Crappie Biting at Bamm-Bamm

Guides speak their own language at Toledo Bend

Article by Steve Wright, Photos by James Overstreet

photo of fishing gear at Toledo Town and Tackle
Whatever your preference in lures, Toldeo Town & Tackle keeps a large supply.

MANY, LA - When you overhear your fishing guide mention Fred, Barney, Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, you might wonder why on earth he's having a cell phone conversation about the 1960s cartoon series "The Flintstones."

It becomes even more confusing when you hear Picasso, Windy, Addams Family, Sweet, Joy and Loaded. Yeah, "loaded," that sounds about right. The guy that's supposed to be an expert on catching crappie at Toledo Bend Reservoir must have been hitting the bottle a tad early today.

Less than four hours later, when there are 75 crappie iced down in the cooler, headed for the filet knives, you couldn't care less if calls you Betty, Wilma or Joe Rockhead.

Photo of fishing guide Dennis Tietje with a cooler full of crappieDennis Tietje was the man seemingly speaking gibberish. Actually, it was crappie talk. Tietje and his buddies at Living The Dream Guide Service have planted about 100 brushpiles in Toledo Bend's 185,000 acres. Each one has a name. If you happen to hear "the crappie are biting at Bamm-Bamm," you might as well be lost in the Stone Age unless you're in a boat with one of these guys.

Catching crappie consistently has always been less about luck and more about hard work. By combining maximum effort with modern technology, Tietje, Jerry Thompson, Brandon Baker and Jim Shanley can make catching crappie seem as easy as shooting fish in barrel.

"It's a great family deal," Tietje said. "Everybody can catch 'em."

One day last spring, the LTD guides filleted 657 crappie; 28 people fishing from two pontoon boats finished a mere 43 crappie short of 28 limits.

With fewer people to work with, a 25-crappie daily limit is almost guaranteed. It caused LTD to add a caveat to a day's service on Toledo Bend: Seven hours OR your limit, whichever comes first.

"Nobody complains about that," said Tietje, with the seemingly ever-present smile on his face.

But success stories like that belie the work that goes into this.

Photo of Dennis Tietje with one of the Toledo Bend crappie
Dennis Tietje shows one of the Toledo Bend crappie, which quickly started biting once the boat was stationed over a brushpile.

First of all, Tietje (pronounced "tee-jay") didn't expect to be doing this much crappie fishing on Toledo Bend, the 65-mile-long reservoir located on the Texas-Louisiana border. This is where he learned how to bass fish, after getting a degree from Louisiana Tech University. And he learned his lessons well enough to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series tour in 2010. That's the same year he decided to make a life change, at the age of 45, with a wife and two kids to support. Instead of working the family farm near Roanoke, La., like his father and grandfather before him, Tietje chose to become a full-time professional bass tournament angler. But midway through his rookie season on the Elite Series, Tietje was hurting. His aching back had become such a problem it required surgery in November 2011.

After hearing his doctor explain the length of a proper healing process, Tietje reluctantly sought and received a medical leave of absence from the 2012 Elite Series.

That now seems like a blessing in disguise. By joining the LTD Guide Service, Tietje has been able to ease his way back into fishing and keep the bills paid. It has also, he thinks, made him a better angler for one simple reason: He's been forced into a better understanding of the high-tech equipment on his boat. In his case, it's a Lowrance HDS-10 Fishfinder/GPS Chartplotter. He's got two of them – one mounted near the driver's seat with its transducer on the stern, and one near the bow with its transducer on the electric trolling motor that's mounted on his 20-foot, 9-inch Nitro bass boat.

"I'll be honest with you, I'm still basically learning," said the 47-year-old Tietje. "I was one of those guys that said he didn't need this stuff. But it didn't take long to figure out I needed it."

A year on the Elite Series will expose any holes in your game. Tietje now looks forward to the 2013 season, when he'll return to competition with a stronger back and stronger mind.

For example, instead of visually triangulating the location of a brushpile by lining up objects on the bank, like he once did, Tietje now keeps his eyes focused on the 10-inch, high-definition Lowrance monitors in his boat.

Knowing you need these electronics is one thing; learning to utilize all their capabilities is another. Time on the water is required, a significant amount of time.

"Some of it is trial-and-error," Tietje said. "At first, you can't tell the difference between carp, catfish and bass on the screen."

With experience, deciphering all the information available on-screen improves, like learning a second language. Eventually, you "get it."

"The best way to learn is, when you're on a school of fish, stop fishing and look at them on the depth-finder," Tietje said.

He quickly demonstrated. On his bow-mounted monitor there appeared a jumble of small arch-shaped lines between two clearly defined sunken trees.

"That's a school of crappie," Tietje said.

A few minutes later, Tietje had the 250-horsepower outboard motor running when we idled back over the spot.

"See, they're gone," he said, pointing to the monitor, which clearly showed the same two sunken trees that now had no arches between them.

