With a nickname like "Crappie John," you've got to be good, right? John Beale is 58, but he says people have been calling him "Crappie John" since he was 8. And be careful how you pronounce it, he asks.
"That's craw-pea, as in fish," he says.
"My grandfather used to take me fishing at Puddingstone Reservoir in San Dimas when I was a little kid. I started catching crappie better than anyone around--including my granddad, so they started calling me Crappie John."
Today, you're likely to spot Beale at any of several dozen Southern California reservoirs, or at an outdoors show, putting on a crappie-catching clinic. At popular Southland fishing reservoirs, regular anglers have gotten into the habit of looking for Crappie John's dusty, green 1973 Chevrolet in the parking lots.
He's a master, a guru to those who have learned from him. One who has studied Beale's technique is Merlin Olsen, a former Ram tackle and an NFL Hall of Famer. When his broadcast and TV-film career permits, Olsen, like Beale, enjoys using ultra-light fishing gear, fishing for crappie at Southland reservoirs.
"Crappie John knows more about catching crappie than any man alive," Olsen has said. "I've learned a lot from him, and I'll learn a lot more."
Why would anyone get excited over crappie, a relatively small fish (two pounds is considered a whopper), one that has never inspired artists the way trout and salmon have, whose fighting characteristics are average at best and whose most noteworthy trait, it seems, is its fecundity?
There are billions of them.
White female crappie will produce from 3,000 to 15,000 eggs each spawning season. Black female crappie will lay as many as 50,000 eggs. Little is heard of crappie, yet some believe it might be America's most popular freshwater game fish.
"You should see this place (Lake Silverwood) on weekends," Beale said. "This is known as a pretty good rainbow trout lake, but I'd say the crappie fishermen outnumber all the other fishermen 35- or 40-to-1.
"I love crappie because I like catching fish, and at most lakes, there is no limit on crappie. If you go bass fishing, you catch five and you're done. I like looking for, searching and hunting out crappie. And I love teaching people how to find and catch crappie. Crappie are true, wild fish--nobody plants them. I've never gotten excited over catching hatchery-raised trout."
Lastly, Crappie John maintains crappie may be No. 1 on the table fare charts, too.
"I fillet them, soak them in beer for about half an hour, garlic salt and pepper them, dip them in flour and fry them in an unsaturated oil. You'll have to show me a fish that tastes better than crappie cooked like that."
Beale says he thinks he's fished every Southern California reservoir where crappie are found. He was asked for an up-to-date ranking of crappie waters.
"First and foremost, the crappie capital of all California has to be Lake Henshaw, in San Diego County," he said. "You have a better chance of catching two-pound crappie there than anywhere else. There could be a billion crappie in Henshaw.
"Now, Silverwood I'd rate a close second. There are big crappie in here, and there's no limit (it's 25 at Henshaw). But there are water-skiers on the lake in the summer, and you know what it's like to fish with them around."
So it's Henshaw and Silverwood 1-2. Beale rates six others in the "very good" class. In alphabetical order: Casitas, El Casco Lakes (Redlands), Irvine, Isabella, Piru and San Antonio.
About 20 years ago, unhappy with the quality of crappie lures he found in tackle stores, Beale began making his own. At first, he gave them away to friends, who, he says, raved about the results. Tackle company representatives seemed interested.
Beale now owns two factories, in Missouri and Arkansas, employs 98 people and manufactures about 750,000 Crappie John Finger Jigs a month.
Lake Silverwood, in the morning. In the windless Cleghorn Arm, the water is like a mirror. Magpies and jays screech in the scrub oaks. A large raptor, an osprey or a bald eagle, soars overhead, under unclouded skies.
Six fishermen are at the shoreline, casting for crappie or trout. Crappie John looks like a fly fisherman, in his rubber waders. Standing in water 2-feet deep, he casts one of his white jigs with a long, willowy spinning rod.
"I was right here yesterday and I can't believe how far they've dropped the water overnight," he says. He points to some trees about 150 feet behind him, and says, "Those tree trunks were under water yesterday."
Beale uses ultra-green, two-pound test monofilament line. The bottoms of most Southern California reservoirs, he says, are moss-green, and green line blends in best. About 7 feet up the line from his 1/32-ounce jig, he has a bobber.
Following each cast, he flicks the line at the reel with his right index finger, putting a wiggle into the jig. But in an hour-and-a-half, he catches (and releases) only three one-pound rainbow trout. The crappie, due to the overnight water drop, have left.
"They spawn in this arm," he explains. "We've been catching two-pound crappie in here for a couple of weeks. But they're not here now."
A fishing pal of Beale's, George Chaplow, shows up and has similar luck.
"They dropped the water so far, they chased the crappie out of here," he says. "Last week, I was catching 150 to 200 a day, right here."
Later, in a boat anchored near some dead trees rising above the water in Outhouse Cove, Crappie John really shows his stuff. He shows a competitive side, too. About 50 feet in front of two elderly gentlemen in another boat who aren't catching anything, Crappie John promptly begins pulling in one crappie after another--eight in 30 minutes, to be exact.
One thing about fishing. It's bad enough to be unable to catch anything. But when someone pulls in right next to you and starts knockin' 'em dead on every cast, well. . .
The two elderly gentlemen grow sullen.
Finally, in silent concession of Beale's prowess, one of them casts his lure toward Beale. It splashes just a few feet from where Beale has been casting. Beale grins.
Delighted, he leans toward a friend and whispers: "Did you see that? He cast right to where I've been catching those crappie. "Don't you love it? Don't you love it?"
In an instant, ol' Crappie John has become that 8-year-old Crappie John of 50 years ago, out-fishing everyone in sight at Puddingstone Reservoir.