Only a few anglers were fishing on the Tar River Reservoir, as evidenced by just three vehicles towing boat trailers in the parking lot of the boating access on Saponi Creek.
A search of the reservoir turned up the reason for the lack of fishermen. The water was the color of brick, with low visibility. Circling an area near the access area was a Bass Tracker boat, and the angler aboard was intently watching his electronic sonar screen. When asked if he was catching anything – the angler’s go-to greeting – his reply was that he had kept 28 crappie and had let a lot of little fish go.
“Did you see my license plate?” asked Tommy Short, a 79-year-old retired farmer from Rocky Mount. “It says 2 POUND because I only fish with 2-pound test line. The water is still muddy from all the rain. But I found some crappie schooling on the edge of a channel. I don’t fish for them until I see them with my depth-finder.”
Crappie usually bite best in spring, but muddy water made the fish elusive for other anglers. However, Short was having a banner day.
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“This is one of the best lakes in the state for catching crappie,” he said. “The fish are smaller than usual this year, but it’s still early. I catch them even during hot weather because I’m a crappie expert. It’s the only fish that I fish for.”
Short had tied a tiny hair jig on his line. He pinched the bend of the hook between his thumb and forefinger, drawing the line tight and putting a deep bow in his ultra-light spinning rod. When he let it go, the jig flew 30 feet faster than the eye could follow.
“I call that shooting a jig,” he said. “I can shoot a jig with enough accuracy to land it way back under a low dock, which is where the big ones usually are. Even with 2-pound test and an ultra-light rod, you can’t cast a jig that weighs 1/100 of an ounce very far in the conventional way.”
Short finds the fish with his sonar unit then uses fluorescent marker floats to mark the area before he begins fishing. He makes his own jigs from start to finish. The heaviest jigs weigh ¼ ounce. He uses the lightest jigs during the calmest conditions because they sink very slowly.
“Using a light jig works so well because a crappie can’t stand to see it dropping down slowly in front of its nose,” he said. “I tie my jigs with Craft Fur dressing and cast the head in a mold. After I cast the lead head, I paint on an epoxy finish then bake it in an oven to harden the finish. I use a 140-denier waxed string to tie the dressing to the jig.”
Short pulled out a large translucent tackle box with 16 smaller translucent boxes inside it. Each of the smaller boxes was marked to show the exact weights and styles of jigs that were stored inside them. He had arranged the jigs with exacting precision into two rows, with each row perfectly aligned by transitioning colors. The hook points were imbedded into a white foam pad to hold them securely.
“See these two hands,” he asked? “I tied every jig with nothing but these. I can tie a jig in about a minute and a quarter.”
Despite his high-volume production, Short is not in the business of selling jigs. However, he said anglers who know him sometimes speak with him at the ramps of the various lakes he fishes. If they press him, he will sell them some of his jigs so they can experience the good luck he has at catching crappie.”
“I fish at Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Lake in North Carolina and at Santee-Cooper in South Carolina,” he said. “This is one of the best lakes for crappie fishing in the state, but I like it most of all because it’s so close to home.”