The day was typical for late February, with chilly temperatures giving the wind a nip as it rippled the muddy water of Tar River Reservoir. However, the weather did not deter a lone angler, who turned up his coveralls collar and wore a black ball cap that read, “Lt. Line.”
“That is one of my nicknames,” said Tommy Short, an 81-year-old farmer from Rocky Mount. “The license plate on my SUV has my other nickname, ’2-pound.’ Some people fish for crappie with 4-pound test, but I use 2-pound. I catch four times as many fish with lighter line.”
Short does not worry as much about a fish breaking a line as weak as sewing thread as he does about not catching fish. His motto is that you cannot catch a crappie if you cannot get it to bite.
“I use Hi-Vis yellow line,” he said. “The bright line is easy for me to see, but the fish can’t see it. Sometimes all I see is a twitch or slack in the line and don’t actually feel the strike. If it stops falling, a crappie has it in his mouth (and) I set the hook before he spits it out.”
Short casts his jigs Hiltz or Do-It molds. They weigh 1/16 to 1/100 ounce.
“I only use Craft Hair for the dressing and it is almost always white,” he said. Sometimes I use another color, but that is more for fisherman’s preference than for the fish. I cast jigs and paint them with powder paint of different colors because sometimes they like a certain color best. After I cast the jigs, paint them and dry them, it only takes a minute to tie on the dressing. I use hair because it breathes. The slightest movement makes it look natural and a crappie can’t resist striking.”
Motoring a few hundred yards from the boat landing, Short watched his GPS like an osprey scanning the water for its breakfast. Once he neared his destination, he held a yellow floating marker in his hand. He spotted a dark mass rising from the bottom and tossed the marker overboard, where its flat sides flip-flopped, paying out line until the weight hit the bottom.
“That is a hurdle made from a cedar tree,” he said. “Crappie should be all around it.”
Holding the rod in his right hand, he flipped the reel bail and held the line in the first crook of his index finger. He pinched the jig head between his left thumb and forefinger, stretching the line to bend the rod. When he released the jig and straightened his trigger finger, the lure shot out to land beyond the float. As the lure sank, Short felt a tap. He set the hook and a crappie bounced the rod as it struggled.
The fish was small enough that he simply led it toward the boat until it circled near. He lifted the rod in the same direction the fish swam and swung it over the side. He unhooked the 9-inch fish and tossed it into the water.
“I prefer eating smaller crappie to bigger ones,” he said. “But, today, I am fishing for fun. Two days ago, I caught and released 52.”
Short uses 5½-foot and 6 ½-foot spinning rods to catch crappie. The long rods allowed him to keep the jigs farther from his boat than shorter rods. While he often casts the tiny jigs and lets them fall into the tree while he reels slowly to keep the line tight, he also positions his 15-foot Bass Tracker aluminum boat directly over a hurdle sometimes. That allows him to jig gently up and down.
“You don’t even have to move the jig to interest a crappie,” he said. “It only has to be in the water to look alive.”
Short fished several spots in a six hours’ fishing. At one hurdle, he caught only a half-dozen fish. However, at most of them he caught dozens. While he has two clicker counters on the gunwale – one for his passenger and one for himself, on this day he was not keeping such an accurate count. But, the catch easily topped his previous effort. The one fish he weighed hit 0.99 pound on a digital scale, but a half-dozen others were about the same size.
“I used to be a tournament bass fisherman and even founded my own club,” he said. “Now, I prefer crappie fishing because I don’t have to fish on anyone else’s schedule. I go fishing when I want and, when I have caught all the crappie I want, I can go home.”