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Will Elliott: Crappie expert takes on Western New York waters

Panfish fishing can be fun and frustrating at the same time.

When the fish are biting, perch, bluegill, sunfish and crappie are easy targets. But when weather and water conditions shift things around, even supposedly easy fishing can be testy.

In recent years crappie schooling along Great Lakes bays, in the western Finger Lakes and along Southern Tier lakes has become challenging. A few local experts can pull in a pile or pail of panfish, but catching good numbers and sizes of panfish has become a puzzling pursuit, especially when it comes to an amount of pan-sized crappie.

So when a Niagara County media gathering was formed this past week, I had the good fortune of opting for a Sunday outing with Wally Marshall, nationally known crappie tournament winner and Outdoor Channel personality best known as “Mr. Crappie.” The catch outcome did not come close to Marshall’s expectations, but any area angler interested in upping his crappie count would be pleased to spend a few hours in the boat with Marshall.

The boat, a brand new 22-foot Ranger 521C, is decorated with his Mr. Crappie name/logo, and his accessories match anything seen on a bass tourney competitor’s vessel. But the most impressive aspect of the outing is the zeal and practicality Marshall brings on board.

A winner of many national crappie tournaments and product designer and developer of countless products for anglers, the guy, at heart, just likes being on the water and catching fish. The “catching” part was a catch, but it showed just how devoted and skilled he is at catching crappie.

We started Sunday morning on Lake Alice, an impoundment lake formed by the Waterport Dam in Orleans County close to the Lake Ontario shoreline. Lake Alice has a good, holding population of crappies, but schooling and biting cycles are not on the order and volume of a larger lake.

While other boaters anchored or cast-trolled the shoreline, Marshall went to his preferred approach for casting under docks, pontoon boats and piers, called shoot casting.

“I’ve caught all kinds of fish (crappies), as many as 50 at one dock, while shooting,” he said as he flipped a small, pearl white, soft plastic lure called a Mr. Crappie Shadpole, a Strike King lure that resembles a fat grub body with a ball-tipped tonsil tail. It worked.

The combination of lure and Marshall’s casting skills began producing crappie just at and under the 9-inch legal limit. The lure is worth trying, but the casting technique is even more promising as an approach.

“Shoot” casting takes some practice, but basically what Marshall does is simple. Using a limber but sturdy rod (many models are available in his Mr. Crappie series), he holds the lure under the arch of the rod, points the bent rod in the direction of an opening under a dock, pier or platform and releases the lure so that it skips under the overhang.

“Cover is most important; getting into these shaded spots is often more productive than working weed edges,” Marshall said as he hooked another crappie from under a wide dock.

After working docks and backwater reed edges, we pulled up and headed to Oak Orchard Creek, which Marshall had heard had been good for crappies. Buck Knives media specialist Jacob Siembida, a well-equipped photographer, got some good stills and videos of Marshall’s gear and crappies caught and released at Lake Alice, but Oak Orchard produced nothing more than a boat inspection at the dock that afternoon.

A Tuesday run to Chautauqua Lake garnered 25 crappie that were taken in the Long Point-Tom’s Point center section. It’s a count that would impress the average area angler but not the numbers Marshall was targeting.

Siembida pointed out some new gear Buck Knives now produces in the Mr. Crappie series. The new filleting knives, a panfish and a 6-inch blade, have a handy grip and keen edge with a short, half-moon edge on the back side of its tip. This feature makes it easier to break through scales and skin to start a filleting line.

Another handy tool is the new Flipstik, a lightweight industrial diamond sharpener in two grades with a hook-sharpener dividing the two sides and a cutout in the tip for hook disgorging.

The variety of Mr. Crappie Strike King Shadpole lures is available now, but the knives and Flipstick will not hit the shelves until after a sport fishing show in mid-July.

To check out these and other items Marshall uses to up the crappie catch count, visit