August 24, 2022
- Note: This article on crappie fishing was featured in the South edition of August's Game & Fish Magazine. The September issue is currently on sale at newststands across the country. Learn how to subscribe
Catching quality crappies on a consistent basis can be tough. Jack Smith has been guiding central-Florida crappie anglers during both daylight and nighttime hours for more than 40 years. Over the decades he has developed a near fail-safe system for filling livewells with limits of fat slabs. Smith utilizes a three-prong approach in his 24/7 quest for crappies—techniques that will work just about anywhere crappies lurk in the South.
Depending on the season, the day’s weather and the lake or river conditions, Smith uses one or a combination of three techniques he calls "crappie-at-night," "pulling" and "pushing." He fishes both lures and live baits with these techniques aboard two specially rigged boats outfitted for different waters and fishing styles. His bait offerings remain simple, with small underspin jigs with soft-plastic tails and 1 1/2- to 2-inch minnows being his go-to presentations.
When the weather turns hot—particularly during summer—Smith often opts to fish after the sun sets. In fact, he is a huge fan of nighttime angling for "speckled perch," as crappies are often called. Not only is the air temperature cooler after dark, but the crappie fishing is usually much better since most boaters have left the water and things have calmed down.
Smith is a water warrior, guiding clients more than 200 days a year, with more than half of his excursions at night. After decades on the water, Smith firmly believes the most consistent feeding time usually occurs during the first five or six hours after sundown.
On a recent nighttime adventure, friends Rosie Allen, Georgia Turner and I climbed aboard Smith’s super-wide pontoon boat at a ramp near DeLand, Fla., about an hour before sunset. We slowly motored up the St. Johns River to an irregular shoreline. Fallen trees had split current along a 50-foot shoreline and created a large eddy off the main river channel.
"I've been fishing this spot for over 25 years, and there is an abundance of submerged trees here," said the guide. "The bank drops off from about 7 feet down to over 20, but you can't fish below about 10 feet or you'll get hung up. To keep big crappie from getting into the timber, we set our spinning reel drags very tight."
On his night treks, Smith prefers to let the crappies come to him. He tied up to a large, 2-foot-diameter laydown jutting out from the shoreline and set up his tackle and lighting spread. His pontoon boat is rigged with two side-by-side pedestal chairs at the bow. In front of each chair are four Highlander Millennium rod holders that are fully adjustable—up, down and sideways.
In such areas, Smith's bait-attracting lights are critical to success. The guide has two large, bow-mounted, 3,500-lumen LED lights near the boat’s centerline. Their beams illuminate the tackle layout and water in front of each chair.
Two partially submerged, 4-foot fluorescent Crappie at Night pole lights (crappieatnight.com) of Smith's design are positioned adjacent to the LEDs and vertically in the water column. All electronics and lights run off a small generator.
The lights quickly attract a wide variety of aquatic life. Small minnows show up searching for the microorganisms the lights attract, followed by bigger minnows and, eventually, gar. Shortly thereafter, the crappies typically begin to show and bite. At night, Smith uses 7-foot-long fiberglass Genco rods with Shakespeare spinning reels spooled with 6-pound-test monofilament line.
Smith’s live-bait rig consists of a size-1 Eagle Claw rotating hook below a half-ounce egg sinker that is positioned with a bobber stop so a biting fish won’t feel the weight. He’ll place the minnows just below where the light glow penetrates.
"I prefer nighttime fishing in the summer months because the fish you catch are usually bigger," Smith says. "The hotter the water, the bigger the fish. Bigger fish are more active in warmer waters, but you still have to watch your line to see a bite because it might just start moving sideways."
During the day, Smith normally uses either the "push" or "pull" technique from his second boat, a 19-foot Ranger 390V bass boat. The boat is equipped with eight rod holders on the stern and another eight on the bow, in clusters of four. The casting deck seating can be set up for one or two depending on how many clients are aboard. It is also equipped with multiple electronics capable of side scanning, down scanning, forward facing and live scoping.
Smith normally starts out "pulling" (sometimes called "long-lining"), which is ideal for covering a lot of water to locate schools of fish. He slowly drifts a specific course with the wind, often aided by his trolling motor.
Quite often, a "double" will be caught when a school is first contacted. Smith and I recently caught several doubles one productive afternoon on Florida's Lake Crescent, with about a dozen of our biggest slabs weighing up to about 2 pounds.
