Crappie idea that caught on

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IT WAS every fisherman's nightmare. There I was in Massachusetts, a lake full of fish in front of me, and no tackle to catch them with. I hadn't gone to the United States to fish anyway. The trip was arranged to reunite my mother-in-law with her old GI boyfriend. They had not seen each other for 53 years, so it was a pretty emotional occasion. (She said afterwards: "He's put on a bit of weight, you know.") To prove that I was serious about my chaperon role, I didn't pack any tackle. And look what happened.

In fact, it wasn't a complete blow-out. The friends we were staying with found an old rod in their garage. It was one of those ridiculous American things, about as long as a car aerial, with a Dino the Dinosaur reel and a Dino bobber (what we would call a float). But I wasn't going to be beaten. The local tackle shop supplied a tub of nightcrawlers (worms) and something a little more likely to catch fish than the Dino safety hook (no point or barb on it so kids don't get injured). I was ready for action.

I'd like to report that I caught some lunkers, the local jargon for big fish. I didn't. Once I had overcome the embarrassment of dangling a worm from a kiddy rod, I hauled out a couple of small pike, largemouth bass, perch, a trout and some sunfish. I also caught more than 20 of the fish that have become the best marketing story in fishing.

At first glance, crappies don't have much going for them. For a start, there is that awful name. Undeniably handsome in their silver and green livery (they look a little like cichlids, those popular aquarium fish), crappies are almost too easy to catch. The little ones - and a one-pounder is a big specimen - are only slightly less suicidal than mackerel. Great for kids and beginners, of course, but until a decade or so ago, serious anglers would never admit to crappie fishing. Then along came the Crappiethon.

It was a very simple idea. Put some tagged crappies into a lake, charge people a few dollars to enter and pay out if the tagged fish are caught. The secret was to make the crappies worth catching. In some lakes, fish that would be worth $65,000 were introduced. But the organisers put a clever spin on the competition. If you caught your tagged fish on a Johnson rod and reel, you got the full $65,000. If you only had the rod, it was $20,000. No rod or reel? Just $10,000. The idea has proved a boon to some backwoods economies. Many stores sponsor a fish for $500 or $1,000, redeemable if the captor can show a receipt from that shop to prove it was caught on equipment bought there. To stop cheating, competitors must be willing to take a lie-detector test.

From humble beginnings in 1984, the event now runs right across America, with 28 lakes participating this year. More than 30,000 tagged crappies were put into the lakes this year, and literally millions of fishermen bought a $6 ticket to take part. Being America, it was not enough to just call them tagged fish. They all have names, such as Crab Claw Clem, Bait- A-Hole Betsy and Big Bad Buck.

The result has been a huge rise in status for the humble crappie, once seen only as a "panfish" for poor folks' supper. There are specialist books such as New Techniques that Catch More Crappies. A monthly magazine, Crappie World, is solely devoted to catching the critters. Every tackle shop stocks special rods, reels and lures. This month's issue of the In- Fisherman carries a seven-page article on special crappie floats, which is a bit like Angling Times carrying its main feature on techniques for snaring sticklebacks. Most significant of all has been an effort to give the fish a higher status by pronouncing its name with a Sloane Street accent. Enthusiasts now talk of "croppies" rather than crappies.

It sounds an easy way to make a fistful of dollars. But it is not quite as simple as it sounds. Americans may refer to the waters as lakes, but they are more like inland seas. They are impossible to fish without a boat. I angled a couple of years ago at Black Lake in New York state. It was 20 miles long.

Still, plenty of tagged fish do get caught, often by total duffers. The contest's fame has spread so wide that the Massachusetts kids gave up diving off the jetty where I was trying to fish, and insisted on examining every crappie I caught in the hope that it would be a money-winner. I couldn't bring myself to tell them that the lake we were fishing hadn't even received any tagged fish.