KEVIN TATE: Small minnows a big part of springtime experience

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

My Old Men were catfish specialists, hauling trotlines and filling freezers for decades with a practiced skill born of necessity and fine tuned by pride. They were driven by an inner, personal need to always be productive, even in their recreation, so the one-at-a-time finesse required for game fish was not something that usually tempted them. Still, the opportunity presented by the spring spawn to quickly harvest lots of big crappie, easily one of the best-tasting fish found anywhere, was not something they could pass up.
Crappie fishermen typically fall into either the jig or the minnow category and, since my Old Men were of the latter persuasion, the springtime rush found us in and out of bait shops all across northeast Mississippi.
Most freshwater fish are pretty hardy and can survive lots of things pretty well, but the bait shop minnows we purchased always seemed to be looking for any possible way to die. Therefore, a day on the water keeping minnows alive against their will involved a curious homemade rig and set of practices. An aquarium aerator fit into the bottom of a Styrofoam box or bucket and modified to run on battery power kept oxygen levels up, and ice made from rainwater kept it cool. It had to be rainwater ice because tap water ice contained just enough chlorine to see the minnows to their exit.
Since these trips occurred before safety was invented, none of us had sunscreen on our hands, another handy out for baitfish looking to expire, but the rocking motion of the water in their container often seemed to be all the impetus they needed to cross over. The only time they did appear lively, in fact, was when they were to be individually netted and used as bait.
In those days, bait shops sold sad little minnow nets manufactured, apparently, from reclaimed spiral-bound notebook wire and wet newspaper. Before one had retrieved its third minnow of the day the handle would be knotted and bent, the portion passing as the net torn and bunched to one side like a cheap shower curtain. This is where I made one of my proudest contributions to our operation.
As a third-grader I’d taken a notion to have an aquarium and campaigned for one until I received it. That notion was successfully abated a couple weeks later when I had to clean the tank, but the aquarium and the fish in it lingered on for a year or more, during which time I found the sort of dip net pet stores use for capturing neon tetras and the like one at a time. When I got rid of the aquarium, I kept the professional dip net and our crappie operation was improved, a little.
Memories of thrashing around the bottom of a minnow bucket came to mind when I was told last week, on good authority, that tournament crappie fishermen who are of the minnow persuasion often go through five pounds of minnows per day. Crappie minnows run around 18-dozen per pound. I thought of how tough that must be and lamented that someone had taken a hobby and turned it into a job. I felt bad about that until I realized it meant someone’s job is catching crappie which, upon further consideration, sure sounds like good work if you can get it.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.