Hitting the crappie just right: Sampling fishing on Carlyle Lake

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A mess of crappie caught on Carlyle Lake the morning before the final day of the IHSA state championship for bass fishing.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

CARLYLE, Ill. — A gobbler called insistently, lustfully proud, to the west of the Allen Branch in the darkness May 19.

I took the gobbling as a sign.

An even better sign came in the sound from the guy who arrived ahead of me: He had a fish loudly splashing to shore before dawn on his first cast.

I’ve reached the point in life, with my eyes, that I wait for a hint of light before climbing riprap.

It was worth the wait. And the climb.

Waiting on dawn at Allen Branch at Eldon Hazlet State Park to fish crappie.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Waiting on dawn at Allen Branch at Eldon Hazlet State Park to fish crappie.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Within minutes, a congenial group collected around the bay we were fishing. Congenial because everyone was catching keeper-sized crappie.

Back to the beginning. I’ve covered all 10 years that the Illinois High School Association has held its state championship for bass fishing on Carlyle Lake.

During the finals, I squeeze in whatever fishing or outdoors-y thing I can, most often in the Spillway Recreation Area, a short walk or drive from the IHSA’s launch and weigh-in area in the Dam West RA. I like fishing below the spillway because you never know what you might pull out of the Kaskaskia River.

If I have time, I make a longer drive to the Allen Branch at Eldon Hazlet State Park, a well-known spot for crappie fishing. I’ve encountered people who have driven the 45 minutes from St. Louis to fish crappie.

On May 18, the first day of the finals, I went to the Spillway RA to eat lunch and saw a guy dump a mess of fish in the fish-cleaning station, then begin cleaning them. There are actual fish-cleaning stations in public fishing areas downstate.

See something, ask something is my motto when it comes fishing.

I ambled over to see what they were cleaning and laughed. It was Dave Gannaway, the now-retired IHSA official who had the original idea for a state tournament for bass fishing.

He was cleaning crappie, a pile of them. He said they were two to three feet off the riprap, down a foot or two, hitting jigs. He suggested orange and black. Chartreuse was mentioned.

‘‘Get up at 5 tomorrow morning, and you will be done in time [to make the 7 a.m. launch],’’ said Gannaway, who knows I am normally up at 5.

He was absolutely right.

My second cast, I had a keeper. Carlyle Lake has a 10-inch minimum and 15-fish daily bag on crappie. I had a perch rod rigged with double chartreuse Mini-Mites, and it worked just fine. In less than an hour, I had 14 keepers and only had to release five, which were just under 10 inches.

There was a good high-water spawn for crappie several years ago, so this spring crappie bite should go for a few years.

I realized I might have gotten lucky this year. All my crappie still had firm eggs a week ago. Most other years of the IHSA tournament, the crappie are done spawning in April or early May.

Next up for me is trying some year to find a parent with a boat to try drifting and jigging for sauger below the spillway.

There is a good bait-and-tackle shop, Henkel’s Hook & Arrow — henkelshookandarrow.com or (618) 594-4818 — in town.

I’ve camped at Hazlet and the Dam West campgrounds. Both are good, but I prefer Dam West because it is walking distance to the launch and weigh-in area and has functioning cellphone coverage.

Looking down on the tailwaters of Carlyle Lake.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Looking down on the tailwaters of Carlyle Lake.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

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