The Rock Bass and Crappie (pronounced "Croppie") are two of our most popular "panfish," so called because most of those we catch are just about the right size for our frying pans—about ½ pound. But 2-pounders are common and the world record Crappie weighed in at 5 pounds, 3 ounces; the largest Rock Bass reported was almost 4 pounds.
It isn't their taste that makes these fish so popular, however. Even skinned and fried in butter, they can't match the mouth-watering flavor of fresh Trout, or even Pickerel. The reason for their popularity is mainly that there are so many of them! Once they start hitting your lure, the action is fast and furious. You can collect enough for a dozen frying pans as fast as you can pull them in. Which still isn't enough, according to conservationists. They complain that anglers don't catch enough of them, and that these species breed so fast that they eat up all the available food and starve out the larger species such as Trout and Black Bass. This is, of course, a happy situation for the angler who loves panfish. And for the non-hungry fisherman who just enjoys the excitement of the sport, both Rock Bass and Crappie, when hooked on a rod that's light enough and resilient enough to give them a fighting chance, put up a scrap with plenty of thrills.
The Rock Bass gets his name from his chunky shape, which is like that of the Black Bass, and from his color. He is a dark olive-green, and each of his scales carries a black mark, giving him a spattered appearance like that of an underwater rock lying among the weeds. Because of his red-rimmed eyes, he's sometimes called "Redeye." The Crappie is more tapered in shape and lighter in color, his green back and upper sides carrying a mottled black shading while his lower sides and belly are almost colorless with no markings. And he has a nickname, too: "Papermouth"—because his mouth is so tender your hook will pull out if you're not extra careful in playing him. Both species are found throughout the United States and Southern Canada, but you'll find the best Rock Bass waters in the Midwest. And in the South the Crappie is the "White Crappie"; in the North the "Black Crappie." The distinction is slight, however.
Both the Rock Bass and Crappie have similar habits although they're seldom found in the same body of water, mainly because one will soon eat the other to extinction. They thrive in mud-bottom lakes, slow streams and rivers, and even in your own back-yard pond if you give them enough feed and keep catching them so they won't die off from overcrowding. Because they're always hungry and feeding, they're always eager to take a bait or lure. Their menu includes all insects— flies, grasshoppers, crickets, worms, moths and hellgrammites—and fry and minnows one inch long or smaller. Any of these on a hook will be accepted. But artificial usually will do just as well. You can buy excellent imitation insects made of rubber, and small feathered floating bugs. For imitation flies use ordinary Trout flies—on dark days the brighter patterns such as Red Ibis and Royal Coachman, on bright days the dark flies such as the Black Gnat. For imitation minnows, there are a thousand small spinning lures to choose from. Almost all of them will fool panfish. But—for the most sport use the lightest tackle you can get! Try a fly rod or spinning rod that weighs less than 3 ounces, if you have one. Your fly-line leader should taper to 2X and your spinning line should be a 3-pound-test "thread-line" monofila-ment. Hooked on one of these combinations, a one-pound Redeye or Papermouth will make you think you've snagged a whale!
The secret of catching these fish is just to find them. They travel in schools, and the schools may be anywhere. Usually a bait-angler anchors his boat in a fishy spot, tosses his hook-and-line overboard and waits until the school works his way. Then he pulls in fish until the school leaves or is frightened away, after which he resumes his wait, hoping it will return. The fly-caster or spin-caster usually casts hit-or-miss, but when the fish are feeding on flies hatching on the water he has no trouble locating them. The surface around the hatch is covered with dimples, and each dimple is a Rock Bass or Crappie sucking in a fly.
But there's a simple method of locating a school, one you can use whether you bait-fish, fly-cast or spin-cast. You can attract the school to your boat or dock by using a trick of salt-water anglers. "Chum" them to you. For salt-water species, different substances are used but all you need for panfish is a loaf of white bread. Crumble a handful of bread into small pieces and toss it as far as possible into the water. The wind will help carry it out. As the bread sinks slowly in a white shower, the pieces will be visible for a long distance underwater and if the school is within sight, it will come to investigate. Throw out a few handfuls, wait a minute, then cast your bait, fly or spinning lure into the sinking "chum." If you don't get a strike in several casts, throw out more bread. When the school has moved in and has been striking, then starts to leave, stop casting and throw out more "chum" to bring them back. Keep your body low and play each fish carefully, quietly and slowly so you won't make a commotion to scare away the others.