Smith utilizes two 10-foot Power-Pole Blades with Drift Paddles on his Ranger 390V. When pulling baits, he'll use the easily adjustable paddles in strong winds (about 10 mph or more) and rough water to slow his boat's speed or align his drift. The drift speed at which you pull lures is critical, according to the guide. Smith monitors his boat’s speed on his sonar unit and the boat’s track on his GPS because repeatability is vital to success.
"Retracing a particularly productive path and speed will bring additional strikes," Smith says. "The fish will let you know the optimal speed, but it is usually 1.2 to 1.4 mph. Sometimes they want a little faster presentation because it is a reaction bite."
This pulling technique is typically successful on lakes that are 6- to 10-feet deep with sandy bottoms and very little structure. With two clients, Smith runs eight medium-light-action rods off the stern and sometimes puts a couple in the front. With one angler, he puts six rods in the back.
He uses 8-, 10-, 12- and 14-foot HH Pulling Rods (hhrodsandreels.com), and staggers them so they don’t get tangled easily. The 8- and 10-footers are in rod holders down the middle, on either side of the outboard, and the really long rods are positioned in the outermost rod holders. The baits are usually placed from 40 to 80 feet off the stern. Smith uses a double rig with a combination of underspin jigs tipped with either curly-tail or flat-tail plastic sliders of 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length.
Smith normally positions a 1/32-ounce jig near the surface. He'll place a heavier 1/16-ounce jig about 18 inches to 2 feet below. The pulling technique is especially productive for anglers fishing bodies of water they have not been on before as the method allows you to cover water quickly.
Smith recommends that anglers fishing familiar waters use the "pushing" (aka "spider rig") technique. When pushing in deeper waters, he uses stiffer, heavy-action trolling rods off the bow. The guide recommends using small jigs tipped with live minnows, too.
"When pushing, I put eight medium-heavy-action 'pushing' rods off the bow and move the boat forward a lot slower, typically between 0.3 to 0.5 mph," Smith says. "I'll use a double rig with a heavy 1-ounce egg sinker fixed between my two hooks to keep the baits straight down. I like to use a Skipper’s Moon Jig (skippersjigs.com) tipped with a minnow on the bottom, and a Floating Moon Jig tipped with a minnow above it."
With this technique, Smith hooks his minnows through the lips as opposed to just barely under the skin at the dorsal as with his crappie-at-night technique. The guide will usually "push" in a little deeper water, often down to 20 feet. Since most of the Florida lakes are shallow, he likes fishing the St. Johns River where there’s plenty of currents, tides and deeper waters. There, the guide opts to "push" baits.
When Smith does fish deep lakes, those in the 15- to 20-foot range, he most often pushes. He relies on his depth finder to locate the lake's thermocline, which is typically in the 8- to 10-foot range.
Once he's found it, he drops his minnows straight down, starting about 5 feet below the surface. If they die quickly, the water is probably too hot to have adequate oxygen needed to support crappies. In such cases, he relocates until he finds a spot more conducive to the fish.
ALIVE AND KICKIN'
Guide Jack Smith uses insulated bait coolers and aerators to keep his baits lively. He opts for a 19-quart Engel Live Bait Cooler in his pontoon boat, and a 19-quart Magellan Insulated Bait Box on his Ranger boat. The aeration system on both setups are Bubs Daddy Bait Aerators (bubsdaddy.shop) with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These set-ups keep bait lively, with fully charged batteries lasting up to a couple of weeks (with water changes every few days).
Smith normally puts about 1 1/2 pounds of minnows (approximately 150 to 170 of the 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long minnows) in a cooler. In an average productive night, Smith will use about a pound of the minnows (better to have too many than not enough). In the hottest months, the minnows from the cool waters of a bait shop have to be acclimated to the lake or river water temperature for sustained health. In summer, Smith does extensive night fishing, and the water temperature is often in mid-80s to 90 degrees. The well water at his home is about 75 degrees, so he fills his bait boxes about half full, then goes to the bait shop, where they keep their holding tanks around 58 degrees, and adds the minnows and some of the colder water to his live box.
The baits are then in water typically in the upper 60s and will stay alive much longer and not go into shock. Smith’s golden rule for live bait is this: "When fishing, drop the bait deeper to where the water is cooler and the minnows stay alive—once you find where they survive, that’s where you'll catch the crappie."