits with little blue flakes of glitter in them. “I’m going to fish with these until the sun breaks. After that, it shouldn’t matter much.”
The boat barely eases to the left, and I know exactly which dock we’ll be shooting first. It’s a good place to start, and it will let us judge how to proceed in the surrounding area. There is a line of poles that runs down the center of this dock, with a little smear of structure towards the end. It’s not brush, because it’s been in the exact same spot for the last six years, and it is still very solid. I shoot my first shot where the fish always hold on this dock, take out the slack, and my line cracks like a whip. I miss the fish, big time. “I got ‘em warmed up for ya. He’s to the left of that front pole, about a three count down.” Somebody else shoots in there and hooks the crappie, and just like that, the skunk smell is gone.
There are two sweet spots on this dock, and the second of the two ends up being better than the first one. With the expanded metal boat lift, it’s easy to lose a jig going for the second spot. If a man can get his bait under the lift and beside the support poles, he’ll catch one almost every time, and today is no different. We leave the first dock with four keepers, all of which are broad shouldered black crappie.
We can use the trolling motor to get to our next spot, so in a very relaxed fashion, we ease our way over to see who is home. This dock has always been challenging with the amount of brush that has been put around its edges, but this year adds an extra challenge. There is roughly a two inch gap between the water and the wood, making an accurate shot almost impossible. I load up my rod and send my jig flying under the deck. There isn’t much line to “read” when a dock is this low, so I slowly raise my rod tip in order to keep tension on the line. While doing so, something ticks my jig and gets a hook set right in the mouth. I was very happy to be rewarded for the tough shot. While I’m reeling this fish in, Red has sent his jig down the edge of the boat slip, and is also quickly rewarded by a keeper.
As we idle our way to the next spot, Russ asks a very good question: “Chuck, how do you go about picking a good dock? Is it from experience, or is there something in particular you look for?” I wanted to hear this as well. “I used to pull up to the docks where I knew fish would be hiding. You know, the real big docks with lots of deck space, out on a point in water that was just a little bit deeper. The last two years though, I’ve started fishing areas. I’ll pick a dock or two that I know will have fish on it, and based on how those one or two spots produce, I’ll either stay in that area, or move down the lake. Some docks will have a couple of fish, others will have several, but they almost all have at least one or two keepers this time of year.”
I guess that’s why we never had to leave the area all morning long. Although there are still several clouds between us and the sun, there is enough light by now that the shadows have become very defined, and picking out the best location under every dock is becoming very easy. Find the darkest water, shoot into it, and get ready. The fish are holding very shallow and are feeding very heavily on 2-4 inch shad. In several instances, the bail of the reel would still be open when the strike would occur. This made the speed by which we operated extremely important. Fortunately, I’m sitting next to three very accomplished anglers, and none of us seem to be struggling with bringing fish in the boat.
I don’t know how many docks we’ve hit, but it’s 9:00am and we’ve got close to fifty in the box already. The numbers per dock have gotten better with more sunlight, but the bite has changed dramatically. What started out as a very aggressive thump has changed over to a very light change of pressure as we pull our baits off the bottom. Several fish have also required us to twitch and swim the bait as we retrieve it, giving them an option that they simply can’t resist. I attribute this change in feeding to how the crappies were gorging themselves full of shad earlier in the morning. Now they are simply feeding out of convenience.
“I sure wish I was at the office writing emails right now.” I’m being a smart aleck, but I’m a happy smart aleck, because I’m taking off my largest fish of the day; A white crappie that tops fifteen inches, and is definitely flirting with the two pound mark. There isn’t much time to talk though, as we are on a smoking hot dock. At first, the fish are on the edge, right where the light meets the dark. This surprises me, but then again, I love surprises. We pick those off and find another school hiding a few poles back under a walk way. It’s doubles and triples for several minutes, and they are coming in fast enough that the captain has to recount fish. “48, 49, 50…” Russ slings one in the boat. “Make it 51.” I set the hook with a short grunt, “got 52 coming in now, boss man.” We do all the damage we can, and leave this spot with 56 keepers, three or four of which are very high quality. “Charley, have you pulled 75 on a half day trip this year?” “Nope. I’ve had several 50 and 60 fish half days, but we haven’t had a 75 yet.” I look at my clock, noting that it has only been 9:00am for twenty minutes now. “I bet you do today.”
I know we’re going to get 75 crappie at some point today. It’s an issue of “when” not “if.” I’ve seen Mother Nature flip a switch, but that doesn’t usually happen in June. Besides, I’ve got Russ and Red with me, and I don’t know how they pick the days, but back when I used to guide them, they helped me pull 3 different four man limits, and several three man limits. Without a doubt, they routinely saw some of the best crappie fishing I’ve ever experienced, year in and year out.
There is a different atmosphere on the boat now. We got our fix, and now seem to be more focused on catching up on each other’s lives. Sure, we still have nineteen more fish we can catch, but we’ll get them, and there’s no use in hurrying. Work, health, family, and lost fishing buddies are more important now. I find it interesting how it usually takes something like being on the water to tap back into somebody else’s life. It’s easier to say what needs to be said, and express some pent up feelings when everyone is busy fishing. We may not be looking each other in the eyes, but we hear every word that’s being said.
At this point, there really isn’t any use in burning up anymore honey holes for a group that already has a stacked cooler. Save your aces for when you need to win. So we poke around at docks that may have fish, or they may not. As stated earlier though, they almost all have at least one fish this time of year, and for the most part, they do. The sun has made itself more well-known now, and a couple of us have opted for a very bright chartreuse called CR Special. Whether the jig be dark gray or bright green doesn’t seem to matter much, but the bite has remained very soft during the last hour, and the only indication of a strike is simply a change of pressure felt while lifting the rod tip. The simple nuances of crappie fishing don’t help with the addiction.
When the clicker clicks 74, the clock ticks 10:30. It may be childish, but we all know for damn sure that we want to catch the last keeper. Hypothetically speaking, I may have known a little more information about the last dock we fished, and I may have snuck around to the back of the boat to get a better shot. I shoot, and get a great strike, but I miss!. “$@%*” I reel in quickly, trying to beat Russ and Red. Red gets a good shot under the dock, and in my haste, I hit the side of the wooden deck. “$@%* !*%$” I know I’m beat now. Miraculously, Red doesn’t hook up, and I get another chance. This shot is perfect, and number 75 comes on board to join the company of four men, all sizing up the last fish of the day.
I express my upmost gratitude towards Russ and Red for buying me a spot next to them at the docktor’s office. To be back on the same water that I have a very close relationship with resonates very deeply within me. Whether it is an instinctual awakening or simply a heavy dose of nostalgia, I’m not really sure at this time. I am certain that this is the best fishing I have done all spring, and it couldn’t have come at a better time or with better people. The weather was perfect, the fishing was perfect and it’s only Friday morning. Turning over the ignition on the four-stroke, Chuck gives me a nod. “Laner I’m glad you were able to make it out here bud, with you being sick and all.” Fake coughing, through a very real smile, I place my hook in the keeper and take my seat beside the captain. “You know what Chuck, I’m feeling better already.”