Call them white perch or crappie, Caddo Lake has them — lots of them

Around these parts, nobody believes in Bigfoot. But there’s always the chance. “There was that time something broke into the shed and carried off a whole deer carcass … and it couldn’t have been a dog or a hog.”

The biggest worry residents express is that another spring flood is coming to wash away piers and houses only semi-locked-down by lazy owners figuring that nine feet of brown water isn’t going to wash over their porch and into their living rooms. Again.

And folks don’t waste a lot of time worrying about the finer points of bass fishing when there are “white perch” biting in Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake itself.

“White perch” is the proper East Texas country name given to the highly prized crappie — the name I called them when growing up almost on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou, the river/creek that feeds Caddo, Texas’ only natural lake.

There’s almost too much history to cover when it comes to Caddo Lake, a long, narrow, Spanish moss-laden, cypress tree-lined throwback to another land and time that stretches from just north of Marshall to the east to near Shreveport, La.

This was the state’s cradle of the Confederacy during the Civil War, part of the country that Ben Lilly trod in search of every black bear that lived in East Texas and now home to monster crappie that set to watering the mouths of countless Texans raised on the delicate, white fillets that the fish provide.

This is the current home of catfish and crappie guide team Randy (the dad) and Chad (the son) Parker. They’ve been at this for more than 20 years, learning from each other, finishing each other’s sentences and carrying on a constant discourse about what the fish are doing “today,” where the fish might be, how close they are to spawning and how they’re only interested in catching “those really big ones, the 16-, 17-, 18-inchers.”

My neighbor Lee Bullard and I arrived late on a Friday at the house on stilts that Randy Parker purchased and which has stood for decades not far from Big Cypress and the community of Uncertain.

“That line you see there on the front door,” Parker says, pointing to a brown smudge across the bottom of the door, “that’s from the flood last spring. That’s over nine feet above the ground and it’s how high the water got. It went on into the house and we’re still cleaning up from that.”

It’s cold on the lake when we arrive and Parker is in the back yard, staring at an oak wood fire in a metal pit, fighting off the cold that’s arrived in early February. We open cold beers and squeeze in around the pit, turning our eyes away from the burning smoke as we wait for the coals to build up and offer some heat for our chilled bones.

“It’s gonna be cold in the morning, but we’ll find some fish,” Parker says. It actually turns out to be 34 degrees when we arrive on the water and fish our way up the bayou from Caddo Lake State Park, past the Highway 43 bridge and back west toward Lake O’ The Pines.

“We can find the fish,” he says. “We just have to keep hitting the deep brush piles and they’ll be there. The big crappie are holding in the brush, staging before they make the move into shallow water to spawn. That will happen in March sometime. Now we just have to keep working these brush piles.”

Unlike crappie guides on most lakes in Texas, the Parkers don’t spend their free time sinking and marking brush piles at varying depths of water. “If we do that, there’ll be a flood on the river and it just washes those away,” Chad Parker says.

Instead, the Parkers find brush at the right depths, usually cypress and other hard wood trees that fall from the banks and create feeding areas for the crappie. The fish move in to feed on minnows and other small fish hiding around the brush and the crappie reign supreme.

“The main food for these crappie right now is tiny bream,” Randy Parker explains. “They feed on those, which is why we have lots of different colors of jigs we use. Most of the time, they’ll want just one color and you have to find that. Then everybody catches fish.”

The jigs are dabbled along the brush in 10 to 12 feet of water, using long graphite “crappie rods” similar to fly rods. Reels are light spinning rigs loaded with braided nylon line strong enough to bend the hooks on the light jigs if they hang up and keep the brush from becoming a hazard for other anglers.

Our morning starts quickly with a nice crappie that nails my jig in 10 feet of water, not far from the boat launch area at the park. I catch her; Lee, on his first-ever East Texas crappie trip, catches one; and Chad Parker, fishing from the front of the boat and operating the trolling motor, puts on a clinic, catching fish after fish.

We continue up the river and back, hitting all the brush we can, while watching gray squirrels feed in the trees on shore. And talking, always talking. About archery, deer, Bigfoot, the size of the fish and some folks the Parkers rescued from an overturned boat just the week before.

“There’s a fair amount of current, which makes it hard to keep the boat lined up on the brush,” Chad says. “It all depends on how much water they’re releasing from the dam at (Lake O’ The) Pines. We do better when there’s not much current.”

We fish our way upstream for a couple of hours, past the bridge, and then work back down to our starting point. Every stop yields a fish or two or three — many of them smaller than the 10-inch minimum, but some larger. We finish with 17 big crappie to fillet — enough to feed a large family or two — and call it a day just after noon.

It’s been a good day and we part after making plans for try some catfish on Lake Tawakoni later in the summer.

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