Tulsa Tight-Mouths

Crappie on Tulsa-area lakes seem to get a case of lockjaw about this time each year. Here's advice from an expert at opening their mouths long enough to get a hook inside.

By Bob Bledsoe

What do you do when the crappie stop biting? You've probably been there: You find a good spot where the crappie are biting. You get a dozen or so keepers in the livewell and the fish are biting at a steady pace. Then, suddenly, it's like someone turned off the light switch. The bite stops.

Why did they stop? And how do you start them again?

Well, I don't pretend to be a wizard, but because I've had the luxury of fishing with some really great fishermen over the years, I've learned a trick or two that can sometimes start the fish biting again.

A few years back, a fishing magazine called in August to ask if I could shoot a quick photo of a keeper-sized crappie with a specific piece of equipment in the background. I said I'd try, and I promptly called my friend, the late Jack Frisbie, who was a fishing guide on Lake Eufaula at the time. He told me to come on down.

The next morning we found some fish hanging over a dropoff. They were suspended from 14 feet all the way down to the bottom of a flooded creek channel at about 25 feet.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

We caught a few small crappie, then started catching keepers. I shot my photo, and then we decided to stay after it and catch a mess of crappie to eat. In a few minutes the fish quit biting.

"Watch me get 'em started again," Frisbie said. He opened the livewell and selected the smallest crappie in the tank and pulled it out. He killed the fish, then cut a tiny filet about the size of a piece of candy corn from the fish's side, leaving the skin attached.

He then put that wee dab of meat on the hook of his tube jig and lowered it back down into the water. He got a strike and caught a keeper-sized crappie within seconds. I started catching crappie again as well - with just the plain plastic tube jig.

After another 30 or 40 minutes, the fish quit biting again.

"You try it this time," he said as he cut another tiny filet and handed it to me. I put it on my jig hook, just as he had earlier, and lowered it into the water. Once again, the crappie resumed biting.

After about three hours we had 20 or more filleting-sized crappie in the livewell. We had caught probably 50 or more crappie but culled many of the smaller specimens. We had also caught three or four small warmouth sunfish, which apparently were mixed in with the crappie beneath us.

Frisbie asked me if I thought we had enough crappie. I agreed we could pull up anchor and head for the boat ramp whenever he was ready.

"If I can catch another one of those little warmouths, I'll show you another trick," Frisbie said. "I can make those crappie shut up and stop biting."

Using another piece of crappie meat, he soon caught another warmouth. He killed it and cut a small filet from its side and replaced the crappie meat with the warmouth meat. He dropped it down to the depth we were fishing.

Sure enough, neither of us got another bite for 30 minutes.

I inquired about where he learned that trick. Frisbie said he had used crappie meat for bait for many years, but that he learned that warmouth meat seemed to frighten crappie away, or at least stop them from biting. He learned it by accident when he used a piece for bait. He thought that since they were cousins, being in the sunfish family, warmouth meat might work just as well as crappie meat for catching crappie. Instead, he learned that it was the angling equivalent of the kiss of death, at least for a while.

I've never tried to duplicate Frisbie's success at stopping crappie from biting by dunking warmouth meat in their midst. But I have on several occasions triggered a resumption of biting by giving them a taste of crappie meat on my hook. It almost always works, at least for a little while.

And in Oklahoma, it's legal. There was once a law on the books that prohibited using any kind of "game fish" for bait. But Lower Illinois River striper fishing guides lobbied many years ago to eliminate that law because they wanted to use rainbow trout for bait; the law was changed.

Using fresh meat isn't the only way to get crappie to start biting again. I've had luck in the past by making subtle changes in the colors of jig dressings. I've also seen times when the addition of an attractant scent sparked a new round of action.

Back in the 1980s, I was fishing for crappie with two other men. We were anchored in a small timber-filled cove off of the main river channel. We were catching crappie steadily, but the action dwindled until none of us had had a bite for about 30 minutes.

I sat down and opened my crappie-fishing tackle bag on my lap. I was searching for a different style or color of jig when I spied a jar of jellied scent attractant, which the manufacturer had sent me to try. Usually a skeptic about such products, I had carried this jar around for a year or more without once using any of it.

What the heck, I thought, and I rubbed my jig across the jelly, coating both sides with the attractant.

I lowered my jig back into the water. Just as soon as it reached the proper depth, I caught a crappie. I reeled it in and put it in the livewell, then dropped the jig again and caught another crappie within 30 seconds. Neither of my companions had a bite.

They teased me about "cheating" by using the scent, but one soon agreed to try it. He caught a couple of crappie with it too. Our other friend declined, saying he wouldn't lower himself to use such a product. He didn't catch another fish. We stayed at the spot for another 45 minutes or so, adding several more keepers to the livewell before heading to a marina cafe for lunch.

I have since used that attractant, which I don't believe is being made anymore, as well as a couple of others, with good success on crappie. I never start out using it. But there have been several times on several lakes when I've been able to trigger a few more bites by adding a scent product to my crappie jigs.

I'm not advocating that you run to the tackle store and stock up on every scent product on the shelves. But don't automatically turn up your nose at such products either. Some definitely have merit in certain situations.

My most-often-used method of getting crappie to bite again after they've slowed down is to switch colors of jigs. I've seen days when a dull-chartreuse jig wouldn't work but a bright-chartreuse jig worked great!

Once at Lake Keystone I caught crappie for most of a morning using a black/hot-pink jig. Late in the morning the crappie quit biting. I tried a variety of other colors, making some radical changes, but nothing worked. I finally returned to my original black/pink jig.

Still no results!

I rooted around and found another bag containing black/pink jigs, but instead of being black/hot-pink, these were what I would call black/flat-pink. The pink tails were an opaque light-pink color, instead of the more transparent brighter-pink color of the original jigs. I threaded one of the black/flat-pink tube skirts onto my jighead and dropped it down to the brushpile below me. Sure enough, I began catching fish and wound up with a near-limit of nice-sized fish.

Why did one shade of pink wear out its welcome and another shade start working? Who knows? It may have been the angle of sunlight as the sun moved through the sky. Light penetrates the water much better from higher angles than from lower ones, so penetration at the depth I was fishing may have affected the way the two shades of pink looked to crappie.

For several seasons I carried a device called the Color-C-Lector in my boat. It was a light meter with a submersible probe or sensor. You could drop the probe down to the depth you wished to fish and it would recommend a color of lure to use. It had three or more color bands - for clear, murky or muddy water - and the recommended colors were different for each band. I dropped the probe down around my brushpiles several times during a day, and I noticed that the recommended colors would change slightly as the sun rose and fell in the sky.

The same thing happened if clouds suddenly covered the sun. When it got darker down in the water, the device recommended an entirely different set of colors.

A lot of anglers dismissed the Color-C-Lector as a worthless gadget. In reality, the device didn't tell you what a fish liked. It told you which colors were probably most visible in a given set of light (or dark) conditions.

So if you're "on the crappie" one morning and they suddenly quit biting, don't give up hope. It's possible that a simple change in lures or tactics can make them bite again.

Sometimes we really can make our own luck!

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