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Sunday, Jul 13, 2014

Outdoors: Panfish of winter emerge


Published:   |   Updated: January 6, 2014 at 06:43 PM

Crappy weather, crappie fishing time — it has always made sense to me. But because most Floridians call the crappie the “speckled perch,” maybe it’s a little less obvious in the Sunshine State.

Nonetheless, from now through March is time to put some of these panfish in the freezer. They are one of the tastiest of all Florida fish — fresh or saltwater — and they’re remarkably abundant across the state.

The coldest weather often produces the best fishing — through January and into mid-February they gather in large schools in the deepest water they can find. Of course, this isn’t very deep in most Florida lakes; 8 to 15 feet is about the max on many.

The nice thing about winter speck fishing is that you can often find the fish on sonar, then wear them out by slowly trolling back and forth over the school. They tend to pod up under schools of shad, which gather in large, tight balls over the deeper holes in winter. Find the shad ball, look for the inverted C markings below, which indicate specks (sometimes with some nice largemouths mixed in), and you’re in business if you can get a small lure down to them at the sedate pace at which crappies prefer to dine.

We are talking slow here, about 1 to 1.5 mph is as fast as a crappie wants to move, so you have to use your trolling motor set on low to get to the appropriate speed — or just let the breeze carry you. Old-time speck chasers believe the fish often head into a persistent wind, which generates a slight current on a big, shallow lake.

I learned to catch winter specks from master angler Hal Barber, who invented a tiny feather-tailed jig called the Hal Fly. It’s basically a lead head, a half-inch of soft-plastic worm body and a wisp of maribou tail, which looks like nothing that ever swam in a Florida lake. No matter, crappies can’t resist them. They come in dozens of colors, and all catch fish at times, but you can’t go wrong by sticking to any combo of green and yellow.

The weights that work best for trolling in most Florida lakes are 1/8 to 1/16 ounce.

Barber trolled these tiny lures on 4-pound-test monofilament, running them back far enough that they skimmed along about 2 feet off bottom at whatever depth he happened to be trolling. Two things most affect depth on a given trolling lure — boat speed and line length. Slower speed or longer line means a deeper-running lure. (So does a lighter line, so don’t be tempted to cheat with 6- or 8-pound test.)

Best bet is to put out two rods, or four if there are two anglers, each with a different color pattern and weight, then home in on the lure that seems to produce best on that given day in that particular lake. Of course, old Hal loved this strategy because it caused anglers to buy a lot of different lures, but it does seem to be that certain patterns work best some days, so take a variety. (Beetle Spins, Road Runners and other tiny jig/spinners also work well — the big thing is the right size and getting to the right depth.)

Specks do not tear up tackle. They take hold gently, and they don’t fight hard. They have a transparent mouth made up mostly of a thin layer of skin, so you have to reel them in carefully, and a net is a must for the big ones.

Specks average about half a pound in most Florida lakes, but fish over a pound are not uncommon and 2-pounders are not that rare.

(In most lakes there’s no size limit, but some of the state management areas like Tenoroc near Lakeland have special rules.)

Whatever the size, they are all delicious, and state biologists say it does no harm to take home a limit of 25. They reproduce prolifically and reach spawning size quickly, so a heavy harvest does no harm to overall populations.

There’s no bad way to cook specks, but the fillets are most tasty simply scaled, with the skin left on, dredged in cornmeal or flour, and then deep-fried to a golden brown.

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