February 14, 2022
Fishing for crappie is popular in much of the U.S., particularly in the South. It is such a passion for many anglers that a few lucky ones even get to pursue the species for a living as a guide, tournament angler, or both.
The challenge of catching crappie, along with it making good table fare, adds to the species' popularity.
On a November crappie-fishing trip to Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tenn., I learned the ins and outs of not only catching these tasty fish, but also targeting the larger specimens, aka "slabs" or "hammers," as crappie guide and “On the Hook” host Jeremy Mattingly refers to the larger fish of two pounds or more.
Given the opportunity to fish with professional and tournament crappie anglers, I learned techniques and methods for finding, targeting and finally enticing crappie to take the lure.
'Live-Scoping for Slabs’
Having success in catching crappie can be a technical pursuit for many. "Technical" takes on more meaning with the introduction and use of Livescope-style electronics, which pro crappie anglers now rely on to remain competitive, and weekend anglers use to maximize catch rates. Livescope electronics offer advanced sonar capabilities that give fishermen real-time views of the fish and surrounding structure rather than "historical" views.
"After using Livescope, we realized that back when we were spider-rigging, catching crappie was just luck," said Matt Outlaw, professional crappie angler and son of well-known crappie fisherman, Whitey Outlaw.
With Livescope, anglers can identify fish species and even see the bigger fish they wish to target. Baits or lures can be seen as well, as can the reaction of the targeted fish, which makes boat control a much-needed skill. Lure presentation can make the difference on whether the crappie takes the bait, ignores it, or just swims away.
We know structure is key when targeting crappie. Reelfoot Lake features multiple areas where cypress tree stumps occupy the bottom. Crappie tend to be suspended in the vicinity of these trees, many of which had broken off at or just below the water surface, making it hazardous for boaters and personal watercraft to move around with any speed. By demanding boaters move slower with great caution, the presence of cypress stumps can be an added plus for anchored recreational anglers.
In this clear water, the pros and guides had us fishing small 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jigs tipped with a white curly-tailed soft-plastic bait. Experimenting with other colors when the fish were finicky often became the norm as well. Orange was a popular color, as was chartreuse.
When the action seemed to slow a bit, I even went to my go-to color for about any fishing situation—electric chicken, a combination of hot pink and chartreuse—and was successful with it for a period of time. Also, adding a dab of JB's Fish Sauce attractant (wax-worm scent is a favorite with crappie fishermen) did the trick to entice picky fish to bite.
Watch Your Hooksets
It doesn't take a "bass" hookset to hook a crappie. I saw a few misses by obvious bass anglers who raised their rods too fast and hard to hook these "papermouths." This wasn't necessary and more often than not ended in a missed fish. This is especially true during warmer months, when a crappie's mouth becomes even softer due to the rising temperatures. Keeping pressure on the fish with a raised rod is all that is necessary to be productive.
For professional angler Kyler Beckmann, a leading angler on the American Crappie Trail, this was his first time on Reelfoot Lake, yet he was extremely adept at finding and directing anglers to the crappie. His home waters are Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where he guides full time.
Beckmann advises having a variety of jigs from 2 inches down to size 10, and he sticks with natural colors. In fall and winter, he likes shad patterns. In the spring, he goes to browns and beiges. Covering a lot of water is the key to finding big fish.
"To catch a crappie of a lifetime, February is the month to do it," Beckmann said.
In most instances, we found that the suspended crappie were facing upward. They often looked like letter V's as they clung close to tree trunks. The fish suspended a few feet off the bottom seemed to be more actively feeding. Those staying close to the bottom were not as interested.
A requirement for crappie success is to keep movement of the lure minimal and slow. No sudden or extreme movements at all, or the crappie are gone in a flash, as we witnessed with the Livescope electronics. This was particularly challenging as the boat bobbed with the moderate winds and choppy waters while anchored over cypress stumps. Keep the lure still, or at least as still as possible. Slight movements are recommended, though, to keep fish interested. In choppy waters, we noticed a bit of a boat-slapping noise that did seem to run the fish off.
What Else to Do
Reelfoot Lake has a unique story in its formation, caused by an earthquake in the early 1800s. A depression was formed in which the Mississippi River flowed backwards to fill and create the lake. It is relatively shallow, ranging in most areas from 14 to 17 feet deep.
On the shore of Reelfoot Lake is a fishing and hunting lodge that has hosted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. Blue Bank Resort (bluebankresort.com) consists of a lodge that is rustic in decor, but modern in its amenities, featuring comfortable rooms, cabins, condos and even a house to accommodate family or any size group.
The Fishhouse Grill Restaurant, located on the property, caters to groups large and small, serving locally sourced foods with a number of the ingredients grown in their own garden. They have an inviting outdoor patio for dining and enjoying the fire pits on a cool evening. The resort has a selection of fishing guides available. Largemouth bass and panfish are also favorites of anglers on the lake. Crappie are an especially popular target and catchable year-round.
Successful crappie anglers depend on reliable equipment and gear such as these:
For electronics needs: Cornfield Fishing Gear (cornfieldfishinggear.com), All Aboard Marine (allaboardmarine.com); All crappie-fishing needs from boat rigging to fishing gear: PTG Outdoors (proteamguides.com); Lithium marine batteries: Skinny Water Marine (lithiummarinebatteries.net); Rods and lures: Probuilt Jigs (probuiltjigs.com), Crappie Monster (crappiemonster.com), Ozark Rods (ozarkrod.com), Sore Mouth Tackle (facebook.com/soremouthtackle).