On a lovely Saturday in mid-May, Mike Smith of Lawrence could have fished at Coffey County Lake and tangled with scads of big wipers and white bass. Instead he went to Melvern Lake and caught and released 91 spawning crappie.
Even though he knew the bulk of Melvern's spawning crappie would be small males, Smith rationalized that the spawn occurs only once a year, and Coffey's wiper and white bass can be caught virtually year-round.
For Smith, the pursuit of spawning crappie is a 20-year tradition. And across those many springs, he has learned how to employ a variety of tactics to entice the crappie in their various moods and extract them from an assortment of haunts.
One of his favorite tactics is to employ medium-action spinning tackle that is spooled with 10-pound braided line and either a l/16- or 1/8-ounce jig. With this outfit, he makes a 50-foot cast, allows the jig to settle to the bottom, and then he retrieves the jig along the bottom and across the spawning sites.
His favorite habitats to probe are long points and off-shore humps three to seven feet deep. Some of these spots consist of gravel with scattered boulders. Other spots are clay and littered with an occasional stump, a few rocks or a small piece of brush.
Smith says he believes crappie fishing has dramatically changed at Melvern and Clinton lakes during the past two decades.
Until about five years ago, wave after wave of crappie invaded the spawning grounds, starting in April and continuing until Father's Day. Traditionally, the heat of the spawn orbited around Mother Day's, corresponding to the water temperature reaching 64 degrees and the moon being either new or full.
On occasions, the crappie's lust dimmed and the fishing became trying after the arrival of a cold front, but upon the return of couple days of temperate weather, the spawn began again, as did a spell of easy fishing.
Nowadays, Smith says, there aren't as many waves of crappie invading the spawning areas, and big males are especially rare. But there was a time when Smith and other talented anglers caught scads of 10- to 14-inch males at dozens of spawning sites.
Smith still can catch a passel of big females by slowly probing deeper coverts near the spawning grounds, but Smith finds fishing for these big females boring.
So he chases big males, saying there is no finer crappie fishing than casting and retrieving a jig across spawning beds and tangling with a pugnacious 13-incher in shallow water.
Jeff Buckingham, a veteran crappie angler from Gardner, agrees with Smith about the demise of the big males. Both Smith and Buckingham list three factors that have had a detrimental effect on these fish the floods of the '90s, an increase in crappie fishermen and lack of austere creel limits.
During the spawn, the only big reservoir in eastern Kansas that has a decent population of big male crappie is Coffey which has stringent creel and size limits on crappie.
If the big males don't reappear in a few years, Smith and Buckingham fear their days of chasing spawning crappie at Melvern and Clinton are numbered. In fact, Buckingham says he already spends more time playing golf than fishing for crappie.
Both anglers are in favor of Wildlife and Parks experimenting with crappie creel limits at either Melvern or Clinton to see if the crappie will rebound and become just like Coffey.