These fish are worthy of more appetizing name.
Brian Cofske is a crappie fisherman - one of the best in Massachusetts.
With a shad lure and bobber this past April, he reported, he caught a giant 3-pound, 1-ounce crappie from Lake Singletary. He landed another giant weighing 2 pounds, 9 ounces. So far this season, Cofske has caught more than a hundred crappies weighing more than 1 pound, 8 ounces, the minimum size to qualify for a Massachusetts trophy fish pin award. Cofske would look like a pincushion if he wore all of his potential awards.
How good was Cofske's biggest trophy? Jason Van Hillo of Winchendon took the Gold Pin state award in 2012 with a 2-pound, 12-ounce crappie from Webster Lake. James Crowley's all-time state record, taken at Jake's Pond in Plymouth back in 1980, weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces. The world record crappie is a 5-pound goliath from a private pond in Missouri.
Most New England anglers prefer to call our black crappies "calico bass." In Michigan, you'll hear them called speckled bass or specks. We can blame French Canadians for the unflattering crappie name. They referred to several species of small sunfish as "crapet." The pejorative term is similar to our English phrase "trash fish."
The root "crap" is found in many French words conveying low forms, like toads, urchins, drunks and bandits. We speculate that French Canadians, having magnificent trout and salmon as a base for comparison in the far north, disrespectfully undervalued this relatively small but beautifully marked and tasty fish. Crappies might also have drawn the French Canadians' contempt by proving adept at stealing their bait. Being a fan of fried calico bass, I can't bring myself to call them crappies.
Calico bass, though present and successfully breeding in many commonwealth lakes, ponds and slow-flowing streams, are not native to Massachusetts. Originally absent from most waters east of the Appalachians, they naturally occurred only from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf and east through a swath of the southern Atlantic states. I don't hear anyone complaining about their introduction here. They seem to have caused minimal damage to other native species and have provided much good sport and food.
Unlike trout that hide in deep, cool waters this time of year, calicos hit readily all summer. They spawned in May, when water temperatures reached 58-64 degrees. Cofske's fish, like the biggest cow stripers we catch this time of year, was likely a heavy, egg-filled female. Male crappies, though tending to be smaller, are exemplary fathers.
The very domestic males make a nest on sandy or muddy bottoms in shallow water. They need penetrating sunlight to help hatching, but they also are torn in choosing the depth of their nest site, as deeper water provides more protection from predators. Often they'll make their nest under roots for added security.
A male calico will vigilantly guard his nest and young. His mate, depending on her age and size, can lay from 20,000 to 60,000 eggs. Ninety-nine percent of them, of course, will become food for predators at some point. The lucky survivors may grow to the relatively prodigious size of 12 inches and average less than one pound at adulthood. A 15-inch, 2-pounder is a rare trophy. Cofske's fish was truly one in a million.
If frogs could write
Most anglers would be hard-pressed to name all of our native Massachusetts freshwater fish. Give yourself credit if you can list and recognize American brook lamprey, gizzard shad, brook trout, red-fin pickerel, chain pickerel, lake chub, eastern silvery minnow, golden shiner, bridle shiner, common shiner, spot-tail shiner, northern red-belly dace, black-nose dace, long-nose dace, creed chub, fallfish, long-nose sucker, white sucker, creek chubsucker, brown bullhead, trout-perch (locally extinct), burbot, banded killifish, white perch, banded sunfish, redbreast sunfish, pumpkinseed, swamp darter, tasselated darter, yellow perch and slimy sculpin. These are the fish we could have hooked or netted before the Civil War, when people - especially state fisheries managers - began tinkering with introductions.
Note that both largemouth and smallmouth bass - by far our most popular freshwater fish today - weren't native to Massachusetts. At least 27 species of fish have been introduced to the commonwealth.
Besides largemouth and smallmouth bass, the more-is-better thinkers of the past also introduced bluegills, bowfin, rainbow trout, coho salmon, sockeye salmon, brown trout, central mud minnow, northern pike, goldfish, red mimic shiner, blunt-nose minnow, flathead minnow, white catfish, yellow bullhead, channel catfish, tadpole madtom, margined madtom, rockbass, green sunfish, white crappie and walleye. Nearly half of all our freshwater fish species today have been introduced.
In the late 1800s when most of these species were enthusiastically stocked, the introducers had little background in biology or ecology - and no concept of future negative consequences. The strategy proved to be like a game of darts. For better, and in some cases, or worse, we've inherited what those uninformed pioneers brought us. While the vast majority of anglers are ecstatic over the introduction of fish like calicos and bass, some hold that their benefits don't come without a cost.
One close friend who lives on a tiny pond in Centerville laments how introduced bass negatively affected the native life in it. After stocking, they fed voraciously, as bass naturally do. They grew big, and for several years, he caught bass over eight pounds there. Today, he says the native prey - bullheads, sunfish and other baitfish - are gone. He laments that the frogs, which not long ago were abundant and highly vocal during their summer mating season, are gone, too.
Today, the big bass are gone, too, replaced by great numbers of smaller bass. Much, if not most, of their forage, he believes, is made up of small bass. Not many people care. After all, bass are great game fish - even if they're not our natives and can take a big toll on prey species.
With what we know today, would we introduce bass to Massachusetts pristine waters? Sportsmen and commercial interests would certainly be in favor. Not every fisheries biologist or ecologist would agree, however, considering the totality of their impact on other species.
And if frogs could write a column about bass, it would be much more condemning than mine.
Contact Mark Blazis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday - Fluke Rodeo. Entry fee: $20. 8 a.m-4 p.m. Information: Stan, (631) 580-1018.
Saturday and Sunday - Plymouth 400 Bass and Blue Fishing Tournament. $3,500 in prizes. Information: www.plymouth400.org.
Saturday - Massachusetts Deer and Moose. Speaker: Dave Stainbrook, MassWildlife deer and moose biologist, 7 p.m., South Egremont Town Hall, 118 East St.
Sunday - Birding Wachusett Reservoir, Forbush Bird Club. Meet at 7 a.m. at the intersection of Route 110 and Chace Road, Gate 35, Sterling. Free. Leader: Kevin Bourinot, (978) 376-1498.
Tuesday - Deadline for applying for a Massachusetts antlerless deer permit. Go to MassFishHunt website at www.mass.gov/massfishhunt.
Tuesday - Bullfrog and green frog seasons open through Sept. 30.
Wednesday - "Ladies Night Out" fishing clinic, 6-8 p.m. at Nuttings Lake, Billerica. MassWildlife Angler Education Program and Billerica Parks and Recreation evening event for women. Information: Donna Hansen (978) 671-0921, email@example.com.
Thursday - Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions summer workshop: "Hydric Soil Field Identification, Documentation and Delineation," 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 20 - BOW alums from Central Massachusetts and Rhode Island Turkey Chicks chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, special event for women 13 and older at the Auburn Sportsmen's Club. Sessions include archery, self defense, beekeeping, canning, canoes/kayaks, Dutch oven cooking, falconry, fly fishing and tying, marksmanship, shotguns, trap shooting, wilderness survival, wild weed walk and woodsmanship. Information: Keith Fritze, (774) 272-1274, email@example.com.
CUTLINE: Fish Finder