Catching crappie in the back of beyond

KEITH SUTTON Contributing Writer Published April 1, 2012 at 2:11 a.m.
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— The little oxbow lake lies in the back of beyond, an emerald-green jewel hidden in the heart of an Arkansas swamp. Few people know of the lake’s existence.

When last I visited the lake, an alligator crossed its breadth and swam alongside the leaky john boat from which I fished, eyeballing me like a cat eyeballs a plump baby bird about to tumble from its nest. Two bald eagles fished with me that day, carrying bluegills to a nest high in a cypress where a downy chick waited to be fed. Wood ducks squealed as they rocketed by overhead.

To visit the lake, I motored many miles up the White River to a point far from the nearest town. Tying my boat to oak steps built years ago by some now-forgotten individual, I clambered to the top of the bank and followed a barely discernible path to the lake’s edge. There I found an old cypress john boat awash near shore. No one knows who owns it anymore, but ownership is not an issue in this lonely corner of the world. The boat is there for whoever comes along.

I tipped the hand-hewn craft to empty it of water, then placed inside it the cane pole and coffee can full of jigs I brought. I had no difficulty pushing my way to the outer boundary of the cypress trees using a pole cut from a nearby thicket. As I tied a jig to my line, I saw shad erupt beside a willow bush, a sure sign largemouth bass were hunting there. But I wasn’t after bass.

Dropping my lure beside a cypress knee, I found my quarry. Its subtle strike almost fooled me, but I saw the line slacken and set the hook. A brief battle ensued. The fish darted this way, then that, but as it weakened, the springy cane pole sling shotted it out of the water.

The big crappie glistened like a silver ingot. It weighed about 2 pounds, much larger than crappie I usually catch in man made waters. I laid it in the bottom of the boat and continued fishing.

Over the next hour and the next, I caught crappie after crappie. A few were larger than the first, including one barn door that measured three lengths of a dollar bill. Most weighed 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, and I rarely fished more than five minutes without catching one. This gorgeous little oxbow once again blessed me with its bounty.

Only rarely do I visit this isolated lake, and when I do, I go alone. A friend who introduced me to the lake 20 years ago made me promise I would never reveal its whereabouts to another soul. I intend to keep that promise because this is not a place where I want to see other people. The charm that draws me there is the charm of solitude and natural splendor. People do not belong there.

My friend goes there to fish for bass. I have not told him about the hundreds of huge crappie I’ve caught there, and I don’t intend to; he’s happy enough fishing for bass. The lack of fishing pressure allows the crappie to grow large. I know of only a few places where they are so big and abundant, and those spots, too, are isolated waters rarely visited by anglers.

If I gave you clues, and you had the desire, you could find the oxbow and fish it yourself. It’s publicly owned, and fishing is allowed year-round. I don’t intend to provide you additional hints, however, so you’re better off finding your own hideaway where you can fish for crappie away from the crowds. All it takes is a little homework.

Begin your search on large tracts of public land such as national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas and national forests. The key word is “large.” Remote lakes by their definition must be surrounded by large tracts of land where access by vehicle is difficult or impossible. Identify such spots, then write or call the agency in charge and determine how to obtain a map. Topographic maps are best, as they provide detailed information that will help you determine the best means to reach the body of water you choose to fish. Call local fishery biologists and ask if this is a lake where good numbers of crappie are likely to be found.

White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arkansas encompasses more than 200 oxbow lakes. Only a few dozen have easy access; the rest are rarely visited by fishermen, and all harbor untold numbers of slab crappie. With a topo map and a GPS unit, anyone can pinpoint these remote lakes. Walk in with a belly boat and a minimum of tackle, and you can catch crappie on some waters that haven’t seen another angler in decades.

The Ozark and Ouachita national forests in Arkansas cover millions of acres holding scores of seldom-fished crappie lakes. Some have roads to their edges, but because the banks are steep and no launch ramps are available, the few people who fish them usually do so from small open areas on shore. By sliding in a lightweight inflatable boat or canoe, I’ve fished remote hot spots loaded with jumbo crappie.

Proper timing may be required to reach some out-of-the way crappie lakes. One oxbow I like to fish, for example, is surrounded by swampy, snake-infested ground in the backwoods of a 17,000-acre wildlife management area. Walking in is not an option, but in spring, when local rivers flood, it’s possible to motor up a bayou to within a hundred yards of the lake. A few local anglers who know about the lake’s rich bounty of giant crappie devised a set of wheels that can be placed under a small john boat, allowing two men to pull it through the woods between the bayou and lake. It’s backbreaking work, but the rewards make the effort worthwhile.

Some unfished crappie lakes lie in plain view with easy access. One I’ve often fished lies on public land right beside one of Arkansas’ busiest interstates. Thousands of people drive by the lake every day, yet I’ve never seen another person fishing there. With a belly boat and an ultralight spinning outfit, it’s easy to fish around the lake’s beaver lodges and flooded tupelo trees, where I sometimes catch 2-pound-plus crappie. Lakes such as this don’t offer the quiet and solitude many anglers seek, but these bodies of water do provide a good option when there’s not enough time for a back country junket.

Crappie lakes devoid of people offer treasures not found in other places. To be on the water on a beautiful day, visiting a place where worries are forgotten and serenity reigns, a place where crappie grow as big as dinner plates and rush to take the offerings you lay before them - for those of us who love crappie fishing, this is what it is to live.

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