Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, Smith Mountain Lake comes to mind when most Virginia anglers think of either largemouth or striped bass fishing. The lake is deep and clear. Smith Mountain Lake’s deepest point is about 250 feet, near the dam itself. Outside the lake’s many coves, 100 to 150 feet is typical.
Bass aren’t the only fish worth pursuing here, however. And from a crappie angler’s point of view, the structure of the lake makes things a little easier than in some lakes. Crappie are cover-loving, schooling fish. Water depths in excess of 40 to 50 feet where predator fish can slip in below them are not very favorable to long life spans for crappie.
Knowing this simple but useful fact is what helps many SML anglers key in on the lake’s crappie.
“A lot of Smith Mountain’s crappie are caught in the secondary channels and bays off the Blackwater and Roanoke River arms,” said Dan Wilson, biologist for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. “Beginning in April, depending on water temperatures, crappie begin staging in the mouths of these secondaries and will make their way toward the backs of the areas looking for spawning cover.”
The best places to begin searching for Smith Mountain Lake crappie as the waters warm in late March and into April are along creek channels that lead back toward favorable spawning cover for crappie. To narrow this search down, look for irregularities, such as inside or outside bends in the channel or areas where feeder creeks intersect with the secondary channel. Locating these areas narrows your search down from a couple of miles of creek channel to a hundred yards.
Once your search is refined to a 100-or-so-yard area, it’s time to begin looking for cover such as submerged timber, stumps or brushpiles to pinpoint fish. Some anglers take the approach of beginning near the mouth of the secondary creek and locating and eliminating areas one at a time while heading toward the back of the secondary creek. While detailed lake maps make this task a little easier, once you are on the water, a good sonar unit spells the difference between a cooler full of slabs and trying to guess where the fish are.
J.D. Abshire of Rocky Mount knows all too well how important good electronics are. Abshire spends a great deal of time on Virginia waters, rotating much of his fishing efforts between walleyes on Philpott and stripers at Smith Mountain — but he foregoes both when Smith Mountain’s crappie begin to move shallow in the spring. He’s been there for the last 25 years.
“This time of year I have a pretty good time-tested system,” Abshire claimed. “ I look for the outside edge of a creek channel, then I look for brush or timber hanging right on the edge of that edge.”
The veteran crappie angler said that if he can find the right kind of structure in the right water depth, the fish are usually there. He starts by looking at water depths in the 30- to 40-foot range early in the pre-spawn stage and will move shallower to the 15- to 20-foot depths as the water begins to warm. Then it’s time to get down to business.
“My favorite rod is a 6 1/2-foot Shimano Compre in medium-light action with a fast tip. It has IM-8 construction, which makes it super sensitive, especially so when coupled with one of the super lines,” Abshire said. “I really like the Quantum Catalyst CT10 size reel. It’s light and smooth, plus the magnetic bail opens and closes easily, something you do a lot of when using this tactic.”
Unless the water is extremely clear, Abshire prefers 8- to 10-pound-test braid as his main line. These lines are unparalleled for detecting light-biting crappie, and the angler doesn’t break off and have to re-tie as often. Abshire’s deep-water jig-rig consists of a 1/8-ounce Acme Kastmaster or generic spoon with the treble hook removed. He ties a length of 10-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon to the thin end of the spoon that, when presented, actually has the spoon inverted. At the end of the leader coming off the spoon, he ties a jig.
Reversing the hookless spoons so the heavy end goes first allows the heavy end of the spoon to naturally sink first. Tying the leader as mentioned will cause the jig to play follow-the-leader with the spoon, imparting more action and also resulting in less fouling of the dropper with the main line.
A 1/32- to 1/16-ounce barbed jighead is tied on the dropper. Keep the dropper around 2 to 2 1/2 inches between the spoon and the jig. He said that if the line is any longer, fouling becomes a constant problem.
On the jighead, simply thread on your favorite tube.
Abshire noted that, “The dropper line should always be a lighter pound-test. If a snag becomes irrecoverable, the dropper line will hopefully break and you lose only the jig, not the spoon. I usually tie up several rigs, enough for a day’s fishing, and use a small snap between my main line and spoon so I can change them out quickly.”
It’s no secret that crappie like trees and brush — and hang-ups with the Abshire rig are frequent. If you have not set the hook too hard, usually a little up-and-down jiggling with the rod tip will cause the rig to free itself. The weight of the spoon will pull the hook out.
This little rig is a great search lure and has a beautiful back-and-forth cadence if cast toward a brushpile and allowed to sink on a tight line.
“It looks like the palm fronds on a Hula dancer’s skirt,” chuckled Abshire. “Well, maybe not that good.”
Considering the sink rate of the rig, this technique isn’t the best for neutral or non-aggressive fish. When fish aren’t aggressive, the veteran angler will go back to a single jig on a 1/16-ounce jighead and try a more finesse approach to the crappie that are holding tight to cover.
Neutral or inactive fish may hold closer to the bottom, especially after a front. Lightly tapping a 1/16-ounce jig dressed in marabou or a plastic tube jig on bottom cover is likely to encourage reaction bites. However, when the crappie readily chase bait or for times when they find deep, vertical jigging attractive, Abshire claims his spoon rig and the fluttering technique are hard to beat.
“Whenever possible, I try to jig under my transducer or within its cone,” Abshire said. “Using this technique eliminates all the
guesswork because there’s no need to count it down or guess lure depth. On a sensitive sonar, I can watch the fish and the rig, and then stop my lure just above them. I really get a kick out of calling the strike as I see them move up to take it.”
Once you become accustomed to the sink rate of the Abshire rig, pay close attention to your line. If it stops prematurely, one of two things has happened: It has either landed on some obstacle or a fish has inhaled it. As with all jigging, learn to be a line watcher.
“Don’t be surprised if you see an extremely large arch appear on your screen and you then hook something that decides to go downtown,” the angler advised. “There will be the occasional bass, catfish or striper that really likes the looks of this thing.”
Abshire’s favorite location on Smith Mountain Lake is Gills Creek off the Blackshire River arm on the west end of Smith Mountain Lake. This area is easily accessed from the public ramp off Route 616 on Gills Creek or the semi-private Magnum Marina on the Upper Blackwater arm. Gills Creek is a magnet for baitfish and accordingly, all species of game fish that follow the bait.
Once the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, baitfish will bunch up in the mouth of Gills and work toward the back as the water warms. There can be a daily migration from suspending out over the main creek channel to holding in pockets near shore, particularly after a string of warm days, so it’s a good idea to motor over the intended areas and locate the bait on your sonar to find active crappie.
Additional information on lodging, marinas and other attractions can be obtained by calling the Smith Mountain Lake Visitors Center at (800) 676-8203, or visit the Web site at www.visitsmithmountainlake.com.