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Tips From Nebraska's Slab Catchers

Tips From Nebraska's Slab Catchers

Listen up as this bevy of slab snatchers point you in the right direction for fast action with the Cornhusker State's papermouths. (May 2008)

Jim Zimmerer claims rights as "Crappie King" at his house with this 17-inch slab he took at a sandpit lake in 2006. His son Preston took a 15-incher in '07.
Photo courtesy of Jim Zimmerer.

Crappie of both the black and the white subspecies will command a lot of attention this month in Nebraska. Why so? Well, consider that, in total, 86 Master Angler crappie were taken in the Cornhusker State in 2006. (The 2007 totals had not been completed as this issue was going to press.)

Great Plains Game & Fish questioned a cross-section of slab-catchers and found that they caught dozens of nice-sized papermouths for every trophy they landed. The popularity of this fish is evident among young and old alike -- and that includes both male and female anglers.

Jim Zimmerer, 42, of Columbus fishes with his son Preston. They spend much of their crappie time at Lake North, the Loup Canal and local farm ponds.

"Preston is 12, and he caught his first crappie when he was 10," dad Jim said. "Last year we were fishing Lake North, (a 200-acre impoundment just north of Columbus) on May 31 when he hooked into a big one. The crappie qualified for a Game Commission Master Angler Award (a minimum of 15 inches or 2 pounds). He was fishing a jig sweetened with a minnow.

"We usually fish with a 1/32-ounce jig and generally use orange-and-black or chartreuse. I didn't get one of the big ones last year, but I caught a 17-incher from a sandpit lake in '06, so I'm still the 'crappie king.' I really don't expect to hang onto the throne very long -- Preston is determined to better the 17-incher!"

The father-and-son crappie-catchers report that the crappie they caught last spring were smaller than usual, perhaps because of the heavy rains that produced high, turbid water. They report that they fish some farm ponds and sandpit lakes in the area, which also produce some good crappie action.


Richard Dunn, a 77-year-old fisherman from Beatrice, might be referred to as the modern era's Compleat Angler, probing watershed ponds in Gage and Pawnee counties for crappie and bass, and going after a variety of fish in Canada, Alaska and Baja, as well as Texas and Arizona. His best crappie, which was on the Master Angler list, is a 3-pound 18-incher that he caught last year from a sandpit lake near Blue Springs.

"I've had some good crappie fishing in Arizona too," he said. "I really like to fish. I have spent a lot of time on bass as well as crappie in this area. I usually rig up my spincast outfit with a jig, and prefer a brown-spotted color or a minnow-jig combination, and use the trolling motor to work the good bass water. I often rig a second pole with a hook and liver and drag it along for catfish while casting for bass. Within the past couple of years I have been finding it kinda tough to stay with the trolling motor on my boat -- I find I enjoy just sitting in it and fishing for crappie and catfish."

Dunn had his name in the Nebraska fishing record books, too, holding the top spot for bullheads for years with a 3-pound, 14-ounce specimen. That record was topped in June 1984 by Oakdale's LaVerne Heermann, whose new record bullhead, an ounce heavier than Dunn's, was pulled from a farm pond.

"I'm still pretty active on the outdoor scene," Dunn said. "I don't fish as hard as I used to, but I also hunt -- killed a nice whitetail buck last fall on some property I own not far from town."

Dunn's 18-incher was edged out of the Master Angler crappie list last year, and just as was the case with his record bullhead, the fish that beat his Master Angler crappie did so by 1 ounce. Tim Merchlewitz of Fremont is listed in the 2007 records as catching a 19-inch crappie from one of the Fremont State Recreation Area sandpit lakes on May 12.

"I fish a number of the lakes at the recreation area and have caught hundreds of crappie," Merchlewitz said. "I was fishing Lake No. 1 when I hooked and landed the slab. I was using a minnow. I had tried a couple of the other sandpit lakes, but they were mossed over pretty bad. I finally went to Lake No. 1 and found quite a bit of open water, where I flipped my minnow-and-bobber up close to a stump.

