Jim McGuire: Crappie dreams and common sense

By Jim McGuire

Contributing Columnist

Cabin fever finally got the best of me last week.

For two days in a row, we’d enjoyed mostly blue skies and temperatures in the mid-40s. I spent them working on my firewood—sawing up several big ash logs and splitting the rounds into manageable chunks to feed into the stove.

I never once thought about going fishing.

The morning after that brief warm spell, the temperature was back down to a numbing 17 degrees, with the day’s high only expected to reach the upper-20s. January was again acting and feeling like January.

But the next day’s early sky was also a beckoning blue. And the gleam of bright rising sun varnishing the tops of the tall sycamores visible from my deskside window, set their interlaced tangle of upper branches a’glow with a wealth of warm, orangey-gold light.

I couldn’t help myself…I thought about going fishing. Thought seriously.

Now I’ll be the first to admit, contemplating a January fishing outing in Ohio is illogical, probably irrational. Unless, of course, we’re talking about ice fishing—which we’re not.

Nope, I was indeed thinking basic rod-and-reel, open water angling. No doubt a wild-hair notion decidedly lacking in what most folks would say was elementary common sense.

I agree. But as the old cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man used to say, “I yam what I yam.”

Rumination resolved into capitulation.

Okay, I was going fishing—as foolhardy and absurd a decision as that might be. Now the question was where? And for what?

If I couldn’t be rational, I could at least be practical.

The hundred-yard stretch of the Stillwater flowing past the cottage looked tempting—full and clear, a pellucid green filled with crystalline sparkles. The large pool in front of the house was especially intriguing.

I once spent most of a mid-winter day wading Twin Creek and trying to catch smallmouth. As I recall, I used fly tackle and tossed weighted woolly-buggers—scouring the deep pockets. And I actually caught two or three bass. The biggest might have exceeded a foot in length.…maybe.

But that was several decades ago. I was younger, stronger, more cold-hardy. And to garner those fish, I covered a mile or more of stream, often waist-deep in frigid water, working at my presentations.

It was really just a stunt I wanted to see if I could pull off and brag about later.

What I now had in mind was more minimal effort, maximum return. I wanted to remain reasonably comfortable and not spend the entire day at what might prove to be a piscatorial folly.

Located on public lands, not far from where I live, are several long-abandoned, gravel-pit ponds. You can almost drive to a couple; others require a short hike to access.

Several of these ponds host a pretty fair population of crappie. Smallish fish, mostly, though a few—say, every third or fourth one you pull in—are big enough to put on the stringer and fry for supper that evening.

I wasn’t looking for slab panfish, just a bit of steady action with prospects of a tasty meal afterward.

I’m a lifelong crappie fan. My father took me along on his crappie outings as a toddler. I cut my angling teeth on all-night crappie expeditions at Windy Point, on the south shore of Grand Lake St. Marys. We made spring crappie trips to Cowan Lake, Kaiser Lake, Indian Lake, and Lake Loramie. Later on, we fished Paint Creek Reservoir and Acton Lake.

The best thing about crappie is they’re willing to bite year around. Midwinter, midsummer, spring and fall—if you can put your bait or lure in front of a crappie, chances are good they’ll take it. They’re not always pushovers, mind you; crappie can sometimes be surprisingly finicky. But as a general rule, they’re blessedly accommodating.

No-fuss fish for no-fuss fishing. Just what I had in mind.

My rig was simple: a pair of tiny white jigs with a bit of silver flash in their dressing, suspended a few feet below an elongated nickel-sized balsa float. I used 4-pound test mono and a 7-foot ultralight rod.

The drill was to cast out and s-l-o-w-l-y twitch and retrieve, with a minute-long pause every so often. When a crappie took, sometimes the bobber dipped; at other times it merely fell over, as the fish moved upward and the underwater portion of line became slack.

You had to pay close attention.

Fishing in January is more than simply an excuse for some of us to get out, to satisfy an urge to wet a line. It’s fundamental, a core action and truly rewarding.

Mine was the only vehicle in the lot. Not even a wishful drive-through looker while I was there. I had the ponds and place completely to myself.

Well, except for the great blue heron wading the rocky shallows in an adjacent corner. Or the redtail hawk wheeling and screeching above a nearby meadow. A string of honking geese passed overhead. Chickadees, wrens, titmice, and cardinals whistled sporadically. From the distant treeline came a woodpecker’s hammering and a nuthatch’s yammering.

Solitude without silence. Water, wind and deep-blue sky were mine. Plus I’d bundled up sufficiently to stay warm and comfortable.

As to the fishing? Well, let’s just say crappie dreams in January aren’t always a foundering of common sense.