Quake Lake crappie

On December 16, 1811, residents of the Mississippi River Valley were awakened by horrifying noise. The earth shook violently, cabin timbers groaned and cracked, chimneys toppled, and furniture was thrown about. Terrified people hurriedly abandoned their homes to escape falling debris and remained shivering in the winter air till morning.

Daylight brought no relief, for in early morning, another equally severe shock was experienced. The ground rose and fell in great waves described "like the long, low swell of the sea, tilting the trees until their branches interlocked and opening the soil in deep cracks." Huge waves on the Mississippi River washed boats and fish high upon the shore, and whole islands disappeared.

The ground trembled under the force of daily shocks for months. The Richter scale wasn't developed yet, but reports of the time indicate several successive quakes would have topped 8.0 had that yardstick been used then. Though the shock's epicenter was near the community of New Madrid in southeast Missouri, the jolts cracked plaster in Boston and made church bells ring in Montreal. A total of 1,000,000 square miles was so disturbed the vibrations could be felt without the aid of instruments.

This succession of shocks rocked southeast Missouri, northeast Arkansas, west Tennessee and west Kentucky for more than a year. No North American earthquake since has surpassed, or even equaled, its severity.

Almost two centuries have passed since this catastrophe reshaped the landscape, but several features remain as constant reminders of the tumult. Among the most conspicuous is a popular fishing area in west Tennessee created when a huge quake-formed depression filled with water. This is Reelfoot Lake.

Last week, at the invitation of the fine folks at B'n'M Poles, and sponsors that included Blakemore Road Runner, Vicious Fishing and War Eagle Boats, I had a chance to fish on Reelfoot. And let me tell you, if you enjoy crappie fishing like I do, planning a trip to Reelfoot right now is one of the biggest favors you'll do for yourself this year. The crappie are ready to spawn, and in the days to come, these calico fish will start swarming shallow cover-filled waters throughout this 18,000-acre natural lake. Superb fishing can be expected all through the spawning season, which typically continues through early May. And you'll catch some pretty darn good fish. Crappie here range in weight from 1/2 to more than 2 pounds, and catching 100 or more a day isn't unusual for a two-person party.

At the start of my visit last week, I attended the weigh-in for the Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters tournament held on Reelfoot Lake March 7. Two-hundred-four anglers competed on a warm day with strong winds that had anglers rocking and rolling on the water. Scott Mathis and Frank Kirkpatrick won the tournament with seven fish that weighed a total of 11.88 pounds, darn close to a 2-pound average. Big fish was won by Greg Stairs and Trent Stairs with a 2.19-pound crappie. A huge crowd attended the weigh-in, testament to the fact that folks in this neck of the woods are big crappie fans.

On day two of my visit, I began the day fishing with B'n'M Pro Staff member Wade Hendren of Ripley, Tenn., who regularly fishes Reelfoot. Hendren and I nearly got blown off the water by the high winds, but we stuck it out for several hours and, slow-trolling with jig/minnow rigs on the front of Wade's boat, we caught dozens of nice crappie. Wade is a top-notch crappie angler, and the fact he was able to find and catch these fish despite the inclement weather is a testament to his abilities.

Every three hours for next two days, I joined another team on B'n'M's Pro Staff to shoot photos of crappie they'd caught earlier and to hear some of their tips for catching big slabs. And the folks I fished with are some of the best crappie anglers in the country: Jim and Barbara Reedy, a well-known husband and wife team from Charleston, Mo.; father and son team Charles and Travis Bunting of Jefferson City, Mo., two of the nicest guys I've ever shared a boat with; Kent Driscoll from Cordova, Tenn. and John Harrison of Calhoun City, Miss., who rank high among the nation's top pro crappie anglers; Alabama pros Gil and Sonny Sipes, who know enough about crappie fishing to fill a dozen books; Springfield, Tennessee's Garry Mason, Kentucky Lake fishing guide, executive director of Northwest Tennessee Tourism and founder of the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of fame; and Reelfoot local Billy Blakely, an unforgettable Southern fishing fanatic who has built a reputation as one of the nation's best guides. The photos in this article all show these top anglers with Reelfoot crappie they caught during my visit. If those don't whet your appetite for a Reelfoot fishing excursion, nothing will.

Several other top crappie pros were on hand as well, a veritable who's who of crappie fishing. Getting to meet and fish with all these folks was a memorable and exciting experience for a crappie fan like me. And the things they taught me during the short time we had to visit will form the basis for many future Catfish Gumbo posts.

The gist of all this is to tell you if you haven't visited Reelfoot Lake, you really ought to do so. This is one of the most scenic and productive fishing lakes in the country, not only for crappie but for largemouth bass, bluegills and catfish as well. And the folks of west Tennessee … well, they'll make you feel right at home when you visit, serving up a heapin' helpin' of hospitality that will keep you coming back for more.

If you do plan a visit, let me make these suggestions. The two times I've visited Reelfoot, I stayed at Blue Bank Resort (877-258-3226) right on the lake at the little community of Hornbeak. The accommodations are excellent, the staff is attentive and friendly, the restaurant serves some of the best home-style cooking you ever ate (the homemade biscuits with strawberry butter are to die for) and their fishing packages are very reasonably priced.

Crappie pro Billy Blakely guides out of Blue Bank and publishes a regular fishing report you can access through the resort's website. Billy and I caught lots of fish the day I went out on the lake with him, making for a fun-filled trip I'll never forget. And you can book his services by contacting Blue Bank Resort using the info provided above. Additional information on Reelfoot fishing, accommodations, guide services and attractions is available through Northwest Tennessee Tourism, 866-698-6386.

Now let me say once again: if you're looking for earth-shaking fishing action this season, consider fishing Tennessee's magnificent Reelfoot Lake, one of my favorite fishing spots in the whole Western Hemisphere. This seismic lake had tumultuous beginnings, but today, its tranquil beauty offers the perfect setting for a peaceful sportfishing trip. I hope you give it a try.

Special note to all Catfish Gumbo readers: Are you looking for a great book on crappie fishing that will help you learn new tricks for catching big slabs? Well, guess what? I wrote one. Autographed copies of "The Crappie Book: Basics and Beyond" can be purchased by visiting catfishsutton.com.