One of my favorite places to catch crappie is Tar River Reservoir, which is located near Rocky Mount and provides water for the city. The 1850-acre lake produced two state-record crappie within a few weeks of one another several years ago and has therefore been on my spring fishing circuit ever since.
I headed to the reservoir with Capt. Butch Foster, who operates Yeah Right Charters (910-845-2004) in Southport. He had recently been fishing at High Rock Lake, where he still has a second home. Before he became a saltwater inshore and offshore captain Foster fished for crappie and other freshwater fish and is a crappie fanatic.
The fishing had been off so far this year because of the lingering after-effects of February's cold, rainy, icy weather. So, I held off on calling Butch until a brief respite from all of the precipitation came. Still, when we arrived, we launched my trusty Alumacraft 16-footer into water that was less than ideal because the visibility was about 18 inches. Most of the lake was the color of brick, but a clearing effect was occurring in the Saponi Creek branch, so we decided to try our luck in that area.
I had 10 dozen small minnows swimming in a foam ice chest to keep them cool and alive. Recent trips to other waters had shown the water was still chilly enough that minnows were the ticket. Crappie begin striking jigs as the water warms, but seldom turn down live minnows if they are presented at nose length even for anglers who are ice fishing.
Onboard we had an armload of telescoping fiberglass poles. I set them into some PVC rod holders I had made to fit into the flush-mounted rod holders in the boat seats. I had glued 45-degree bends onto two pieces of PVC to angle the 10-foot poles down toward the water, rather than nearly upright if they are stuck into the seat holders. It worked so well that Butch complimented my work and soon we were using the electric trolling motor to ease into a cove where an angler had caught one of the state-record crappie. When trolling did not work, we switched tactics.
We used the trolling motor to ease beside some boat docks. The long poles made it easy for me to poke minnows all the way beneath them in the shade. Crappie struck the float rigs with purpose and soon I was catching a lot of them. Butch used an ultra-light spinning rod, pulling back on the hook curve and releasing it to "shoot" his float rigs under the docks.
"I would rather reel them in," he said. "Old habits die hard."
We caught 75 white crappie and kept some of the largest for eating. It wasn't until we had half-filled the ice chest that Butch told me he didn't need any more fish at the moment.
"My wife said not to bring any home," he said. "We caught our limits of bass and a bunch of chain pickerel yesterday."
After our expedition ended, I filled the cooler with more ice, leaving the cleaning chore for the next day. I had a new filleting knife to try out. Filleting small fish is a task made easier with a sharp knife and the Havalon Baracuta fit the bill.
The knife has a replaceable surgical steel blade and is a real beauty. The problem with small fish is that the knife lifts the fish, rather than cutting cleanly, making the chore clumsy and the degree of difficulty increases with the dullness of the knife and smallness of the fish.
I opened the knife and put a fish on the cleaning table. Since I wanted to photograph the process, I did not pull on my Berkley Kevlar fish-cleaning glove. Of course the tip was so sharp that it immediately poked a hole in my finger with only a touch of blade to skin.
After the bleeding stopped, which about the same volume as expected from a pin needle prick, I wisely put on the glove and began filleting the fish then slicing the skin away from the fillets. It was a breeze and I could only imagine how easy the knife would make the chore of cleaning a mess of yellow perch. Those fish have skin like leather and are so small it is not easy to skin their fillets.
Rain began to fall again. I rigged an umbrella over the cleaning table. In a few minutes, I had 56 fillets ready for the skillet. That meant we had kept 28 crappie, which is not a bad haul after such a long, cold wait for the bite to begin.