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Atherton: Beat the weeds with a crappie rod

Shore-fishing with a conventional rod is tough this time of year. With a long rod, however, you have a fighting chance.

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Outdoors writer Eric Atherton caught these sunfish Sept. 19 while wading a Rochester-area reservoir.
Eric Atherton / contributed
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ROCHESTER — About 25 years ago, my boss took me crappie fishing on Mark Twain Lake in north-central Missouri. It's a massive reservoir, and back then it featured countless bays filled with flooded timber and brushpiles.

Walt, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Vietnam, outfished me about 10-to-1 that day. He'd anchor the boat on the edge of the structure, then use a ridiculously long crappie rod to delicately drop a minnow-tipped jig into the middle of the brushy mess.

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PB Outdoors columnist Eric Atherton has caught a lot of crappies in his day, but he's still learning how to master the art of catching them. That education continued last week.

Basically, it was like using a cane pole, and he pulled in slab crappie after slab crappie, while I spent most of the day retying after casting jigs into the thickets with my 6-foot spinning rod.

I immediately bought a 12-foot crappie rod, and I have it to this day — but due to a lucky turn of events, I seldom use it in the way it was intended.

In 2005, my wife and I celebrated our 15th anniversary by going to Pimushe Lake near Bemidji for the fishing opener. (Yes, I snagged a keeper.) We rented a boat for the weekend, but the morning of the opener dawned with 40-mph winds and snow squalls, so we wisely opted to stay indoors.

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The sun came out by mid-afternoon, and despite the still-howling wind, I decided to try my luck casting from one of the docks near our cabin. I rigged a small jig under a weighted float and tried to cast directly into the breeze with a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod, and the bobber nearly came back and hit me in the face. More casts produced similar results.

On a whim, I went back to the truck and grabbed my crappie rod, which was the last thing I'd packed when we left Rochester. I'd never tried to cast with it, but I figured I had nothing to lose.

The results were little short of miraculous. That 12-foot rod effortlessly propelled my jig-and-bobber rig through the gale, and within seconds I'd landed one of the 9-inch sunfish that have made Pimushe a top panfish destination. The wind had brought baitfish and predators into the shallows, and for the next two hours I caught sunfish, big crappies and several largemouth bass that put a serious bend into that crappie rod.

These days my favorite use for that rod is on blustery autumn days when the water is too rough for my kayak and I'd prefer not to bother launching the boat. Instead, I opt for a simple day of shore-fishing for the hungry panfish that are hanging on the outside edge of the weed beds that line the dropoffs of most lakes and reservoirs right now.

Shore-fishing with a conventional rod is tough this time of year. Even if you can manage to cast beyond the weeds, you'll snag them when you retrieve your jig, and you'll need 10-pound line to pull a fish through the cabbage, lily pads and other assorted submerged vegetation.

With a long rod, however, you have a fighting chance — but you have to choose your spots carefully.

I look for areas where the water drops off gradually, so I can wade out at least 10 feet. That gives me much-needed casting room behind me. Otherwise, I'd spend all day battling the trees and weeds.

I also look for areas where there's at least a partial gap in the weed bed. Granted, the fish don't always cooperate, but a long rod gives you a chance to guide them toward that gap, where you can hope to avoid bringing in five pounds of lettuce with every sunfish or crappie.

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Finally, I always try to be cast directly into the wind. While that might sound counter-intuitive, the wind moves fish toward the shore, and the last thing you want to do is battle a crosswind, which will create slack line and no end of trouble with the weeds.

I went out to a Rochester-area reservoir on Sept. 19, and it took me about 10 minutes to find active sunfish that were worthy of the frying pan. I rigged an eighth-ounce jig about five feet under a weighted float, tipped the jig with a chartreuse Gulp plastic minnow and cast it 20-30 feet past the visible weeds.

Often, the float disappeared the moment it hit the water, which brings up an important point: Don't set the hook hard with a long rod. The slightest upward pressure will do the job just fine. I occasionally get a bit too eager and aggressive, and on this particular day I twice set the hook with at least 30 yards of line out, only to watch my float sail directly over my head and into the weeds behind me.

Despite those mishaps, I still manged to put 10 nice sunfish on the stringer in less than an hour. I lost no fish and just one jig in the weeds, due in large part to the fact that the long rod provides a better angle to keep fish near the surface — and more leverage in the event that they still manage to get into the vegetation.

Yes, I got some weird looks from other anglers that morning, and I admit that I looked rather odd, wading out into the lake with my chore boots and acting like I was surf fishing on Cape Cod.

But hey, it worked — and if you want to take advantage of the fall panfish bite, you might want to try it with a rod that's nearly as long as your pickup.

Eric Atherton is a long-time Outdoors writer and reporter for the Post Bulletin. He can be reached at Sports@PostBulletin.com

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