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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Is spawn on? No, not just yet

REGIONAL FISHING reports are gushing about how exceptionally warm winter and resultant warmer-than-usual water temperatures seem to be affecting fish this year, especially in terms of pre-spawning patterns.

While water temperatures are likely keying this early activity,

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk points out that another key variable will factor into exactly when fish decide to spawn, namely photoperiod, the amount of sunlight during the day.

“There is no doubt things are looking to get a little jump with the mild conditions you described. However, with many, if not most, things in nature, photoperiod tends to rule the day,” Odenkirk said.

Basically, if water temperatures are at the magic number, but the length of the day’s sunlight isn’t yet enough to trigger an instinctual “go” mode for the fish, the fish still might not spawn.

Odenkirk affirmed that photoperiod may be a key counterbalance to early water warm-ups.

Warm water can come and go. We often see warm spells in March, only to have cold snaps in April. The amount of sunlight somehow informs fish that early, warm waters might not be sustained through the hatch of their fry. Fish, although ripe and ready, hold out until the photoperiod is also prime.

“So, while spawning and other wildlife behaviors may be accelerated this year—and we may see some portion of a given population engaging in activity earlier in the year than, say, during a severe winter—the timing of many activities will probably not be overly different,” Odenkirk said. “Still plan to hammer the hickory shad at Easter, and look for largemouth bass at Lake Anna to be in the water willow the last week of April.

“I think with the river populations, flow will also play a major role,” he added. “If things continue to be dry, and the rivers are low for the season and clear, we may not have good year classes of anadromous species.”

Anadromous species are fish that live in the sea but return to fresh water to spawn.

Odenkirk explained that river flow levels that are close to average seem to result in the best year classes for fish.

“This seems to hold in rivers for striped bass, shad, herring and smallmouth, and probably many others. If our rivers in spring are low and clear, which is abnormal, that tells me that flows are well below average and we get poor year classes,” he said, adding that such conditions create a lack of spawning habitat and zooplankton, which the young fish eat.

A slightly high, slightly muddy Rappahannock in springtime is the norm, Odenkirk added.

CRAPPIE HANDBOOK

Perfectly timed for our warming waters and soon-to-bloom redbuds and dogwoods is Keith Sutton’s “The Crappie Fishing Handbook.”

Then again, Sutton’s book offers loads of tactics and tips for any season you want to target America’s favorite panfish.

Arkansan Sutton is a prolific, accomplished outdoors writer whose work has informed and entertained millions over the last few decades. He was inducted last year into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “legendary communicator.”

Sutton’s nickname may be “Catfish,” but he’s been in love with crappie fishing since age 6.

The 198-page book is loaded with more than 200 color photos and illustrations. That amount of color is rare in many outdoor tomes, but the color images are indispensable in showing lure patterns and the sheer beauty of the places where we get to fish for crappie.

Sutton writes in the book’s introduction: “It’s time someone gave crappie anglers a book they can be proud to lay on their coffee table for others to see, a book that’s more than just black and white text and photos. Crappie are beautiful fish. Crappie fishing is a beautiful sport.”

The book begins with “Crappie Basics,” an overview of their biology and behavior, then shifts to recommended rods and reels. An ample section on lure selection is next. Everything from jigs to spinners, crankbaits, spoons and bladebaits is covered. Another section addresses fishing with minnows.

From there, Sutton walks you through the seasons, outlining strategies that can help find fish in all kinds of weather and locations. One of the final sections offers tactics for catching trophy-sized slabs. The book finishes with a number of creative recipes for enjoying the fish after the rods and reels are stowed.

One nice aspect of the book is that the many tips and tutorials offered in each section are concise, bite-sized nuggets of information. Included in each section are specially flagged tips and techniques from crappie fishermen recognized as the world’s best, including Wally Marshall, Tim Huffman, Steve McAdams and other pros.

This will be a go-to reference book. It’s too nice to bring on the boat, but I’m betting it’ll accompany anglers on many trips.

The book is published by Skyhorse Publishing of New York (ISBN 978-1-61608-540-7), has a retail price of $14.95 and is available at catfishsutton.com. To order by mail, send a check or money order for $19.45 (includes media-mail shipping) to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Drive, Alexander, Ark. 72002.

Oh, one good point made early in the book is that crappie are called a lot of things, but the “indelicate” pronunciation “crappy” shouldn’t be one of them.

I’ve heard many of the names Sutton references, including “specks” and “calicos.” When I visit Louisiana’s Cajun country, I commonly hear crappie called “sac-à-lait,” or “bag of milk.”

Sutton explains the proper pronunciation is “croppie,” likely adapted from the Canadian–French word “crapet,” which may have evolved from “crêpe,” which is a thin pancake.

Crappy, though, is when you’ve had a bad day at work, or the weather keeps you from doing something you love and had your heart set on, like going crappie fishing.

Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or by email at outdoors@freelancestar.com.

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