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Crappie by the Numbers

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Published on: Apr. 22, 2010

I love fishing. The only warm-season activity that comes close to the fun of finding a hot spot and catching one fish after another is taking home a mess of fish and savoring their fresh-caught succulence.

Unfortunately, I lack the methodical bent necessary to excel at most types of fishing. I can walk up a small stream—where all the fish are confined within casting distance—and catch bass and sunfish all day. But when it comes to finding the precise location and depth on a big lake where crappie are inhaling minnows on a particular day, I am as lost as a pocket knife dropped in a 40,000-acre reservoir. Thank goodness for global positioning systems and guys like Darrell Shirk.

I acquired Darrell as a fishing friend when my daughter and his son married. Darrell and my son-in-law Brett’s enthusiasm for crappie fishing was a double stroke of good luck for my family, because I am a mediocre fishing guide at best. Darrell’s fascination with the world’s most delectable sunfish, combined with Brett’s fascination with technology, recently enabled me to acquire the main ingredient for a fantastic crappie dinner.

I had been itching to try finding fish with a global positioning system ever since discovering that the Conservation Department has map coordinates for hundreds of fish-attracting structures. I own a hand-held GPS unit that I was convinced would get me close to the magic spots. However, Brett has a much more sophisticated model that he normally uses for road trips.

Between the two of us, I figured we ought to be able to motor from one fish attractor to another until we found one where the fish were biting. Once there, I felt confident Darrell’s crappie expertise could put fish in the boat.

Fisheries Management Biologist Greg Stoner agreed to ferry us around Lake of the Ozarks one September day as we put technology to the test. We had great weather for the project, sunny and 62 degrees at 7 a.m., when we arrived at the boat ramp on the Niangua Arm.

Greg mapped the location of Lake of the Ozarks’ crappie hot spots, so we asked him to keep mum if we had trouble finding the places we were seeking. His job was simply to point the boat where we directed.

We hit the water with GPS units and several sheets of paper with map coordinates of fishattractors. These range from piles of cedar trees and rows of stumps to plastic contraptions. All of them do the same thing—provide surfaces where algae and other food organisms can grow. This attracts small fish and invertebrates that eat the tiny stuff. The small fish attract larger fish, like crappie, bass, bluegills, catfish and walleye.

In the days before GPS, fish attractors were marked with buoys or signs on shore. You had to motor around to find them. Later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began publishing maps showing the approximate locations to make the process easier. Others, including the Conservation Department, got in the act later on, making crappie fishing much easier.

Anchored But Not Immovable

 

Stoner notes that even though fish attractors are weighed down with enough concrete to keep them from drifting away, they are not immoveable. An angler whose anchor accidentally snags one of the structures can tow it off the original location. If you arrive at a GPS site and can’t find the structure, circle the area with one eye on your depth finder, or try fan-casting to locate the brush.

Even with a map, however, you had to find your way around tens of thousands of acres of water to find fish attractors. This can be harder than you might think, particularly for someone like me, who is not familiar with the labyrinth of arms and coves that huge reservoirs present at water level.

My hand-held GPS unit turned what otherwise would have been a serious challenge into child’s play. I programmed the unit with map coordinates of several fish attractors within easy range of the boat ramp. When I selected one of the points, a heavy black line appeared on the screen, showing a direct path to the fish attractor. All we had to do to find fishing heaven was keep the boat pointed in the direction indicated on the screen.

Brett’s unit added verbal instructions to the visual cues. If not for the need to steer around islands and other obstacles, his unit would have allowed us to get where we were going blindfolded.

When we arrived at our first destination, we discovered that Brett’s unit was more precise than mine. It told us when we were directly over the designated map coordinates. With my little unit’s screen, we seemed to be on target anywhere within 50 yards of the precise spot. While that is not great, it would have been close enough to allow us to scan the bottom with the boat’s depth finder to locate fish structures.

Greg threw out an orange marker buoy when Brett gave the word, and we commenced fishing. Within a few minutes, Brett caught two keeper crappie. Darrell caught a few little ones. I got skunked. That isn’t surprising, considering my lack of experience. I was thrilled all the same.

“It’s so easy, it’s borderline criminal,” says Stoner, grinning at our success. Nothing pleases a fisheries biologist like seeing anglers enjoying the fruits of his or her labor.

We tried a few other spots that morning, and although our success varied from place to place, the ease of finding fish attractors did not. At each spot, Greg’s depth finder confirmed the presence of a structure where Brett’s GPS said it should be.

Looking back on it, I suppose more tech-savvy anglers would consider my approach to this project unnecessarily complicated. I downloaded long lists of map coordinates for fish attractors on my home computer, printed them out and then entered them in my GPS unit by hand. Smart phones can download map coordinates while on the water, using free software from www.easygps.com, then feed them into a GPS application and take you to each spot.

With hundreds of fish-attractors catalogued online, the chance of overcrowding or overfishing by GPS-toting anglers is minimal. And, should you find all the recorded spots occupied, you can always go off the grid, find your own spots and create your own map of secret fishing hot spots.

I readily admit to being something of a technological curmudgeon. In my opinion, technology diminishes outdoor enjoyment more often than it enhances it. So it’s gratifying to be able to whole-heartedly endorse this particular piece of the new millennium. Fishing by the numbers rocks!

Now, if someone would just invent an electronic gadget that makes fish bite.

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