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A few miles out of Ashland, Ore. there is a reservoir that attracts a lot of old folks—small-scale farmers reluctant to sell their 40 acres, pensioned workers, retired husbands and wives trying to squeeze by on Social Security checks. They come to the reservoir to fish for crappies, which provides them with both sport and a food supply.
In most cases, meat fishing can't be morally justified these days—there are too many people and too few fish. But as far as crappies are concerned, there isn't any problem. In Oregon there is no bag limit on crappies, which are members of the sunfish family, whose most celebrated members are the largemouth and small-mouth bass. Indeed, they are so prolific that it is nearly impossible not to catch them. During spawning, each female produces up to 15,000 eggs, and apparently most of these hatch and survive. Stunting because of overpopulation is common. In a reservoir's first few years, fish of more than two pounds may be expected. But unless the angling pressure is extremely intense, the growth rate falls off dramatically thereafter until each fish caught will be about the size of a silver dollar with fins.
But if fishermen turn out, the crappies will cooperate. They take spinners, small spoons, dry and wet flies, popping bugs, jigs, worms, minnows, pork rind, yarn tied to a hook—anything that they can grab with their fragile mouths.
The best time to fish for crappies is through the spring and early summer. Because I fish with flies, I usually go to the reservoir during the long, warm, languid evenings around Memorial Day. The spring runoff is over by then, and the farmers haven't started draining the reservoir for irrigation, so the water, its level stabilized, is clearer than at any other time of year.
Last season I drove out after dinner on the first really fine evening that came along. I arrived an hour before sundown, with another hour of legal fishing—often the most productive hour—available after that.
My spot is no secret. At its east end the reservoir narrows into an arm about 100 yards wide, and at the end of this arm a clear-flowing stream comes down from the Cascade foothills. On the south shore of the arm, the banks are steep, the brush is thick and the oak trees are in full leaf. It is an ideal spot, because with the reservoir full, the brush grows right down into the water, and crappies, seeking both minnows and cover, congregate around any sort of sunken vegetation. Along the water's edge between the clumps of brush are large, flat-topped rocks that serve as casting platforms.
I parked at the end of a long line of cars and pickups, put my rod and reel together, tied on a No. 6 white fly with a red shoulder, then climbed down the bank to claim a vacant rock. I found a good one, close enough to the creek so that the movement of the water coming in would give the fly extra motion.
The banks on both sides of the arm were lined with fishermen and women; my nearest neighbor was 10 feet away on a rock to my left. A tanned old man, he was dressed and outfitted typically: high-topped boots, loose-fitting khaki pants, a well-faded work shirt and a cap with the name of a farm equipment company in front. He was fishing with one of those spinning outfits sold in grocery stores, the ones that come complete with rod, reel and line for $12. There was a small, plastic tackle box at his feet. It displayed a tangle of plugs and lures, jars and bottles. A wet burlap sack nearby appeared to contain a number of fish.
"Hi," I said. "Nice evening."
"Don't you be casting over my line." he answered.