Skip to main content

Crappie for Christmas: The Fondest of Childhood Memories

Crappie for Christmas: The Fondest of Childhood Memories

Crappie, “pan-dressed and pan-fried,” may not look like a holiday meal, but for Keith Sutton, it was the most memorable Christmas dinner ever.

When I think back, I find it difficult to remember any particular Christmas dinner our family had over the years. From the time I was very young until last Christmas, my family’s holiday meals have been much the same—turkey, ham, dressing, cranberry sauce, fresh-baked cakes and pies, and all the fixings.

One Christmas dinner stands out in my mind, however—a meal of deep-fried, fresh-caught crappie my grandmother fixed for me when I was just a teen—almost 50 years ago. That meal I will never forget.

I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas. I was born in New Jersey, my father’s home state. But when I was 5, my father and mother divorced. On Christmas Eve that year, dear old Dad dropped my mom, younger sister and me on my maternal grandmother’s doorstep in Arkansas and left.

Hurt and bewildered, I had no way of knowing then that my life would be forever changed for the better because of that act. Instead of growing up in the suburbs of New York City where my father lived, I was fortunate to spend my early years in a small, rural Southern community where life was vastly different.


My mom and grandmother (we called her Banny) raised me. I had no father or grandfathers. But thanks to the guidance of many good men in our community—relatives, friends, teachers, clergymen—I became a good fisherman at a young age.


One uncle had a big farm pond full of bass, crappie, bluegills and catfish. I worked with him in his grocery several years, and during that time, every afternoon around 3 p.m., my aunt would watch the store while Uncle Julius and I went to the farm and checked his cattle.

"You know what I want for Christmas dinner?" she asked with a twinkle in her eye. "A mess of crappie. Your Mom always loved them. I do, too."

We really did check the Herefords he raised—counted heads, put out feed or hay, made sure none had wandered away or fell to predators or disease. But checking the cows was really an excuse for an hour or two of fishing in the pond.

We’d shove off in the cypress johnboat Uncle Julius had built, and he would scull us around so we could drop minnows by stumps and stickups for slab crappie or cast a plug for one of the pond’s lunker largemouths. Fishing with Uncle Julius, I learned dozens of masterful ways to catch fish.

Another relative, Uncle Pat, also had a big pond, but it was stocked only with catfish and bream. The bream were food for the pond’s big channel and blue cats, and the whiskerfish grew fat eating them.


Nice thing was Uncle Pat’s pond was off-limits to adults—kids’ fishing only. Nine times out of 10 when I visited, I was the only kid fishing.

Uncle Pat would come down to supervise, sometimes bringing a secret-recipe stinkbait for me to try, or bringing a trotline he would show me how to set and run. Always, we caught catfish and every time we were together, I learned some new fishing trick.

Many other people shared their outdoor wisdom as well, and by the time I was 12, Mom decided I was mature enough to fish at places that often were several miles from home. From then until the time I found the fairer sex, that’s pretty much all I did.


Some days my young companions and I would ride bicycles to one of the local ponds to fish. Sometimes our parents would drive us to the river to fish and camp. When the trips ended, we always had fresh fish for our families to eat.

I didn’t realize it then, but having this bounty of freshly caught fish—and the wild game I killed, too—was of great benefit to our household. Mom was a teacher. Banny was a nurse. Neither made much money, and they struggled to make ends meet.

We always ate well, however, and more often than not, the delicious meals they prepared featured game or fish I brought home. Both women loved crappie—pan-dressed and pan-fried—more than anything, so they were especially happy whenever my crappie fishing proved successful.

Holidays were special times, though, and while no one would have complained if we’d had a meal of crappie, catfish, rabbit or quail for holiday meals, Mom and Banny always scraped together enough money to buy a turkey or ham to serve for holiday get-togethers. Those were wondrous repasts so delicious and filling we could hardly wait for them to be cooked and served. What good times those were!

Our family always was healthy, too, perhaps in part because of all the fresh game, fish and garden vegetables that graced our table. We rarely ate prepared foods.

But in 1973, just before I started my senior year in high school, Mom fell seriously ill. Our small-town family doctor diagnosed her illness as a bad case of bronchitis and treated it thusly. But, after more than a month, when Mom hadn’t improved from the serious bouts of coughing that wracked her body, a visit to a specialist in Memphis brought dire news. Mom was dying of cancer.

I could hardly fathom what the doctor said. Mom had never been sick, and suddenly we learned she only had months to live. How could this be happening? Mom was just 40 years old. No one died that young. Why her?

She died in January. I was just 17. My sister was 14.