It wasn't only a lesson in understanding sonar, but also one about stealth. Crappie are no different than white-tailed deer in quickly learning the cues of danger, in this instance, the vibrations created by an outboard motor overhead. Survive and adapt.

Those two screen-shots also revealed the hard work that goes into consistently successful crappie fishing, namely, building brushpiles.

"Not every brushpile you build is a good one," Tietje said. "Some of them never have anything on them."

In essence, it's a numbers game: build enough brushpiles and you'll have the gamut, from poor to great. And that can vary from day to day. So when there are no fish on one brushpile, you simply move to the next. The Lowrance units allow you to do that quickly, without having to repeatedly knock on the door to discover no one is home, so to speak.

But building brushpiles can't be reduced to simply numbers. The Living The Dream guides construct their brushpiles differently than most. This isn't an off-season, wintertime affair. Twenty-foot willow and sweet gum trees are cut in the spring, after they're in full foliage.

"The leaves are very important," Tietje said. "They provide cover for the fish and attract baitfish when algae starts growing on the leaves."

Each tree is weighted with a concrete block at its trunk and a float is added to the top, usually in the form of an empty plastic jug. This assures the tree provides cover at a range of depths when it stands straight up on the lake bottom, just like the two Tietje had pointed out on his Lowrance monitor.

No trip to Toledo Bend Reservoir is complete without a visit to Toledo Town & Tackle. The fishing superstore is located on Highway 6, just across the Pendleton Bridge in Louisiana. This place has everything. Bottles of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey and Dewar's Scotch, for example, are located just across the aisle from Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies, Snickers candy bars and original MoonPies, both vanilla and chocolate. The selections cover all tastes and cravings. There's a big ol' walk-in beer cooler, too.

As this day began, our needs were more basic: breakfast and minnows. Toledo Town & Tackle has a restaurant, which offers everything needed to fuel a day on the lake – eggs any style, bacon, ham, hash browns, fried potatoes and, of course, biscuits and gravy.

Photo of an Arkansas Shiner-colored Zoom Tiny Fluke Tietje prefers catching crappie on artificial lures. His basic setup is as follows: an Arkansas Shiner-colored Zoom Tiny Fluke on a 1/16th-ounce jighead, tipped with a Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibble fished on six-pound test XPS fluorocarbon line, a spinning reel and a six-foot rod.

But some days a live minnow below a split shot out-performs any artificial bait. Tietje carries a Frabill Min-O-Life Bait Station. It's basically a small cooler with a battery-powered aerator attached to one side, and it will keep plenty of crappie-size shiners lively longer than you'll need them. Toledo Town & Tackle has all types of live bait available, with one simple request taped to the front door: "Please leave cricket cages outside! Thanks."

It's also part museum, exemplified by the "Fine Nine" taxidermy on one wall – a stringer of nine largemouth bass, weighing between 7 pounds, 5 ounces, and 8-3, that were caught by one man at Toledo Bend over a six-year period in the 1970s. The "brag board" on another wall, covered with photos of recently caught lunkers, assures that bass fishing at "The Bend" remains strong.

(For even more evidence of big bass at Toledo Bend, check out the Sabine Parish Tourist Commission website's Top 100 list at www.toledobendlakecountry.com/fishing/top_100_lunkers)

Once we launched the boat and stopped at the first brushpile, it took only three hours and 25 minutes for three of us to put 75 crappie in the cooler. It required visiting about five brushpiles. We probably caught close to 100 crappie, counting some small ones tossed back in the lake. There weren't any monsters in the bunch, just good eating-size crappie that averaged about 3/4ths of a pound.

"Get back in there, we've got to keep this school fired up," said Tietje, over and over that morning, as James Overstreet and I took time to photograph a crappie or two.

The action is rapid-fire: open the bail on the spinning reel, drop a lure or minnow straight down from the rod tip to the proper depth, bang, set the hook and reel in a crappie. There were two times when all three of us were reeling in a crappie; the doubles were too numerous to count.

Photo of a fish counter
Tietje holds an important piece of equipment for Toledo Bend crappie fishing - a counter.

Tietje keeps another important piece of crappie fishing gear dangling from a lanyard around his neck. It's one of those simple mechanical counters; push the button and it advances one digit.

The last thing you want to do is lay out a mess of crappie on the boat deck, counting each one to make certain you haven't mistakenly gone over the daily limit. Tietje's counter hit 75 at 10:35 a.m.

April, May and June are the red-hot months for crappie at Toledo Bend. We were there in mid-June. It picks back up when the water cools in October and November. But, at least this year, it has remained good.

"I haven't failed to limit-out yet," said Tietje in mid September.

After Tietje's counter hit 75, we trailered the boat back to Living The Dream Guide Service headquarters – Jerry Thompson's dock on Toledo Bend. It has a long walkway leading to a large covered area featuring all the essentials – a wide fish cleaning table with running water and power outlets for electric fillet knives, and a bar, where clients can relax while their catch is turned into boneless fillets of sweet-tasting crappie meat.

Yes, Living the Dream Guide Service is appropriately named.