May is prime time for crappie fishing

May is a grand month for outdoor enthusiasts in Pennsylvania. Glorious weather and the splendid return of green foliage makes springtime a beautiful time of year throughout the region.

Turkey hunters take to the woods in hope of coaxing a gobbler into shotgun range, while trout fishermen wade the streams in search of those popular gamefish. Mid to late May is also prime time to catch springtime crappies as these popular panfish migrate to the shoreline in preparation for spawning. Making a trip or two for crappies this month can fun. Crappies are also great eating, so when they’re biting, it’s one of the best ways I know to get the main ingredient for a great fish fry.

While live minnows are unquestionably the best live bait for crappies, these panfish will also strike a variety of artificial lures. Small spoons and spinners will take crappies when they are congregated in open water. The most versatile and productive crappie lure, however, is a jig. Tiny, 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigheads dressed with feathers, marabou, or soft-plastic twister tails or tubes are perfect for tempting crappies. An assortment of those options in several color combinations such as white, pink, chartreuse, yellow and black will catch crappies most days.

Crappies have three important behavioral traits that anglers can use to their advantage. First, crappies tend to suspend at a particular depth near some kind of cover or bottom structure. Finding the depth where the fish are holding is obviously important, and on a given day that can be influenced by several factors such as water clarity, sunlight and water temperature.

Crappies are sight feeders and like to approach their prey from below, so they will readily swim up to take a bait. Putting the bait on the bottom will not interest many crappies. Using a small float or bobber to keep a minnow or jig just above the fish is the simplest method of attracting them. Adjust the distance from the float to the bait a foot or so at a time until you find the strike zone.

Finally, crappies are extremely light biters. A crappie gently inhales a bait or lure and then slowly swims away with it. Set the hook by lifting the rod tip firmly rather than with a hard snap. Crappies are sometimes called “papermouths,” and that nickname is certainly appropriate. Setting the hook too hard can actually tear it loose. Once a crappie is hooked, simply reel it in with just enough pressure from the rod tip to keep the line tight and lift it from the water carefully or use a landing net.

A light-action rod works best for crappies. I like one that is sensitive enough to detect light bites and has a flexible tip to avoid tearing the hook from a crappie’s delicate mouth. I also prefer 4-pound-test line for crappie fishing. The light line casts easier and is also more sensitive with the lightweight crappie lures. Crappies are also fond of hanging around underwater brush and submerged treetops, so getting snagged on these obstructions can be a frequent occurrence. When this happens, it’s better just to break the line, get rerigged and fishing again. The lighter line makes that job much easier.

After a successful crappie fishing trip, there’s nothing better than enjoying a dinner of deep-fried crappie fillets. Depending on personal taste, the fillets can be coated with seasoned flour or a prepared fish breading mix. I prefer to cook crappies and other panfish without any breading, then drain them on paper towels and sprinkle them with celery salt and a little fresh ground pepper.

A new record

Last week, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission announced the recognition of a new state record flathead catfish.

The monster catfish weighed 50 pounds, 7 ounces and was caught in the Susquehanna River in York County on April 6. Jeff Bonawitz of East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County, landed the record fish landed the record fish on spinning tackle with 25-pound monofilament line while using a live bluegill for bait.

To be certified as a new state record, a fish must be weighed on certified scales, examined and identified by PFBC personnel and exceed the previous state record by at least two ounces.

Bonawitz was unable to immediately locate a certified scale, so he kept the fish alive in an aerated container at his home until the following day. When he finally put the big flathead on a scale, it topped the previous record by more than two pounds — a 48-pound, 6-ounce flathead caught at Blue Marsh Spillway in Berks County in 2006. Waterways Conservation Officer Jeffrey Schmidt inspected and verified the weight, and after reviewing the state record fish application, PFBC officials confirmed the catch as a new state record.

On an interesting final twist to this fish story, Bonawitz kept the big catfish alive through the confirmation process and then released back into the Susquehanna. Perhaps another angler will have the opportunity to tangle with the biggest flathead in Pennsylvania again in the future.

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