April 24, 2017
I often share stories about fishing with my uncles when I was a kid. Uncle Guy and Uncle Julius both loved crappie fishing and often let me tag along. One day might find me on a Mississippi River oxbow trolling with Uncle Guy. The next trip, I might be on a lake with Uncle Julius fishing brushpiles with minnows.
The thing I remember most about those outings decades ago is the fact both men always caught more crappie than me. Not once did I outfish Uncle Julius or Uncle Guy.
Having pondered that fact for 50 years now, I’ve decided it was a difference of speed that accounted for our contrasting catch rates. My uncles fished S-L-O-W. I fished fast! Our differing ages were somewhat accountable for that, but also our differing levels of experience. My uncles knew then what I know now: crappie tend to bite slower-moving baits much more often than fast-moving enticements.
I’m not sure when this “slower is better” concept became part of my crappie-fishing repertoire, but it might have been one August day while jigging for deep brushpile crappie. The fish weren’t biting, so I anchored my boat, cast out a jig with a bobber above it, then promptly fell asleep.
I was awakened by a hefty crappie tugging at my line, which I landed before falling asleep again. Once again I was awakened when a crappie hooked itself.
I cast my rig a third time, but kept one eye open and watched my float. A few minutes later, almost imperceptibly, the bobber rocked, and I hooked another slab.
A picture of an uncle watching a motionless bobber popped in my head. The only time his fishing rig moved was when a crappie took the bait.
When I cast again, I looked at my watch and waited to see how long it would be before a crappie struck. It was five minutes. When I cast and retrieved the jig and bobber, even at an incredibly slow pace, I had no luck at all. But if the jig was allowed to dangle motionless beneath the float without being disturbed, a crappie eventually would bite.
“Slower is better” is not a hard and fast rule. At certain times in certain places—when fishing clear water, for example—working your bait or lure rather fast may produce more crappie. Experience has shown, however, slower almost always works better.
Slower Jig Fishing
When fishing with a jig and jigging pole, the best way to work the lure often is doing nothing at all. Start by tying the jig properly. Pull the knot to the top of the hook eye so the jig hangs perpendicular to the line. Then lower the jig to fish level and do your best to hold it there without moving it. You may think the jig is perfectly still, but it will shimmy slightly and draw the attention of nearby crappie. Marabou jigs and skirted tube jigs are especially effective because they ripple seductively even when stationary.
As the above example suggests, adding a bobber above the jig makes the lure even more enticing to slabs. Use your sonar to determine the depth of the fish if possible, then rig your jig beneath a bobber at the same depth. If the water is deeper than your pole is long, and it almost certainly will be in summer, use a slip bobber to allow easy lure placement or casting. Position the rig over the fish you’ve pinpointed, then allow the jig to settle beneath the bobber. Do not move the jig at all. Let it drift with the breeze if one is present, but don’t let it drift off the fish. Watch the bobber closely. When a fish inhales the lure, movement of the float lets you know.
Slower Bait Fishing
A few techniques for fishing live minnows at a slower pace also will go a long way toward improving your catch rate.
One of my old-timer crappie-fishing buddies, Mr. Ezra Stark, used the simplest method I ever saw. After hooking a shiner, he always thumped it with his finger.
“You don’t want to kill the minnow,” he said. “But a knock in the head will slow it down a bit so a crappie’s more likely to grab it.”
Minnows seem to work better, too, if you keep scissors handy and snip off most of the tail before you start fishing. The baitfish will swim around less but still exhibit occasion flips and flutters that indicate it’s crippled and would make an easy meal.
Changing to a larger bobber size may help put the brakes on a too-active minnow as well. Or consider doing away with the standard bobber/sinker/hook/minnow rig and using a simple jig/minnow combo instead. The added weight of the leadhead will transform the liveliest minnow into a dawdler, and a dawdling minnow is a minnow more likely to be gobbled up by a crappie.
Speed also is an important aspect of trolling for crappie, and more times than not, I’ve found I need to inch my boat along to garner the most strikes.
Muddy water compounds the need for an unhurried pace. Crappie feed primarily by sight, and in discolored water, they may have difficulty pinpointing fast-moving offerings. Bait or lures that pass slowly, on the other hand, are more easily detected.
In off-colored water, changing baits may improve your catch rate even more. A little jig may go undetected regardless of the speed, but crappie should have little trouble homing in on a fat shiner or flashy spinnerbait moving slowly past.
“When you’re trolling, you want to move slower than molasses in January,” Uncle Guy, who was a master troller, used to say. “When you think you’re going slow enough, cut your speed in half. That should be just right.”
In the end, things that slow us down and force patience prove most beneficial. Years ago, I did not understand this.
“Slow down, boy,” Uncle Julius would say. “A fish can’t bite a fast hook.”
“You’re hurrying too much,” said Uncle Guy. “You need to slow down and take a deep breath.”
My uncles shared their wisdom at every turn, but back then I was moving too fast for much of it to sink in. As I get older, however, this “haste makes waste” stuff is starting to make more sense. I fish slower and am more successful as a result.
I recently took my teenage son crappie fishing, and much to his chagrin, I caught three crappie for every one he landed.
“Slow down, boy,” I said, hoping to help him. “A fish can’t bite a fast hook.”
He just looked at me like I was crazy.