A good many traditional methods of fishing have faded away, but cane-pole fishing for crappie remains popular and effective. Here's why. (February 2006)
Spider-trolling with cane poles placed around the boat is a tactic often employed by crappie fishermen.
Photo by Keith Sutton
When I was starting out crappie fishing as a kid, selecting equipment was a cinch. We went to a cane thicket, cut a pole, and cured it in the barn. Then we tied on a piece of Dacron line, added a cork bobber, split shot and hook, and we were ready to fish. Creek minnows we caught in homemade traps served as bait.
In recent decades, crappie fishing has changed a lot. Instead of cane poles, many anglers fish with jigging poles made from a variety of lightweight, super-strong space-age materials. You can choose from boron, graphite, fiberglass or composites; long poles, short poles or in-between poles; and one-piece, two-piece or telescoping ones. Some are so tough that you can tie a knot in one without breaking it. Others are so sensitive, you probably could detect a gnat landing on their tip.
It's still fun, however, to cut and dry your own cane poles -- a nostalgic adventure that adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the fishing experience, especially for kids. Modern jigging poles are more durable and offer a better "feel." But cane poles work great, too, just as they have for centuries. It's good to know that in a world obsessed with high-tech this and newfangled that, you can still catch a mess of crappie on reliable, old-fashioned, cost-nothing fishing poles you make yourself.
CUTTING & CURING YOUR OWN CANE POLE
Cane grows in the understory of many bottomland hardwood forests. There are two species: giant cane and switch cane. Giant cane reaches a maximum height of 30 feet, with an average of 15-20 feet. The maximum height of switch cane is about 10 feet, with a diameter up to about one inch. Both make excellent fishing poles.
A sharp machete or heavy hunting knife is a good cane-cutter. Select green canes of the proper length and diameter. A pole that's too long or too thick will be heavy and unwieldy, while a short and skinny pole is likely to break if you hook a real fighter. Most anglers prefer those 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter at the butt end, and 10 to 14 feet long. It's a good idea to cut poles of various lengths, and in the following paragraphs, you'll see why.
Cut each cane at the base, then trim off all the leaves. Be sure to leave the slender tip, taking care not to damage it during trimming.
Back at home; saw through the bottom of a joint to square off the butt end. Done properly, the butt will now be "capped" with the piece of wood dividing the joint; the next hollow space inside the cane won't be visible. Run your hand along the pole and smooth with sandpaper or a knife any rough edges you feel.
Straight canes make the best fishing poles, but unless cured properly, the poles will bend at their tips while drying. To prevent this, hang each poles upright. Tie a cord to the tip, and secure the cord's free end to barn rafters or a tree limb, so that the pole hangs straight, its butt end slightly above the ground. Curing is complete when the pole takes on a tannish hue, a process that usually takes several weeks. Some anglers varnish their cured poles for extra durability.
Before fishing, test each cane pole by grasping it near the butt and whipping the tip back and forth. If there are any cracks or breaks that weren't evident before, they'll show up now, giving you a chance to cull a defective pole. The best poles are whippy yet straight near the tip, with a solid, inflexible butt.
Some anglers make the mistake of tying line only to the end of the pole. If the tip breaks, the fish is lost. It's better to run line along the whole length, starting just above the pole's "handle" where you'll hold onto it. Tie the line here, then wrap a piece of electrical or duct tape around the knot to secure it. Tape the line at several evenly spaced points along the pole, then wrap several feet around the tip and tie the line off, leaving a length of line beyond the tip that's a foot or two longer than the pole. When you rig the line with terminal tackle, adjust the line's length as necessary by wrapping or unwrapping it at the tip. A simple overhand knot serves to tie it off.
An expert bobber fisherman, my uncle, Guy McClintock, showed me at an early age how to catch loads of crappie by bobber-fishing along the banks. Guy sculled his johnboat from the bow seat, fishing his way along with a cane pole rigged with a small slender cork and a light-wire crappie hook. A bucket of creek shiners provided bait.
Uncle Guy worked with precision. Sculling very slowly along the shoreline, he'd drop the bobber rig on the water lightly to avoid spooking fish. Sometimes he placed it near a stickup or cypress knee. Other times, he just dropped it in open water. Never did he move it more than a foot at a time, and he never missed a single spot where a crappie might be hiding. Many fish were where he'd expect them -- near visible woody cover. But many others were beside a root wad or log beneath the water's surface. Other anglers might have passed them by, not seeing any obvious potential in a spot where no crappie-attracting cover could be seen.
Some days, Guy would paddle no more than 50 yards before he'd caught enough crappie to quench his desire. Other times, he might scull around the entire lake before calling it quits. But he always caught crappie.
A cane pole is great for this style of crappie fishing. If you're adept at sculling, you can keep on the move, fishing different spots all the while until you find crappie. And by employing a 10- to 12-foot cane pole, you can keep your distance to avoid spooking these skittish shallow-water fish. You don't even need a boat. A cane pole lets you fish from the bank with an efficiency impossible using other tackle.
Being relatively inexpensive, cane poles are popular with crappie anglers who enjoy "spider trolling." This is a great method for finding widely scattered schools of crappie when the water level is fluctuating rapidly. On waters where it's legal, it's not uncommon to see a johnboat with a dozen or more poles set around the transom, lending the appearance of a large spider crossing the water. That's where the sport gets its unusual name.
The poles, rigged with jigs or live minnows, are secured in pole holders attached to the sides of the boat or to special-made wooden bars or "trolling boards" situated near the front or rear of the craft. The angler then drifts with the wind or moves slowly using a trolling motor, passing near underwater structure. The poles usually are rigged at different de
pths until crappie are found. Then each one is set at the depth where fish are feeding.
When trolling with multiple poles along the sides of the boat, it's best to use poles of varying lengths. If you use poles of all the same length, the lines dragging through the water tend to cross over each other and snarl. But by using different length poles in each spread, you can separate the lines to prevent tangles.
One very successful crappie angler showed me how he rigged in this manner. He fastened six inexpensive screw-clamp rod holders to the gunwales of his johnboat -- three on each side. In the two holders nearest the bow, he placed 12-foot poles. The next two holders held 10-foot poles, and the final two, 8-foot poles. With the poles staggered in this manner, he drifted down the lake without worrying about tangled lines, concentrating on fishing instead.
Many bait-and-tackle stores carry prepared cane poles, cut into sections and fitted with ferrules. These breakdown models also come in a variety of lengths, making them suitable for trolling.
Cane poles work great in many other situations where casting gear is out of place. When you're fishing dense stump fields or stands of cypress knees where a boat can't go, you can position your boat on the outer edge and use a long pole to reach otherwise inaccessible honeyholes. Cane poles let you fish beneath a boat dock or overhanging trees in shady cover where big crappie often lurk. Public fishing piers often have brushpiles planted around them, and a long cane pole provides the extra reach you'll need to fish them properly. And when angling with children -- something we all should do -- cane poles are perfect. No casting, fewer tangles, more fish. And that equates to happy kids who'll learn to cherish the joys of crappie fishing.