"I think I was there less than 15 minutes when I saw the bobber plop down and begin to move. The fish fought hard and got me tangled up in some brush. I thought I had a bass. Finally, the fish came out of the tangle, and I was sure surprised to see the slab; it's the biggest I have ever caught. But the lakes do serve up a good number of 10- and 11-inchers.

"I was pretty excited, and so was my son, Marcus, who came along to help me," the 24-year-old Merchlewitz continued. "He was about 20 months old, and he got excited too. He was really excited when I had him hold up my fish for a picture. I think he's going to be a crappie fisherman."

Merchlewitz uses a spinning outfit and loads the reel with 8-pound-test line. "The reason I use the heavier line is that I quite frequently hook a bass or two on the minnow rig, and they can break you off if they get wrapped up in the brush or weeds on lighter line," he noted. "I've been fishing crappie since I was about 12 years old and really enjoy catching them.

"I use a neon-yellow-chartreuse hook. I know they are hard to find, but I'm convinced the hooks catch more crappie than any other. I also use a 1/8-ounce jig once in a while, and I prefer the neon-green color.

"We eat a lot of crappie," Merchlewitz added. "I fillet the fish, let them soak in salt water for a while, drain them and rinse them in cold water, and then roll them in Bisquick. We fry them in butter until golden brown, and they are gooood."

According to the Fremont angler, his trophy crappie -- mounted by Bades' Taxidermy -- looks really good on the wall.

Allen and Cathleen Woitalewicz of Ord teamed up on the crappie of Calamus Reservoir. He landed a 16-incher on June 18, and she bettered his catch by 1 inch. They both use minnows, tightlining them over the rail of the boat.

Allen, 54, works for an implement dealer in Ord. He's been fishing for crappie for about 40 years. "We caught about a dozen crappie the day we both got big ones," he said. "I like to think I'm a pretty good fisherman -- but Cathleen seems to always outfish me.

"We fish the Calamus for big ones and hit

Sherman for numbers, and also fish a couple of sandpit lakes. We use spinning outfits and load the reels with 6-pound-test mono. I like to use a gold hook -- it seems to produce more crappie. We also catch a few walleyes on the minnows."

Both black crappie and white crappie are eligible for Master Angler awards; both require the same minimums, and most of the entries are simply labeled "crappie." However, recognizable differences between the two species do exist.

The white crappie, which is perhaps the more numerous of the two species in Nebraska, has black markings that run vertically rather than being spotted as they are on the black variety. Also, the white has six or fewer dorsal spines, while the black sports seven or eight.

The white is a bit more tolerant of warmer, turbid water and has a preference for flooded woodlands and brush, especially during the breeding season. The male black crappie is reasonably easy to identify during the breeding season, as its spots become larger and bolder, giving the fish a bold, black appearance. The male white is also fairly easy to identify during the breeding season; its vertical markings also become more predominant during this time.

Another trait that the two species share: Both get high ratings at the table. A plateful of succulent fried crappie filets is highly regarded by most anglers -- and the friends they're willing to share with!

Anglers wanting to target the black crappie should try the scores of clear-water lakes in the state -- reservoirs such as Merritt and public watershed or sandpit lakes such as Czechland, Red Cedar, Zorinsky, Wehrspann, Hershey and Grand Island's L.E. Ray.

Elba's Bryan Wysocki, another dedicated fan of the crappie, was fishing a private lake on May 9 last year when he hooked and landed a 17-incher. "I was fishing a sandpit lake with a minnow on a bobber," he said. "I had caught quite a few fairly nice crappie before I hooked the big one. I thought it was a bass at first because of the way it fought. I was really happy when I saw it was a slab crappie.

"I've been fishing crappie since I was a kid. I fish the North Loup River and nearby sandpit lakes, and I think spring is the best time to hook a trophy -- the females are heavy with eggs, and both the males and females feed heavily during the pre-spawn period."

The 28-year-old Wysocki has had the big crappie mounted.

Fisheries technicians with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission survey the state's fishery annually. Last spring's trap-net crappie count, revealed that Zorinsky sported the best population, turning up over 80 fish per trap net, a majority of which measured from 5 to 10 inches.

