Fred Washburn has fished for crappies around Carterville most of his 66 years, cashing more than 300 tournament checks in an angling career spanning several decades. (April 2009)
"Crappies almost always attack from below," the weathered angler said. "You need to be ready for 'em when they're comin' at you." Photo by Ted Peck.
Retired Marine First Sergeant Fred Washburn is a master of subterfuge. He is also one of the best bass and crappie anglers in southern Illinois, cashing more than 300 tournament checks in an angling career spanning several decades.
Washburn, 66, has a fishing lure collection valued at more than a quarter-million dollars. He also owns a tackle company with several products you simply can't find anywhere else.
Tournament competitors and fishing cronies journey sometimes hundreds of miles to Washburn's command bunker, an unassuming five-car garage accessible only from an alley in a quiet Carterville neighborhood.
Two boats are rigged up, plugged in and ready to go surrounded by boxes and boxes of tackle from Washburn's Cottonmouth Lures tackle company. You know Washburn is fishing when one of the boats is gone.
If both watercraft are staged for the next mission as you enter the bunker through the sophisticated security system, there is a good chance Washburn will be kicking back in a tattered office chair discussing pertinent matters with associates or members of his Cottonmouth Lures Fishing Team.
The discussion sounds more like a military briefing than a casual conversation. If the bite is hot on one of southern Illinois' myriad lakes, don't take your eyes off Washburn for even a minute. You may think he has gone for a coffee refill, but if he's not back in that squeaky office chair in 10 minutes, check the back of the shop.
One of the boats is probably gone, taking Washburn to the fish while you're still sitting in a chair talking about them.
If the "Bullet" is gone, Fred is after bass. Bare concrete where the johnboat usually sits means crappies are about to have a bad day.
Washburn's lure of choice is a soft-plastic creation called the Fuzzytail jig. He usually fishes this offering on a Hoop-I jighead, named for fishing buddy Ford "Hoop-I" Harris, a longtime friend, fishing team member and avid crappie angler with a passion for Pontiac Firebirds (he owns nine) and fast boats. Hoop-I's Bullet bass boat is faster than Washburn's. Top speed is 96 mph.
The Hoop-I jighead is unique with a wide-hook gap and lead poured in such a fashion that the lure falls both slowly and erratically. When coupled with a Fuzzytail grub body in a color that crappies prefer on a certain lake on a given day, Washburn just leaves the livewell on his johnboat open until he's caught enough crappies to call it a day.
Don't think for a minute you can buy some Hoop-I jigheads, Fuzzytail grubs and fish right beside Washburn with equal success. One reason he has cashed more than 300 tournament checks and you probably haven't is minute attention to detail.
One example of Washburn's magic is the knot he ties when chasing crappies. It is a special loop knot allows the Hoop-I head to free fall more seductively than other means of attachment to the fishing line.
Washburn prefers 2-pound FireLine Crystal line fished on a sensitive 10-foot-long IM-7 graphite rod.
His index finger is always on top of the rod blank for enhanced sensitivity and his eyes are focused about 6 inches above where the line enters the water, looking for what Washburn calls "the negative bite."
"Crappies almost always attack from below," the weathered angler said. "This results in a slack line rather than a pull. You need to be ready for 'em when they're comin' at you.
"Crappies are really wising up on most of our more popular local lakes. Gone are the days when you could camp right over a brushpile or bump right into the weeds where fish are hiding and catch all you want. Finesse is a major key to success. You need to back off a little bit and make sure to keep quiet."
Several weeks ago, crappies in southern Illinois were staged in the middle of bays over brush and points with similar structure. Electronics are a good way to locate both structure and fish. Washburn says if action stops after catching two or three crappies, it may be necessary to back away and present the Fuzzytail under a slip-float.
"You don't want to put that lure right in their face," Washburn said. "Crappies are a prey species. When they go after a jig, they become a predator. A jig presented at the same depth where crappies are holding looks more like a threat than a meal, so the fish tend to shy away."
Jay Zapp, another fishing team member and local fishing legend, returned from a crappie safari to the deep South a few years ago with a technique that is deadly on coldwater crappies that are scattered across a large expanse of water in a narrow horizontal band -- the popping cork.
