CASSOPOLIS — I started out with a bobber and a tiny tube jig dangling about six feet below it.
My partner, crappie angler extraordinaire Jim Horn, started out without the bobber.
Twenty minutes later, he had me down five to one.
Horn, who is an all-around excellent angler, is the guy who taught me the jig-below-a-bobber trick in the first place. He always starts the season fishing that way, then, as the water warms in spring, he abandons the bobber.
So I asked, when did that happen this year?
"To tell you the truth, today," he said. "The bobber's been working better until right now. But I've also been fishing on a couple of other lakes where the weeds are not as deep, so it was harder to keep that jig up above them without the bobber."
We were targeting pre-spawn crappies around weed beds on Diamond Lake in Cass County, fishing in eight to 12 feet of water over weeds that came up about halfway to the surface. One of the keys to catching them, Horn says, is keeping the jig above them. They're much more willing to go up in the water column to take a bait than go down for one.
I adjusted my bobber, shortening the dropper by a couple of feet. I casted it out, and wham, got him. So I'd been fishing below them?
Not necessarily. Horn continued to outfish me swimming the jig.
"The water's apparently warmed up enough for them to chase it now," said Horn, a 52-year-old postal worker who fishes for about anything that swims. "Once that happens, you don't need the bobber."
I took off the bobber. My catch rate improved. But Horn was still beating me about three to one.
I studied his retrieve. He'd cast, let the jig drop for several seconds, then pick up his rod tip and swim the bait back with an upward twitch of the rod tip after every crank of the reel handle or so. I mimicked his retrieve. He kept beating me.
So I asked him: What are you doin' that I ain't.
"I'm really watching the line," Horn said. "If it does anything — twitches or goes flat or anything, I swing. I don't wait to feel a tunk or see it swim off. You just kind of a sense it's there."
"So you're a Zen master?" I asked.
"I've had people say that. You just sort of get a rhythm going and if anything changes. . .
"I learned this on a clear-water lake years ago," he continued. "I was fishing around a swimming platform in water so clear that I could see the jig fall all the way to the bottom. Then I'd just see it disappear. I didn't feel a thing, but I set the hook and it was a fish.
"If I waited to feel the bite, it was too late."
Our fish played out on the weed line. We moved to another weed bed across the lake. It was the same drill. I was catching them, but Horn was killing them.
"It's a combination of things, really," he said. "Today, I'd say half the fish I've caught I didn't feel a thing. I'd just see the line stop and swing. If you see anything — see it hesitate or jump, just anything — swing on it."
I started concentrating on my line — which was no easy task considering it was clear, two-pound test mono and my eyes are the same age as the rest of me — and would occasionally see just the slightest twitch. I'd set the hook. Often as not, there was a crappie on the other end.
We were catching beautiful crappies, most of them 10 inches or longer, some of them pushing 14. I put enough of them in the live well to make it worth firing up the Fry Daddy, and then we just started catching and releasing them.
Crappie are outstanding panfish that do not get the respect in this part of the country that they get elsewhere, especially in the South. Part of that is their nature; they are more likely to suspend in the water column than other panfish so they are much harder to pattern than, say, bluegills or perch.
Except in the spring. In spring, crappie head shallow to spawn. They stage — usually on the first drop-off from shore or on the outside of the edge of the weed beds — in deeper water before they move in to do their thing, then they go shallow. In turbid or stained-water lakes you can catch them in a foot of water.
We fished for about four hours on a warm sunny afternoon and caught, by my guesstimate, around 80 crappie (and a handful of bass, a bunch of rock bass, a number of bluegills and one fat-bellied perch). Horn caught at least two-thirds of them, probably more. Once I got dialed into his program, my catch rate improved significantly. But even then, he still outfished by at least two to one.
Then again, that's not all that surprising. This Zen thing is hard to master.