Before her passing, Mom had arranged for my sister to live nearby with an aunt—Banny’s sister. Mom felt it would be too much of a burden for my 70-year-old grandmother to raise her.

“You’re old enough to go out on your own,” Mom told me. “Go to college. Get a job. Get a place of your own. You’ll be fine.”

And that’s how it was. At age 18, shortly after Mom died, I rented my first house, started college and got a full-time night job. My sister moved in with my aunt.

Banny was left alone in a home that four of us had lived in just a few months earlier. I saw her often, but not often enough. It was obvious she was heartbroken.

When Christmas break started that year, I went home to stay with her. Neither of us had gotten over Mom’s death, and while we chatted about other things, we talked mostly about the big hole left in our world when Mom was gone.

“I don’t feel much like celebrating the holiday,” Banny said. “It’s not the same without her.”

“I feel the same way,” I said.

Then Banny smiled. She held my hand, patting it.

“You know what I want for Christmas dinner?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “A mess of crappie. Your Mom always loved them. I do, too.”

Snow was falling as I reeled in the last of 10 slabs I caught in Uncle Julius’ pond later that day. Banny was waiting at the door with a cup of hot cocoa when I got home.

She dredged the pan-dressed fish in seasoned corn meal and fried them crisp and golden. And while we nibbled on the crunchy tails and flaky white fillets, we shared stories about a daughter and mother who meant the world to both of us.

That was the most memorable Christmas dinner I ever had.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Simms Flyweight Wader

Simms Flyweight Wader

Constructed of three different kinds of Gore-Tex fabric, the Simms Flyweight Wader is durable, breathable, and features stretch in key areas of movement and stress that happen during a day of wade fishing out on a fast flowing trout stream.

Bubba Blade: Multi-Flex Interchangeable Blade Set

Bubba Blade: Multi-Flex Interchangeable Blade Set

Four blades in versatile knife system to fit your needs; ICAST Fishing Gear Guide.

Abu Garcia Zenon Spinning Reels

Abu Garcia Zenon Spinning Reels

New to the North American market comes the 'world's lightest spinning reel.'

New G. Loomis IMX Pro Rod Series

New G. Loomis IMX Pro Rod Series

David Brinkerhoff of G. Loomis shares his knowledge of the new IMX Pro rod series. The IMX Pro rod series comes in 10 new models and will cover five technique-specific categories. Available Fall 2020. MSRP $345-355.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Sight Savvy: Different styles of bow sights each have their strengths—and weaknesses.How to Pick the Right Bow Sight for You Bows

How to Pick the Right Bow Sight for You

Tony Hansen - August 25, 2020

Sight Savvy: Different styles of bow sights each have their strengths—and weaknesses.

Here's how to get your rig ready for archery deer season.19 Ways to Get Your Crossbow, Compound Ready for Opening Day Bows

19 Ways to Get Your Crossbow, Compound Ready for Opening Day

Bob Robb - August 21, 2020

Here's how to get your rig ready for archery deer season.

As most catfish anglers know, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads will eat darn near anything that fits in their mouths.5 Ways To Catch Catfish on Lures Catfish

5 Ways To Catch Catfish on Lures

Keith Sutton

As most catfish anglers know, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads will eat darn near...

Starting opening day, there's a small window to tag out before pressure impacts buck movement. Make the most of it.Quick-Strike Tips for Early Archery Deer Success Whitetail

Quick-Strike Tips for Early Archery Deer Success

Tony Peterson - August 18, 2020

Starting opening day, there's a small window to tag out before pressure impacts buck movement....

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

All sides must have something to offer to make it work.Fishing Buddies: It Has to Be Give-and-Take Stories

Fishing Buddies: It Has to Be Give-and-Take

Jeff Johnston - June 18, 2020

All sides must have something to offer to make it work.

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends Stories

Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends

Tory Mansfield - April 10, 2020

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.

As the official zone maps of Pool 8 were handed out for the Championship Round of the 2016 Summit Cup on the Mississippi River, the six finalists scoured the maps like scratch-off lottery tickets, hoping their numbers would come up big.Past Experience Squashed by Fishing Zone Boundaries for Championship Stories

Past Experience Squashed by Fishing Zone Boundaries for Championship

Rob Newell, MajorLeagueFishing.com

As the official zone maps of Pool 8 were handed out for the Championship Round of the 2016...

Actions speak louder than words when sharing the passion for hunting, fishing and the outdoors.Outdoors Perspective: The Power of Paying Forward Stories

Outdoors Perspective: The Power of Paying Forward

Keith Sutton - November 12, 2018

Actions speak louder than words when sharing the passion for hunting, fishing and the outdoors.

See More Stories

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now