Popping corks mimic the sound a shrimp makes when trying to evade a redfish or speckled trout along tidal flats in the Gulf of Mexico. Zapp tried hanging a Fuzzytail about 4 feet below a popping cork for late-winter crappies on Lake of Egypt and reported his success to those gathered in Washburn's Carterville command bunker.
"There is a time and a place for everything" Washburn said. "Crappies on Egypt are close to shore and ready to spawn now. Since this is a cooling lake, the fish spawn earlier on Egypt than on Crab Orchard, Cedar, Rend or Kinkaid -- which I consider the top five public crappie lakes. If you want to include rivers, put Smithland Pool in the Ohio River system at the very top of the list."
Washburn ranks Lake of Egypt No. 1 for producing the biggest crappies. The spring crappie bite also lasts much longer there than on other lakes because it is a cooling lake.
"Temperatures near the warmwater discharge at the north end of Egypt are much warmer than back in those long arms at the south end of the lake," he said. "You can find active fish along the shore at the north end all winter long."
The day after Christmas 2007 found me on a cove near the buoy line with local guide Matt Strobel. Making swimming retrieves with Fuzzytail grubs produced enough crappies to feed the entire crew at Bush's goose club the next day.
Spring and fall are the best times to get real value out of your Illinois fishing licen
se. In this state, which is fully 400 miles long, fishing patterns extend at least four weeks during these periods of seasonal change by taking a little drive up or down the Interstate.
Some crappies have already spawned on Lake of Egypt. Slabs are moving close to shore and into the weeds at the south end of the lake and will provide easy action for the next 10 days. By mid- to late April, hot spawning bed action will be taking place all over the map down in Shawnee country, a good month before crappie anglers see this kind of action on Shabbona, the Fox Chain-O-Lakes and the backwaters of the Mississippi between Galena and Fulton.
Washburn rates Cedar Lake just south of Carbondale the No. 2 producer of big crappies in this part of the state.
"On Cedar, you may need to frog around a little bit until fish are located," he said. "Check out the visible timber back in coves on the south end of the lake. Points can hold fish too. Look for weedy places. You'll often find crappies all over back there in the milfoil."
Most Cedar Lake crappies are cookie-cutter 8- or 9-inchers, but there will almost always be one or two weighing in at an honest 2 pounds.
"They can get even bigger down on Smithland Pool," Washburn said. "I've got a crappie just 2 ounces shy of 3 pounds in the freezer caught down there last fall, which will go to the taxidermist as soon as I can find the time."
Because Smithland is a riverine fishery, crappies in the 72 miles of water are always on the move, driven by current, temperature and water level changes.
"Probably the best places to target are up in the tributaries that feed into the main pool," Washburn said. "You could fish a different one every day this month and run out of time before you ran out of water, especially if you buy a Kentucky non-resident license and fish the boundary water."
The Golconda marina is the best place to launch a boat when fishing Smithland. Dog, Bay, Lusk, Barren and Big creeks all have flooded timber that hold crappies right now.
"If you aren't satisfied with the size of fish you're catching, try moving 50 yards to the next tree," Washburn said. "These fish tend to school by size. You can have dinks on one deadfall and slabs on the next one. Bigger crappies also tend to suspend just a little deeper in the brush."
The density of brush drives Washburn's crappie presentation on either sides of the active spawning window.
"On a clear water lake like Cedar, they can suspend 25 feet down during the summer," Washburn said. "The key -- then and in cold water -- is fishing above the deep brush. Crappies will suspend vertically above the brush. I hang two Fuzzytails of different colors about 18 inches apart when fishing deep, then tweak the presentation if the fish favor one color over another."
If your goal is catching the greatest number of crappies in the shortest possible time, Washburn recommends fishing Rend Lake near Mt. Vernon.
"Last spring, we had a lot of high water," he said. "The crappies on Rend were way back in the buck brush. You needed a chain saw and 20-pound FireLine to snake 'em out of this jungle.
"When crappies on Rend are back there spawning in the brush, you can forget all about stealth mode. You may put 'em off their feed for a few minutes trying to get back in there. Have a sandwich or just admire the day for a few minutes before you get serious about fishing. If the crappies like that spot, they'll come back and get active."
Causeways and bridges are year-round crappie magnets on Rend and Crab Orchard lakes just south of Carterville. You don't need a boat to find success fishing near the riprap; however, you may have to walk a considerable distance to find parking.
