You can fish for free on Monday

For many folks, the Memorial Day weekend marks the opening of the summer recreation season. With that in mind, the first of two Fish-For-Free days for 2013 here in Pennsylvania will be Monday.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission created the first Fish-For-Free day in 1984 as a way of introducing folks to fishing by setting aside a day on which no fishing license is required to fish on any water within the state. A few years later, a second free fishing day was added, and again this year, those free days will occur on the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays.

If your holiday plans include spending time around the water, the Fish-For-Free days are a great time to introduce a friend or family to fishing. If you happen to be one of those who left the sport in recent years or know someone who has, tomorrow is also a perfect opportunity for a reintroduction to the sport of fishing.

And for those who will be taking advantage of one of the free days, remember that only the license requirement is waived. All other fishing laws and regulations are still in effect and must be complied with.

Bass season doesn’t open until June 15, but all other species of game fish are currently in season. If you intend to keep your catch, make sure you know the size and creel limits that apply to the water you are fishing. A summary of the fishing laws and regulations can be picked up at no charge at any fishing license issuing agent.

Memorial Day weekend is usually prime time for catching most species of panfish, such as sunfish, perch, or crappies. Almost every lake in our region will hold a good population of these popular fish, offering many hours of enjoyment for novice and veteran anglers alike. While my favorite species of panfish is the one that is biting best when I happen to be fishing, I really love to catch crappies whenever I have the opportunity. Crappies tend to grow a little larger than other panfish, will take a variety of baits and artificial lures, and are great eating as well.

Catching crappies usually isn’t difficult once you find them. In late spring, expect to locate crappies relating to some type of shoreline cover. Fallen trees and sunken brush piles are usually crappie magnets, attracting numbers of fish that prey on minnows and other small fish seeking shelter among the branches.

Weed lines and the edges of weed beds will also hold crappies, but the fish tend to be less concentrated there than around wood. When fishing a weed line, be prepared to keep moving along the cover, catching a few fish here there. Crappies will also relate to the edges of drop-offs, especially if they contain some additional cover. Extensive areas of riprap, such as along a dam breast or causeway, will also attract springtime crappies.

Crappies tend to favor the same springtime haunts year after year, so if you had success at a spot last season, it will be likely to produce fish again this spring. Like anything in fishing, however, there are no guarantees.

If you aren’t catching fish, keep moving until you find them. And even when favorite crappie spots are producing, it’s also wise to do a little exploring in the hope of locating additional hotspots for future reference.

Live minnows are as close as it gets to a sure thing for crappies. Small fathead minnows are cheap and work well. Live minnows can be rigged either on a plain hook or on a jig head and suspended below a small bobber with a split shot or two to keep the minnow down where it belongs. When I locate a bunch of crappies that are biting well, I often switch to artificial lures. Tiny, 1 1/2-inch twister-tail grubs, tubes and marabou jigs on 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigheads are all excellent crappie lures.

Some of the best color combinations in those include white, yellow, red, pink, chartreuse and black. Small jigs also work well suspended below a bobber. Crappies can be notorious light biters, so use small, sensitive bobbers when targeting them. Pencil bobbers that go under with minimal resistance when a fish takes the bait or lure are a good choice.

I usually practice catch and release in most of my fishing, but I always look forward to taking home a dozen or two nice crappies to eat occasionally.

Personally, I consider crappies the best-eating fish in freshwater, even better than walleyes. Filleting a batch of crappies is somewhat of a chore, but enjoying a heaping plate full of deep-fried crappie fillets presents a special reward for the time and effort involved.