Backcountry crappie


She lies in the back of beyond, an emerald-green jewel in the heart of an Arkansas swamp. Few people know her, and few of those know her with the intimacy she and I have shared.

When last I visited her, an alligator crossed her breadth and swam alongside the leaky wooden johnboat from which I fished, eyeballing me like a cat eyeballs a plump baby bird. Two bald eagles fished with me that day, carrying bluegills to a nestling high in a cypress tree. Wood ducks squealed as they raced overhead. Rain crows clucked, and peepers peeped. The staccato drumbeat of pileated woodpeckers chiseling for grubs echoed through the wilderness.

To visit the lady, I motored many miles down a great river to a point far from the nearest town. Tying my johnboat to oak steps placed years ago by some now forgotten individual, I clambered atop the steep river bank and followed a barely discernable path through a hundred yards of jungle to the lady's edge. A screen of tupelos, cypress and buckbrush obstructed my vision, but I soon spotted the old wooden 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 cypress 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 squirrel-hair jig to my line, I saw a spritz of tiny shad erupt beside a willow bush, a sure sign that largemouth bass were hunting there. But I wasn't after bass.

Dipping the jig into convoluted folds at the base of a hollow cypress, I found my quarry. Its subtle strike almost fooled me, but I saw the line go slack and set the hook. A brief battle ensued. The fish darted this way, then that, in the darkened recess, and I thought it might escape. This time, however, it was not to be. As the fish weakened, the springy cane pole slingshot it from its hidey-hole, and I quickly swung it over the transom.

The big crappie glistened like a silver ingot. It weighed nearly 2 pounds, much larger than crappie I usually catch in heavily pressured man-made waters. I laid it in water that had seeped into the bottom of the boat and continued fishing.

Over the next several hours, I caught crappie after crappie after crappie. Some were larger than the first, including one barn-door that measured three lengths of a dollar bill. Most weighed a pound to a pound-and-a-half by my estimation, and I rarely fished five minutes without catching one.

The lady, this gorgeous little oxbow lake in the back of beyond, had once again blessed me with her bounty. That evening, before heading up the path leading back to my boat, I offered her a silent word of thanks.

Only rarely do I visit this isolated pool, and when I do, I go alone. A friend who introduced me to the lady nearly 25 years ago made me promise to never reveal her whereabouts. I will 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 lets the crappie grow large. I know few other lakes where they are so big and abundant, and those, too, are isolated waters that rarely have human visitors.

If I gave you some clues, and you so desired, you could find my hideaway and fish it yourself. I don't intend to help you, however, so you'll be 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 here is large. Remote lakes by 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 reach the body of water you choose to fish. Call local fisheries biologists and ask if this is a lake where good numbers of crappie are likely to be found.

White River National Wildlife Refuge in my home state of Arkansas encompasses more than 200 oxbow lakes. Only a few dozen have easy access; the rest rarely are visited by fishermen, and all harbor plentiful slab crappie. With a topo map, anyone can pinpoint these waters. Walk in with a belly boat and a minimum of tackle, and you can catch crappie on some waters that haven't been fished in decades. The same situation exists on many large bottomland refuges throughout the country.

Two large national forests in Arkansas, the Ozark and Ouachita, cover millions of acres holding scores of seldom-fished crappie lakes. Some have roads to their edges, but the banks are steep and have no launch ramps, so the few people who fish them usually do so from shore. By sliding in a lightweight inflatable boat or canoe, I've fished remote hot spots loaded with jumbo crappie. Consult personnel on national forests in your area to find similar locales.

Proper timing may be required to reach some out-of-the-way crappie lakes. One oxbow I fish is surrounded by swampy ground in the backwoods of a 17,000-acre wildlife area. Walking in is not an option, but in spring, when local rivers flood, one can motor up a bayou to within a hundred yards of the lake and drag a boat to it. It's back-breaking 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 beside one of the country's busiest interstates. Thousands of people drive by it daily, yet I've never seen another person fishing there. With a belly boat and 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 peacefulness many anglers seek, but provide a good alternative when there's no time for a backcountry junket.

Crappie lakes devoid of people offer treasures not found in other places. To be on the water on a beautiful day, in a place untouched by human hands, 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: this is crappie fishing at its best.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com