Hull Lake, just southwest of Butte, produced about 45 fish per net, most in the 8- to 10-inch class. Jeffery Reservoir had the most 10- to 12-inchers of the 23 waters surveyed. That reservoir and Wehrspann, Wagon Train, Stagecoach, Hull, Sherman and Zorinsky appear to offer the best chance of those surveyed of being good for catching some decent-sized crappie.

Big Alkali Lake, south of Valentine, served up an average catch of just over 40 crappie in fisheries trap nets last spring. A lot of them were under 5 inches, and about half the catch measured 5 to 8 inches. That bodes well for this spring. Last year one of the largest was caught by Dwayne Henry of Columbus on May 15 -- it measured 16 inches and was caught on a live minnow.

The hundreds of private farm ponds and sandpit lakes in the state shouldn't be forgotten -- together they serve up over 50 percent of the Master Angler fish. Of the public areas not surveyed last year, Calamus, Smith, Swanson and Harlan County shouldn't be overlooked.

Crappie, which are members of the sunfish family, aren't all that selective about what they will eat, or try to eat. Minnows or small fish of almost any kind are the most common forage for the fish. Worms and night crawlers will often work, but not as well as a minnow. Grasshoppers will catch some crappie, as will crayfish.

Artificials such as small spoons, spinners, small spinnerbaits, tube lures, jigs and small crankbaits catch crappie. Flyfishermen work on the two species with wet flies, poppers, streamers and bucktails.

When I allow myself time to think about some of the crappie bonanzas that I've been lucky enough to get in on, I recall a private oxbow lake along the Platte River near Valley. A fishing buddy of mine, Jack Higgins of Lincoln, and I used small white-skirted spinnerbaits to put the hurt on some "big 'uns."

We tossed the lures parallel to the shore -- out about 15 feet from the bank -- allowed them to sink a second or two and then started a slow retrieve. They got hammered by crappie in the 12- to 15-inch class. We each kept a half-dozen and then hooked and released another 30 or 40 in the same size-class. We'd fished the oxbow before, and caught a few big ones, but never in the numbers we did on that day.

My introduction to Nebraska crappie came back in the early 1960s after I'd just moved to the state from Michigan. Word had come that anglers were catching crappie by the dozens at Medicine Creek Reservoir, a fairly new impoundment northwest of Cambridge. Once I got to the 1,800-acre reservoir, I couldn't believe my eyes: fishermen everywhere.

When I started looking at some of the stringers they were loading, I couldn't help but check their tackle. Some were using a cane pole and bobber, some a light spinning rig with either a bobber-minnow combo or a jig on it; others were using a bait-casting outfit rigged up with a bobber about the size of a tennis ball and enough lead to cast halfway across the lake. A certain number were using a heavy-duty catfish rig and fishing the bottom with minnows, while a few were going with a two-hook crappie rig, and a very few were working a fly rod with streamers and bucktails. There was even one salty angler who'd rigged a new fly rod with a golf-ball-sized bobber, a 1/2-ounce sinker and a two-hook crappie rig. And, yes, they were all catching fish.

Having fished since I was 5 or 6 with everything from a willow pole to a very light fly rod, I had a hard time understanding why some of these fishermen were using such horrendously hefty rigs to catch 7- to 10-inch crappie. A couple of Nebraska conservation officers filled me in while checking my permit.

"Gene," said one officer, "these crappie began showing up last year. They were small, but they are up to a size now that makes them pretty attractive. If you weigh this with the fact that we haven't had many crappie spots in this area and the fact that many of these fishermen haven't really fished much of anything except catfish, it helps explain the tackle. Give them a couple more years, and I'm sure they will adjust their gear to give the crappie a chance to scrap a little and themselves a better chance to catch more fish."

Today a common rig seen at Medicine, and on other crappie waters, is a light or ultralight spin

rig loaded with 4- to 8-pound-test mono.

Anglers should check the 2008 Nebraska fishing regulations before going after the popular panfish. The statewide daily limit is 30 panfish, and the possession limit is 60; however, special regulations do apply on some areas -- particularly on urban waters. There is a 10-inch minimum-size limit on a number of popular lakes, such as Branched Oak, Sherman County, Czechland, Cottonmill, Wehrspann and Zorinsky, but that size restriction is not applicable to the latter two during April.

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