- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

MARSHALL HALL, Md.

A high-speed summertime boat ride on the tidal Potomac River is a pleasure until 40 mph winds whip the water to a froth, but even under calm conditions the February equivalent of traveling the river could result in frostbite, doctor visits, maybe worse. That’s why super-warm clothing, face masks, gloves, goggles and such must be standard equipment.

But when the call of the crappies is heard loud and clear — well, sort of — our little group of cold-weather fishing loonies is after the silvery speckled fish. We look like invaders from another planet when we go.

Sure, you can hook walleyes, bass, stripers and perch in winter, but nothing beats the good looks and cooperative nature of a crappie — never mind its outstanding table qualities.

Ask my friends, Dale and Nancy Knupp, and my nearby La Plata neighbor, Andy Andrzejewski, or the old fellow who sat in a grimy skiff inside the Spoils Cove a few days ago and offered his catch of crappies to anyone who wanted it.

“I must have 100 crappie fillets in my freezer,” the friendly fellow said. “I’m just having fun fishing right now. Don’t need to take more home.”

It’s a bit different with us because every March we invite friends and associates to a fish-fry after collecting yellow perch and crappie fillets that are dipped in a special, seasoned batter and deep-fried, served with baked beans, French fries and other delicious items that are sure to raise cholesterol levels.

While Andrzejewski and the Knupps almost always use light-line dropshot rigs with a stand-away hook embedded in a 2- or 3-inch-long Berkley Emerald Shiner or a little beauty known as Black Shad, during our latest outing I tried a time-proven method that works well if you know the crappies are in water that is less than 12 feet deep and are suspended off the bottom.

When Dale Knupp looked at his electronic depth locator and said, “Here’s a bunch of fish. They’re about three feet or so from the bottom,” I attached a 1/16-ounce white marabou-feathered jig to 20-pound test FireLine whose diameter is no more than 8-pound test monofilament line. The difference is that I can’t lose a lure as easily as someone using thin monofilament.

I pinched a thumb tip-sized bobber about six feet above the little feathery jig and heaved it out (you couldn’t call it much of a cast) as far as I could, hoping the lure would drop half-way through the 11-foot water column. When it settled down and I popped the rod tip once or twice, the float went down and a fair tussle ensued as a broad-sided crappie objected to being reeled to the boat. The speckled fish, sometimes known as a calico bass, lost the fight.

Meanwhile, the Knupps did very well with their drop-shot shiners. In fact, all of us caught so many crappies that we had the luxury of culling smaller specimens that swam around in Dale’s livewell for larger fish.

You can do the same. Even without a boat it can be done from shore inside the Potomac River’s Spoils, the big cove that touches I-295 just before you enter the exit lane to Wilson Bridge if you’re coming from the District. Of course, a boat affords mobility and if the crappies aren’t in the mood there, they might be when you check out the large coves adjacent to Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria. Again, there is some shoreline fishing, but boats are better.

The Fort Washington Marina bulkheads inside the Piscataway Creek in Prince George’s County can turn up winter crappies, as can the adjacent Swan Creek, but a small boat is a must.

Crappies have been caught throughout Virginia’s Occoquan River and bay, the Quantico Creek and especially the upper Aquia Creek. The same goes for Maryland’s Mattawoman Creek and the Nanjemoy Creek, but the Nanjemoy’s crappie population has again taken a dip because of heavy overfishing by minnow-and-bobber users who simply will not release any of their catches.

In the Patuxent River, Prince George’s County’s Western Branch has been a traditional crappie hangout, as can be Hall’s Creek and its many sunken trees that provide good cover.

My favorite crappie lakes are Northern Virginia’s Occoquan Reservoir and Burke Lake, both off Route 123 in the Fairfax/Prince William corridor. Also, don’t forget Lake Anna, west of Fredericksburg.

But the all-time champion for the largest crappies in either Maryland and Virginia? It’s Kerr Reservoir in south-central Virginia — by a large margin.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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