Crappies locate within an easy cast of riprapped shoreline for two reasons. The obvious reason is that fish are drawn by current generated as water passes through the necked-down area at a bridge or causeway.
Wind is usually a factor in southern Illinois this time of year. When the wind blows across a big body of water like Crab Orchard Lake or the substantially larger Rend Lake, it pushes water through these openings, generating current.
If the wind changes direction, all the water piled up on the leeward side of the obstructions comes rushing back through the opening. The water movement draws baitfish that in turn draw hungry crappies.
A less obvious crappie magnet is occasional brushpiles or deadfalls that may be entirely hidden under the surface. At first glance, the crappie-holding potential off the riprap on the north and south sides of Highway 13 between Highway 148 and the eastern edge of Carbondale appears nearly uniform.
Bridges that separate the main body of Crab Orchard from Cambria neck on the north side of this road are obvious places to look. Blue-painted rocks are less obvious but hold equal potential for filling a stringer.
There are at least four rocks that I know of. In close proximity to each of them is a brushpile in 4 to 7 feet of water. Crappies are holding on these brushpiles right now. The blue is an exact match to a can of spray paint sitting in Washburn's garage.
Washburn disavows any knowledge of this tagging. Why would this sly old fox mark a rock directly in front of a brushpile? Rest assured, he wouldn't.
Crab Orchard has been receiving tremendous crappie fishing pressure over the past few years. As noted earlier, you can't sit directly over once-productive brushpiles in less than 10 feet of water and expect to catch more than one or two fish.
If you want to catch crappies relating to blue-painted rocks on the north side of Highway 13, think buried treasure and the location of the dead man's chest in Treasure Island. Location of the brushpiles is an unspecified number of paces from each blue rock.
It might be easier to locate cypress stumps off main-lake points that also hold crappies throughout much of the year on Crab Orchard. Weeds are another key to crappie location, especially now with crappies thinking about spawning.
"Don't be a deep thinker on Crab this time of year," Washburn cautioned. "Crappies can be holding in water less than 2 feet deep. Look for openings in the shallow beds of water willow. There's a good chance you'll find some fish."
A good fish locator can come in handy after the fish leave the beds and return to deeper water. Washburn's favorite fish locator is a buddy named Paul Norton.
"If you don't see Norton's flatbottom somewhere out on Crab for two consecutive days, somebody should stop by his house to ensure he's OK," Washburn joked. "I know he has waypoints of at least 100 crappie spots plugged into his GPS. I lie awake nights trying
to figure out a way to get his little black book with notes on the waypoints away from him."
About half of Norton's waypoints document crappie hotspots on 2,750-acre Kinkaid Lake, a dozen miles west in Jackson County near Murphysboro. Fishing pressure for crappies on this popular lake is right off the charts, one reason why the DNR introduced a 9-inch minimum keeper size several years ago.
"Right now, I would target the back ends of coves and necks on the north end of Kinkaid because the water warms up faster here," Washburn said. "There is also a world of difference in water clarity between the north end and down by the dam where the water is gin clear.
"The water plant arm and Raymond Neck are two good places to look. You might also want to spend some time probing around the old iron bridge that is the gateway to this part of the lake."
When Washburn goes crappie fishing, he takes at least 10 HT Enterprises crappie poles. These specialty rods come in several lengths. Washburn prefers 10-footers.
In the upper reaches of Kinkaid where visibility can be less than one foot, Washburn likes to start with a white Fuzzytail on an orange Hoop-I jighead. If he launches the boat closer to the dam, he will switch to a chartreuse Fuzzytail with a red jighead.
"There are days when just about any color will work and other days when the fish want a very precise presentation," Washburn said, shaking his head. "Sometimes they want you to jig the daylights out of that grub and sometimes you need to hold it perfectly still and let the Mylar in this jig's tail quiver them into striking. If there is one major key to consistent success on crappies in southern Illinois, it has to be flexibility. You can't get hung up on one presentation simply because it worked last time."
Just like the blue-painted rocks along Highway 13 that Fred Washburn claims he knows nothing about, the very best spots could not be revealed in this article. Let's just say Washburn's truck is parked just off Highway 51 north of DeSoto more often than it sits in his Carterville garage this time of year.