In more ways than one, 2020 was a very crappie year.
With the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus many lakes and rivers saw limited access and recreational use during the season. Although much of the angling landscape has recovered to fishable degrees, many other hardships and financial loses have occurred. Many anglers simply “dummied down” or downsized to fish smaller, local waters that they might have previously overlooked during normal years.
One of my initial goals for 2020 was to pursue and catch a new personal-best crappie. I had my eye on three places where I was pretty sure a 17-inch crappie lived, and that was my initial goal. Over the past few decades, I have fished some fairly famous crappie waters in quest of giants. Santee Cooper Lakes, Kerr Reservoir, Pymatuming Reservoir, Lake Anna, and Shenango Lake to name a few. Toss in local heavies like Pinchot, Long Arm, Marburg, Loch Raven, Piney Run, and the tidal Potomac, and one would think that, at some point, a 17-inch class fish might show up.
But the big-name waters didn’t produce a fish of those dimensions for me.
In a lifetime of crappie fishing I have probably caught several thousand crappies in the 13- to 14-inch range, most of which came from the above-mentioned public waters. I have access to several private venues with big fish along with some high-end Eastern Shore mill ponds that will remain unnamed. But with all the quality, slab-infested waters available to me, it comes as no surprise that a couple of “personal best” catches were much closer to home.
Giant crappies are where you find them, and the current world-record black crappie was caught in a Tennessee farm pond in 2019 and weighed in at 5.46 pounds. Prime, vast public waters in Mississippi, South Carolina and California yield high numbers of 17-inch class fish yearly, and even larger fish as well. But back here in “real world Maryland” a 15-inch fish is impressive, with a state-record of 20 inches and 4 pounds 4 ounces.
Back in April of 2020 I fished a small lake that had produced lots of 12-inch class fish the previous year. We had caught nothing over 14 inches, so I didn’t really think I had a shot at eclipsing my previous best crappie of 15.75 inches, a Potomac fish from a few years back. Working some submerged trees with one of my hand-tied hair jigs, I found a small pod of quality fish on a chilly, windy, overcast afternoon. Despite 55-degree temperatures fish were high in the water column, only 2 feet below the bobber.
After several 1½ pound fish, a fish actually swung at my bobber, then struck my jig as I tried to set the hook, pulling it from the fish. A brief and unimpressive tussle ended with me sliding a massive 16½-inch crappie on the bank that was three inches thick and heavy with roe. The fish had barely fought, and I was astonished with the size. And then pure panic set in ... I did not have a camera card in my Go Pro!!
So, using my absolutely horrible cell phone selfie skills, I struggled to clip off a half-dozen pics that at least gave reference to the size of the fish, releasing her back in the lake to reproduce. I was shaking like a leaf!
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Later in October of 2020 I brought a longtime friend, Jim Reeves from Manchester, out for a brisk fall day to try and catch a few crappies. We actually had an excellent outing, landing perhaps 3 dozen fish that ran from 10 to 14 inches on 1/32nd ounce jigs tipped with soft plastics. Most of our fish ran large with a few dinks in the mix.
On one particular cast Jim’s bobber disappeared and he realized he was into a much larger fish. Thinking bass, he backed off the drag on the ultra-light spinning reel and cautiously played the fish for a few intense minutes. When the fish finally came into view, we saw a huge, wide flank of another immense crappie. The jig was barely in the fish’s gaping maw, so I realized I’d better be “good with the grab” when the fish came close.
Seconds later, I plunged my thumb in the fish’s mouth and hoisted Jim’s new PB crappie high for him to see.
Tickled, we acted like a couple of giggling schoolgirls as we took several pictures of another trophy crappie. His fish went 16.75 inches and likely weighed in the 2¾ pound range. I had seen three-pounders from prime southern waters in the past, but I don’t think either of our fish were quite that heavy. None the less, we were both elated with a fish that neither of us are used to seeing. Like the fish caught back in the spring, this one was released to make some babies and maybe reach that coveted 17-inch mark next season.
So, there it is, a tale of two big fish, caught during a very crappie year. I may have caught more 12- to 14-inch crappies last year than any other in my lifetime simply because I focused on them and spent many, many hours trying to find and catch them. Trophy class fish, of any species, require time and effort and, even, a little luck.
This year I’ll continue my search for a bigger one yet again. I already have my eye on a place where I know a 20-inch class fish lives because I have seen it caught. If I get the Mega-Slab I’ll take the pics and send her back.
You might see it on Facebook, then again you might not. If I don’t get her ... I’ll have a great time trying!