Sharon resident has gift for finding fish

Bob Frye
| Sunday, May 18, 2008

Drifting up close to the bank, where a fallen tree angled down into the water of Shenango Reservoir, Ken "Chauncy" Smith made a prediction.

"We'll get at least a half dozen keeper fish here," he said. "Not just a half dozen fish. A half dozen keepers. This tree always produces for me."

And so it did. Thirty minutes later, Smith's spot had given up more than a dozen crappies. Five of them were at least 10-inches long -- his self-imposed minimum for "keeper" status -- and two were 12 inches.

"Didn't I tell you?" Smith said. "I've had a lot of days in this spot where I've just torn them up."

Indeed, he's caught enough big fish enough times to have earned a reputation as Shenango's crappie guru.

"A lot of people fish this lake, but if there's one guy who impresses the heck out of me every time, it's Chauncy," said Chuck Brudowsky, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger at Shenango. "He'll find the crappies and he'll catch them every time."

That's not by accident. A Farrell native now living in Sharon, Smith is a retired steelworker. He fishes 3-4 days each week, mostly on Shenango Reservoir and mostly for crappies at this time of year.

He's mining some pretty productive water. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists surveyed Shenango -- a 3,560 acre Army Corps impoundment in western Mercer County -- to gauge its panfish populations most recently in 2005.

Good numbers of black and white crappie were caught, with most of the blacks in the 8-11 inch range and most of the whites in the 9-13 inch range.

"That was about average for the crappie catch over the last ten years for Shenango Lake," commission biologist Freeman Johns said.

It's also true that spring is prime time for catching crappies.

Data shows that catch rates -- in terms of fish caught per hour -- for both black and white crappies reach their peak in both reservoirs and lakes in May, said Bob Lorantas, the Elizabeth native who serves as warmwater unit leader for the Fish and Boat Commission.

"In spring, at spawning time, brood guarding adults are concentrated and quite vulnerable to anglers," Lorantas said.

But there's a lot more to Smith's success than being in the right place at the right time. He simply knows how to catch fish.

Like most crappie anglers, he starts looking for fish around brush piles.

"If you're not fishing in the brush, you're not fishing where the fish are," he said.

From there, though, he relies on some different techniques to get fish. For starters, Smith is always on the move. Whereas a lot of crappie anglers anchor, then float a minnow under a bobber, Smith uses his trolling motor to constantly circle over and around brush piles.

"If you throw an anchor out you have to wait for the fish to find you. I like to go find them," he sad.

He trolls pink and chartreuse spoons behind him -- he's a pro staffer for Micro Spoons -- either bare or with a white or chartreuse Powerbait crappie nibble on the hook. A sliding sinker held a foot up the line by a split shot provides a little extra rattle.

Smith will also cast a 116- or 18-ounce Old reliable jighead toward a brush pile, do a slow countdown -- one, two, three, up to six -- then start his retrieve.

He'll admittedly lose a lot of jigheads in the brush that way, at least until he learns each pile's individual nature.

"I went up to a brush pile one time when they had drawn the lake down. It had about a dozen jigheads stuck in it and eight of them were mine," he said with a laugh. "If they had been lights, that tree would have been lit up like it was Christmas."

But that's what it takes to consistently catch big crappies, he said.

A slightly overcast day with a light breeze -- enough to create what Smith calls a "crappie chop" on the water -- offer the best conditions, he said. But he catches big crappies in all kinds of situations. His largest is a 3.2-pound fish from Kentucky.

Simply put, when it comes to crappie fishing, it pays to listen to what the man has to say.

"That's basically what I'm good at, so they say," Smith said.

Ken Smith's crappie fishing techniques don't work at Shenango Reservoir alone. He catches fish everywhere he goes -- he finished third last weekend in a crappie tournament on an Ohio lake he'd never seen before, with 10 fish weighing nearly 10 pounds -- so you can use his methods anywhere.

There are a lot of good crappie lakes in Western Pennsylvania, too. Some worth a try, based on recommendations from Fish and Boat Commission biologists, are North Park Lake in Allegheny County, Crooked Creek Lake, Mahoning Creek Lake and Keystone Lake in Armstrong, Upper and Lower Hereford Manor Lakes and Raccoon Lake in Beaver, Glade Run Lake and Lake Arthur in Butler, Conneaut Lake and Pymatuning Lake in Crawford, Yough Lake and Green Lick Lake in Fayette, Yellow Creek Lake in Indiana, Lake Wilhelm in Mercer, Cranberry Glade Lake and Lake Somerset in Somerset, Cross Creek Lake in Washington, and Keystone Lake, Loyalhanna Lake, and Upper and Lower Twin Lakes in Westmoreland.

If you'd like to fish with Smith and others like him who appreciate crappies, check out the Keystone Crappie Association , which holds outings.

And finally, if you'd like to try fishing with Micro Spoons and Old Reliable jigs, visit .

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