STORIES OUT THERE FISHING By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Catching Crappie with Old-Fashioned Cane Poles People have been catching crappie for centuries by building and fishing their own cane poles Long cane poles make great fishing tools for crappie fishermen of every stripe. (Keith Sutton photo) When I was a kid starting out crappie fishing, selecting equipment was a cinch. We went to a cane thicket, cut a pole, cured it in the barn, tied on some Dacron line, added a cork, split shot and hook, and we were ready to fish. Creek minnows caught in homemade traps served as bait. Crappie fishing has changed a lot since then. But it’s still fun to cut and prepare your own cane poles, a nostalgic adventure that adds enjoyment to the fishing experience. Modern jigging poles are more durable and offer better “feel,” but cane poles work great too, just as they have for centuries. Cutting & Curing Your Own Cane Pole Cane grows in the understory of many bottomland hardwood forests. There are two species: giant cane, which averages 15-20 feet long, and switch cane, which reaches 10 feet. Both make excellent fishing poles. A machete or hunting knife is a good cane cutter. Select green canes of the proper length and diameter. A pole that’s too long or too thick will be unwieldy and heavy. A pole that’s too short and skinny could break. Most anglers prefer those 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter at the butt and 10 to 14 feet long. Cut each cane at the base, and trim all leaves. Leave the slender tip, taking care not to damage it during trimming. At home, saw through the bottom of a joint to square the butt end. Done properly, the butt will be “capped” with the piece of wood that divides the joint; the hollow space inside the cane won’t be visible. Smooth rough edges with sandpaper or a knife. Straight canes make the best fishing poles, but unless cured properly, the poles bend at the tip when drying. To prevent this, hang the poles upright. Tie cord to the tip of each cane, and then tie the cord to barn rafters or a tree limb so the poles hang straight slightly above the ground. Curing is complete when the poles take on a tannish hue, a process that usually takes several weeks. Some anglers varnish cured poles for extra durability. Before fishing, test each cane pole by grasping it near the butt and whipping the tip back and forth. If there are cracks or breaks that weren’t evident, they’ll show up, giving you a chance to cull unwanted poles. The best poles are whippy yet straight near the tip, with a solid inflexible butt. Some anglers make the mistake of tying fishing line only to the pole’s end. If the tip breaks, the fish is gone. It’s better to run line along the whole length, starting just above the “handle,” where you’ll hold the pole. Tie the line here, then wrap a piece of electrical or duct tape around the tie to secure it. Tape the line at several evenly spaced points along the pole, then wrap several feet around the tip and tie the line off, leaving a length of line beyond the tip that’s the same length as the pole. When the line is rigged with terminal tackle, you can adjust the length as necessary by wrapping or unwrapping it at the tip. A simple overhand knot serves to tie it off. Bobber Fishing My uncle, Guy McClintock, taught me how an angler can catch loads of crappie by bobber fishing along the banks. Guy sculled his johnboat from the bow seat, fishing his way along with a cane pole rigged with a small cork and crappie hook. We used shiners for bait. Guy sculled slowly along the shoreline, dropping the bobber rig lightly on the water to avoid spooking fish. Sometimes he placed it near a stickup or cypress knee. Other times he just dropped it in open water. Never did he move it more than a foot at a time, and he didn’t miss a spot where crappie might hide. Many fish were near visible woody cover as you’d expect. But others were beside a root wad or log invisible beneath the surface. Other anglers might have passed them by, not seeing any potential in a spot where no crappie-attracting cover could be seen. A cane pole is great for this style of crappie fishing. If you’re adept at sculling, you can keep on the move until crappie are found, fishing different spots all the while. And when employing a long cane pole, you can keep your distance to avoid spooking these skittish shallow-water fish. You don’t even need a boat. A cane pole allows you to fish from the bank with efficiency impossible using other tackle. Spider Trolling Being relatively inexpensive, cane poles are popular with crappie anglers who enjoy spider trolling. This is a great method for finding widely scattered crappie when the water level is rapidly fluctuating. Where legal, it’s common to see johnboats with a dozen poles set around the transom. The poles, rigged with jigs or live minnows, are secured in rod holders. The angler drifts with the wind or moves slowly using a trolling motor, passing near underwater structure. The poles usually are rigged at different depths until crappie are found. Then each is set at the depth fish are feeding. When trolling with multiple poles along the sides of the boat, use poles of varying lengths. If the poles are all the same length, the lines tend to tangle. But by using different length poles in each spread, lines can be kept separate without tangling. One successful crappie angler showed me how he rigged in this manner. Six inexpensive screw-clamp rod holders were fastened to the gunwales of his johnboat – three on each side. In the two holders nearest the boat’s bow, he placed 14-foot poles. The next two holders held 12-foot poles; the next two held 10-foot poles. With the poles staggered this way, he drift fished without worrying about tangled lines, concentrating instead on fishing. Many bait and tackle stores carry prepared cane poles that have been cut into sections and fitted with ferrules. These breakdown models also come in a variety of lengths that make them suitable for trolling. Cane poles also are available from B’n’M Poles, www.bnmpoles.com. More Tactics Cane poles work great where casting gear is out of place. When fishing dense stump fields or cypress knees where a boat can’t go, you can position your boat on the outer edge and use a long pole to reach otherwise inaccessible honeyholes. Cane poles allow you to fish beneath docks or overhanging trees in the shady cover where big crappie often lurk. Public fishing piers often have brushpiles planted around them, and a long cane pole provides the extra reach needed to fish them properly. And when fishing with children – something we all should do – cane poles are perfect. No casting, fewer tangles, more fish. That equates to happy kids who learn to cherish the joys of crappie fishing.