Even though the calendar says the first day of summer is still three weeks away, Memorial Day marks the kickoff of the summer recreational season for many folks. This is the weekend that most pools and swimming areas open, and many grills will be removed from storage for the first cookout of the season as groups of family and friends get together to celebrate a return to summer. But most of all, this holiday is a time of reflection and remembrance for all whose service and sacrifices have ensured the many freedoms we enjoy as a nation.
This year, Memorial Day is also the first of two Fish-For-Free days in Pennsylvania, so no fishing license is required to fish any waterway in the state. This program began in 1984 as a way to introduce new folks to fishing or to induce former anglers to return to the sport. The first Fish-For-Free day was held in September in conjunction with National Hunting and Fishing Day, with a second day, usually in late spring, added a few years later. In recent years, the Fish-For-Free days have been on the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend and a Sunday in early June. For 2011, however, the free days return to the spring and fall format with the one tomorrow and the other on Labor Day.
Since I have owned a Pennsylvania fishing license every year since I turned 16, I've never needed the free day directly, but I have often taken friends or family members who typically don't buy a fishing license most years. If your plans for tomorrow include some fishing time, consider taking along an extra rod and reel and inviting a new angler to join you. Keep in mind, however, that while the license requirements are waived, all other fishing regulations, such as size and creel limits, are still in effect.
Memorial Day weekend is usually prime time for some of the best panfish action of the year. Crappies, bluegills, and other sunfish are plentiful in most area lakes and ponds, and the bigger ones are usually in shallow water near shore right now, either preparing to spawn or in the process of doing so. And once you find the fish, there will typically be a bunch of them.
Small live minnows are irresistible to crappies, and they are probably the best bait to use when trying to find the fish. Once I've located a school of crappies, I'll often switch to artificial lures. Small spoons or inline spinners will take crappies when the fish are in an aggressive mood. Tiny soft-plastic tube jigs or marabou jigs will usually work when they are being more finicky. Crappies can sometimes be a little more picky about lure color than most other panfish. In clear water, I'll try jigs in combinations of white, pink or yellow; in off-color water, black, chartreuse or fluorescent orange are usually good choices.
Bigger bluegills will take live minnows, but smaller baits, such as mealworms, waxworms and red worms, will catch them more consistently. Bluegills will also take most of the same jigs that crappies will but are far less fussy about color. I rarely use anything except black when targeting bluegills. On the other hand, bluegills can be maddeningly good at sucking in a jig and spitting it back out again without getting hooked. For that reason, I prefer to sight-fish for them when using jigs or other artificial lures.
As much fun as panfish are to catch, they might be even better on the table. Although I mostly practice catch-and-release for trout, bass and other game fish, anytime I can get a dozen or so nice crappies or bluegills, I'm thinking fish fry. Because their flavor is light and delicate, I prepare them as simply as possible and without any breading or batter coating to overpower them.
Just deep-fry the fillets in hot oil - 375 to 400 degrees. Be careful not to overcook the thin fillets, and use a spatula or fryer scoop to remove them from the oil to prevent breaking the fillets into small pieces. Drain the fillets on paper towels and then sprinkle them with either celery salt or Old Bay seasoning, whichever you prefer. That's all there is to it. Serve with some coleslaw, French fries or your favorite side dish and an ice-cold beer, and you have a meal that can't be beat. I have served deep-fried crappies to folks who claimed not to like fish and had them ask for seconds.