Crappie Tournaments Offer Unique Atmosphere

A panfish tourney may lack bass-pro glitz, but where else does Elvis share the stage with your stringer?

ELVIS PRESLEY IS alive and well in Paris, Tenn. Or at least he was when I saw him perform there at a national crappie tournament last fall. The late Patsy Cline was there, too, somehow in person and singing her famous hit "Crazy." Then there was the lesser-known but no less important Eva Rambo of Bloomington, Ind., who won $1,000 for the tournament's largest crappie'a 2.31-pounder.

I had heard of crappie tournaments but had never seen one. So I went to the Crappie USA Classic on Kentucky Lake, which straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border northwest of Nashville. The whole thing turned out to be more like a small-town church supper than a glitzy big-time tournament. But somewhere between the baked beans and a big pan of apple crisp, I got some pretty good tips on crappie fishing.

Pairs and Pointers
CRAPPIE TOURNAMENTS ARE much more family affairs than major bass events, partly because competitors fish as pairs in one boat. There were father-son teams, for example, along with numerous husband-wife and some father-daughter combinations. All of them had qualified for this event through a series of local and regional tournaments. These teams, plus the more typical two-man duos, made for nearly 400 anglers at this particular event. I latched on to one such pair--David Williamson and D.J. Good, both from Kansas--for fishing during a practice day just to see how things were done.

Crappies everywhere like to hang out near underwater structure of some kind, such as brushpiles or flooded trees. Lakefront cottage owners often place such structure themselves, hoping to attract fish. These fish attractors aren't usually (or obviously) marked because the anglers who place them don't want to share the mother lode.

So the first thing we did was slowly cruise the shoreline, searching for brushpiles with the boat's sonar and looking for any subtle shoreline markers, such as a small dab of white paint on a rock. Using a GPS unit, Good logged the location of every brushpile we found as a possible fishing target.

We finally stopped over some sunken trees in about 15 feet of water where the sonar showed suspended fish. Good and Williamson fished side by side from the bow, keeping the boat directly over the fish via a front-mounted electric trolling motor. They used light spinning reels spooled with fine-diameter, 15-pound PowerPro superline on 10- to 12-foot graphite crappie rods with soft, sensitive tips. Their line was tied directly to ¼-ounce jigheads with Palomar knots. Jigs were tipped with 2-inch-long soft plastics in various tube or curly-tailed shapes, with chartreuse being a favored color in stained water.

The relatively heavy jighead made it easiest to hover a lure in the crappies' faces, Williamson explained, but if it turned out the fish were hitting as the lure dropped, he'd go to a much lighter jig so the lure would drop slowly and entice more strikes. Most important, I saw both anglers holding the line against the rod grip with their fingers while fishing to get the maximum feel for light-biting fish.

For all the cagey tactics Williamson and Good employed, the fishing just plain stunk. We blamed it on a cold wind and bluebird skies, the kind of frontal system that often shuts down all kinds of fishing. Adding various scents to the jigs didn't help; neither did tipping the jigs with live fathead minnows. The crappies had a severe case of lockjaw, and we saw no fish taken among the many other boats also on the water.

Oh Crappie Days
FORTUNATELY BOTH the weather and the fishing heated up over the two days of competition that followed. Unfortunately, the event had no provision for the working press to be on the water, so I didn't get to watch the action. That left me catching the late-afternoon weigh-ins from the small set of bleacher seats and attending the evening banquets.

So I took the time to study up a little and found this tournament series, now sponsored by Cabela's, has been running for 22 years. There's also a competing series, Crappie Masters (crappie masters.net), sponsored by Bass Pro Shops. Crappie USA (crappieusa.com), meanwhile, also runs fishing derbies for kids in conjunction with its tournaments and hands out $20,000 in scholarships annually. Both groups are trying to tap a huge market. Panfish, including crappies, are sought by more than 14 million U.S. anglers, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, and nearly 95 percent of those anglers own boats. The target might be little fish, but it's a big business.

By the time the last awards banquet rolled around, I was still able to hold one eye open. The overall winners in the highest- paying semipro division--Randy Pope and Jerry Pruitt from North Carolina--got a Ranger boat rig, and $3,000 in cash. Then, after all the prize announcements, came the "entertainment."

"Panfish are sought by more than 14 million U.S. anglers. The target might be a little fish, but it's a big business."

A couple of women in evening gowns came on stage to sing a few old country hits to badly recorded music over a squeaky PA system. They were followed by an Elvis impersonator in full regalia who belted out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at greater-than-full volume. Both eyes wide open now in sheer terror, I slipped out the back door.

Early the next morning as I drove past Bucksnort, Tenn., on Interstate 40 east toward the Nashville airport, I tipped my hat to all the good work done by Crappie USA in promoting family fishing. I also pulled out my cellphone to leave an old country-song message for my wife: "Don't pay the ransom, honey. I've escaped." FS