Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | The Crappie Tree

Mid sixties in Northern Virginia. We lived in Arlington. No room for a boat on a trailer at our house; we parked on the street.

These were the salad years of my SportYak II and my JW-13 Johnny 3HP outboard. I could carry both at the same time, the 35lb boat on one shoulder and the 30lb outboard in the other hand. I could fit both into the back of my ’66 Chrysler Town and Country wagon and go anywhere.

Well, anywhere is not an option with the SportYak II. Even though she had a capacity of 700lb and a decent freeboard, she was only 7’ long and a displacement hull. Top speed was probably about 6-7 knots. It would be risky to take her on big water or very far from the launch.

Occoquan Reservoir was perfect for that rig. A dammed portion of the Occoquan River, it was long and narrow and loaded with a variety of game fish. It was like fishing a wide, deep river with almost no current. There was an under 10HP limit so there were no big or fast boats. It was a near perfect lake for fishing, canoeing, kayaking or similar slow and relaxed waterborne fun.

My favorite put-in spot was a fish camp on the north side. It was about a mile down a dirt road from the highway; no ramp, just a mud beach, but there was a rustic bait, tackle and snack shack and safe, secure parking. It suited my wants very well. There was a small launching/parking fee. I think it was just a couple of bucks. There were always a few fishermen, canoers and others hanging about the shack making great conversation. No ethanol base beverages were allowed.

I loaded the boat with a gallon can of premix gas, my small tackle box, sculling paddle, fly rod and water jug and pushed off. Open the tank cap vent, open the gas valve to feed the carb, flip the choke and give her a pull. That little sweetheart sprang to life and settled into a muted purr. Off we went, up river for a couple of miles.

My usual way of fishing Occoquan was to scull with my custom designed paddle about 20’ off shore and cast a popping bug up near the bank. I often had a small wet fly dangling off the back of the popper about a foot or so. That way fish not inclined to surface feed had an equal opportunity to join me aboard my boat. Sculling a SportYak II is almost a no-effort task . . . no more work than walking. I started back down river on the south shore, casting a black fly rod Hula Popper with a #10 black gnat on the trailer. I couldn’t have done that style of fishing with anything but a cane pole or a fly rod because my left arm was occupied with sculling. I also had to circle whatever water I was fishing in a counter clockwise manner. Never did learn to operate a fly rod with my left arm.

I had other options. My little Johnny could idle for hours, propelling me at a crawl so that I could fish a bit faster. I steered her with my left, so that I could move east along the north shore. I often did that if sculling with the paddle got tiresome.

This day I had caught a few small bluegills and a yearling bass and released them all when I came to the fork, where a tributary joined the river. I wanted to fish up the tributary, so I fired up my outboard and putted over there. I looked for the giant cottonwood that used to stand at a turn in the river. It was gone! As I got closer I could see that it had fallen into the water and was almost completely submerged. I must have happened in the few weeks since I had last fished here. There were still green leaves showing in the dark, tea stained water.

I cast my baits up close to the place where the tree entered the water. BANG!! I immediately had not one, but two yearling bass on. They fought each other harder than they fought me, so they were back in the lake in short order. I shut off the motor and tied on to a limb that stuck out of the water.

I took off the popper and fly and tied on a small, white “weedless” marabou jig. I carefully lowered it into the branches of the cottonwood and was promptly rewarded for my intuition by a fat crappie.

The next hour or so was a blur. I lost track of time as I was boating crappie, releasing the smaller ones, breaking off hung up jigs and tying on fresh ones.

I finally ran out of jigs. I had about a dozen slabs on my stringer. I guess they averaged about 12”. I was satisfied and pleased. The sun was getting low in the sky and the fish camp closed at sundown, so I fired up Johnny and motored back to the camp.

Somebody had been spying on me. I was about halfway back to the camp (about a mile) when four boats passed me bound for the tree. They didn’t have much time, but those still at the camp came down to the shore and asked about my stringer, then marveled at the big crappies. I didn’t tell them that I had actually caught about 50 throw-backs in order to assemble my stringer.

I revisited the crappie tree a week later and got skunked. The leaves had been shed, so I guessed that the leaves attracted something that the crappies couldn’t resist. When the leaves were gone, so were the crappies.

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time makes anyone look like a master fisherman.

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(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)

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