Normally the sound of breaking ice is the last sound a terrified winter fisherman hears before a miserably cold, and often fatal, crash through a lake’s frozen surface. Not so for Jim Clay on Wednesday morning
“This isn’t going to be a problem,” Clay said as the bow of his boat crushed a path through a half-inch of ice that coated most of Big Hill Reservoir. “It’s time to go catch some crappie and I’m going to get ’er done.”
Indeed, he did.
For months Clay had planned this media trip to the lake that’s within a few miles of his Cherryvale home. The original intent was to focus on a morning hunting late-season mallards, then a few afternoon hours for some winter crappie fishing.
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Then last weekend the thousands of ducks he’d planned on hunting basically disappeared.
“I know we can get on crappie, as many as a guy wants to catch,” Clay said Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning he stopped as soon as he got a look at the lake that was coated in ice.
“I swear, there wasn’t a speck of ice on this lake yesterday afternoon,” he said. Clay hadn’t smashed his way far out into the ice before he came to a path of water the width of a fishing boat.
“You watch, there’s only one other boat on a lake that’s seven miles long and it’ll be fishing my spot,” he lamented with a slight laugh.
A few minutes later he added, “Yep, they’re even tied up to my tree, too.”
Clay, 61, uses the word “my” often around Big Hill. Before the lake, he and his family wandered the valley almost daily. He said there probably wasn’t a tree in the area where he hadn’t treed a raccoon or shot a squirrel. The area holds some of his best childhood fishing memories.
“We just had cane poles and we’d catch grasshoppers for bait or go to the store and get a dime’s worth of liver,” he said. “We caught a lot those big yellow bullheads. Man, they were good eating.”
Clay is a well-traveled bass tournament angler, but crappie fishing the impounded waters of Big Hill Creek remains a favorite pastime, especially a section of lake that sits over an old road now in about 30 feet of water.
The other boat was tied to the remnants of an old tree directly over that spot. Ice was too thick to head to other spots Clay enjoyed. He commented that locals around Big Hill often didn’t take too well to sharing fishing spots.
“Some of these guys can be the most selfish fishermen I’ve ever been around,” he said. “They’ve gotten in fights up here fishing off of a public bridge. But there are also a lot of good people around who’ll share.”
Clay cut his outboard 50 yards from the other boat, and lowered his electric motor and used his boat to clear a bigger patch of open water. After several minutes of silence one of the anglers, Rollie Williams of Quapaw, Okla. commented on the cold.
Soon he and his fishing partner, Bob Mathis, were in almost constant conversation with Clay. Talk ranged from bird dogs and coon hounds long dead to fishing trips planned for the upcoming spring. Laughter echoed through the surrounding Ozark-like wooded hills.
Of course, it’s pretty easy to be happy and accommodating when the fish are really biting.
Rather than lowering jigs directly down into the water, the three anglers repeatedly cast tiny plastic lures about 30 feet from their boats, let the lines sink for about 10 seconds then started retrieving the line at a snail’s pace.
“That’s just the best way we’ve found to fish this lake from crappie,” Clay said. “I think it’s because the fish are suspended.” Good action came in spurts, with five or 10 fish coming in as many minutes, followed by as much or more of inactivity.
The three anglers caught at least four year-classes of both white and black crappie. Some were small, but many were from 10 to 13 1/2 inches.
By early afternoon, Williams and Mathis left with an estimated 40 to 50 crappie in their livewell. Clay had 23 in his. As he was leaving at 3 p.m. the combination of sun and wind had the lake totally opened for an easy ride to the ramp. A lone drake mallard flew overhead as he went.
“Looky there, we finally seen a duck,” he said, pointing skyward. “Even if we still had more birds around hunting probably wouldn’t haven’t have been too good with ice all over this lake today.”
Maybe not, but it sure didn’t seem to hurt the crappie fishing.
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.