Back to basics

If you understand how to find fish in salt water, you’ll be successful in fresh water too, as Karl Anderson proved on Lake Okeechobec.

PEOPLE OFTEN THINK gthat saltwater or “deep-sea” fishing involves an entirely different set of techniques than freshwater fishing. Not necessarily true. At first glance, thee wouldn’t seem to be much similarity between the saltwater flounder, known in New England as “fluke,” and the freshwater crappie that Floridians call “speckled perch,” but the tackle and many of the techniques used for one will work well for the other. After all, basics are basics!

Here’s an example: After reading about the event in a local newspaper, my friend Karl Anderson decided to fish the Lake Okeechobee “Crappiethon,” a one-day tournament held on the Florida lake that is the largest body of fresh water completely within the U.S. boundaries.

Even though the largest members of the crappie species are smaller than the baits Karl uses for giant tuna and marlin, t here was nothing small about the prizes being offered, and it was a chance for Karl to try out his new Tracker Magna 17 boat. The lrgest 10-fish stringer was worth $2,000, the runner-up prize was $800, and there were 11 categories of big-money tagged fish by national sponsors. If the right lure, motor, fishing reel or anchor were used, one of the little panfish could net a lucky angler up to $50,000!

Karl had never fished for crappies, or “specks,” so he started doing his homework. A phone call to Garrard’s Tackle in the town of Oleechobee was step one in planning strategies and choosing gear. A call to mail order specialist Bass Pro Shops provided a waterproof contour map of the lake by overnight UPS. Any trip to new spot should start with a careful examination of detailed charts to try to identify the areas in which fish may be concentrated, and the local experts at Garrard’s freely gave tips abpout what to look for.

Echo_Sounding_USN

Disaster struck, however, just before the big event was to begin when Karl’s high-tech depthosounder/fishfinder died. But when the charts showed a maximum depth of 13 feet where he planned to fish, he went with a lower-tech unit: He took a length of heavy Dacron fishing line, marked it every three feet, and tied a big saltwater sinker to the end.

Homemade fishfinder

The fish are not always at the same location in a water column, however. Sometimes they’re lying near the bottom, and sometimes they’re suspended closer to the surface. With the electronic fishfinder out of action, Karl hit on a clever solution using some of his saltwater gear. He combined “daisy chains” of the small gold hooks used to catch offshore live bait into an array that would allow him to suspend several mini-longlines vertically from cork fishing floats or “blobbers.” By starting with a live bait on each hook, he would be able to concentrate his efforts at the depth at which these little “fishfinder” rigs got the most strikes.

The morning of the competition dawned breezy, but with a misty fog that limited visibility at times to less than 100 yards. With the help of his handheld GPS, Karl was able to navigate straight to the general area locals had recommended. The presence of numerous other boats confirmed its desirability.

The general strategy was to drift with the wind across the weed beds that are found along the lake bottom. Up to 10 rods projected into the drift-path in front of the boat with live “Missouri minnows” suspended from floats. In addition, small strings of three tiny tube jigs with a light sinker at the bottom were cast with light spinning rods from the bow and stern.

Lowering the large main engine’s lower unit and turning the helm one way or the other helped control the speed and angle of the drift. The electric trolling motor could be usedwq to nudge the boat with its jumble of live bait rods toward any jig strike that occurred off the bow or the stern.

Both strikes and catches were quickly entered as waypoints in the Magellan GPS, and patterns were soon established that enabled Karl to set up drift patterns to cross the most productive beds. Later in the day the breeze shifted direction slightly, and, with the limited visibility the fog created, only the GPS alalowed Karl to set up the proper drift patterns that the changing conditions dictated. (With numerous other boats in the area, most contestants went to pains to avoid calling attention to their most successful spots, and marker buoys were out of the question.)

Jigs and live minnows worked well, and even without the electronic sounder, Karl and his teammate could actuallyq “read the bottom” by the feel of their sinkers as they were twitched along it.” It was not a lot like fluking,” Karl said later.

The prize money eluded Karl’s team, but a finish in the top 10 percent (18 out of 182) for the heaviest 10-fish stringer proved that a knowledge of the basics can carry you a long way. Karl is planning another day on the lake next year.

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