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Peck: Making a drive to find big crappies

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Ted Peck
Special to The Gazette
Sunday, January 15, 2017

We are in the dead of winter. The only hunting opportunities are for rabbits, crows and coyotes. Fish are in a perpetual negative mood, with short flurries of feeding activity. Even a bucketful of St. John’s Wort won’t fend off depression.

Crappies are a sure cure for cabin fever. By far the best way to catch ’em now is with a horizontal presentation—and I’m not talking a Northland Puppet Minnow dancing below three feet of ice.

I’m talking 10-foot St. Croix panfish rods, Rocket Bobbers and big plastics, presented in a long cast from a boat.

The only sure cure for cabin fever is heading south on the interstate at 70 mph until the gas tank is empty, regrouping and continuing at high speed on this vector until the gas tank is almost empty again.

With just a little luck there is strong possibility you’ll catch the biggest crappie of your life. Maybe not at the first stop just south of where I-57 and I-24 fork in southern Illinois. But certainly with a little juke to get on I-55, southbound and down through the warm state of Mississippi.

Lake of Egypt in southern Illinois is a power plant cooling lake, full of 11- to 15-inch crappies. It is a long but easy day’s drive from the City of Parks.

Midwinter weather can be almost as cold in southern Illinois as it is here in Rock County this time of year. It can tickle 60 degrees, too. Either way, you’ll be fishing open water from a boat.

Since this 2,300-acre lake is owned by the power company, there are a few reasonable rules in place. The shoreline is highly developed. You can rent a vacation home right on the lake or stay at a local motel.

Crappies are suspended over brushpiles right now. There are countless brushpiles in the lake. With a good sonar like my Humminbird Helix 10, it doesn’t take long to find productive water.

Fishing presentation is straightforward: Cast two different colored plastics rigged about one foot apart above electronic marks which indicate crappies. Tweak plastic colors and depth beneath the Rocket Bobber until you find a presentation those silver slabs can’t resist.

I’ve fished Lake of Egypt countless times over the past 50 years and can’t imagine driving within 50 miles without wetting a line. This water certainly has the power to cure your cabin fever. But if it doesn’t, the grass is truly greener just three more hours down the road.

Crossing the I-55 bridge at Memphis requires close attention to your driving. Once you’re almost out of city traffic it’s like crossing from Kansas to the Emerald City: green, green grass. You can roll down the truck window and breathe in Spring.

Just a few minutes south of town you can take an exit to Lake Arkabutla, one of four large Corps of Engineers reservoirs just a stone’s throw off of I-55 located in northern Mississippi. Lord willin’ I’ll be launching the boat on Arkabutla for the very first time as you read these words.

Like many Corps of Engineers projects, Arkabutla offers camping and other amenities. It would be tough to cover the almost 20,000 surface acres in a week—let alone a couple of days. But with some sniffin’ around at local bait shops it shouldn’t take long to be on the hunt.

Lake Sardis is less than an hour’s drive south of Arkabutla, with similar logistic parameters. Like Arkabutla, honest three pound crappies swim here. Trying to find them should be fun.

Lake Enid is just another half hour down the superslab. Tailwaters of this lake produced the world-record white crappie at 5 pounds, 3 ounces. So far, I have only fished Lake Enid once. My biggest crappie was only half as big as the world record.

Tailwaters of Grenada Lake, just another short hop south, produced my personal-best crappie at 2 pounds, 15. 3 ounces several years ago on a fishing trip with Mark Bortz. I remember being absolutely giddy at the catch.

A game warden came walking up and observed my catch to be “just a little bit above average” observing in a slow southern drawl “an ol’ fellar, pretty close to where we’re standin’, caught one over 4 pounds just two days ago.”

The warden’s words have haunted me ever since. The best way to deal with your demons is to face them head-on.

 

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc.

 



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