Crankbait Tips for "Cranky" Crappies

You've got to vary your tactics to entice sometimes finicky papermouths -- and crankbaits can be the key to opening lock-jawed fish this spring.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

As if I had scripted it, a solid hit came just as my lipless crankbait passed over a brushpile. I had already landed a couple of bass on worms but had switched to a plug, in hopes that another fish or two might want an alternative offering. The rest of the story surprised me, however, when I discovered that a jumbo crappie, instead of a bass, had slurped down my 2 1/2-inch-long plug.

I tucked that experience into a file folder in my head, where it sat unused for another few years. I was reminded of that first crankbait crappie on a crappie-fishing trip a few years ago when I switched from a jig to a plug at the suggestion of a friend and began catching fish. The second time convinced me, and I have since sought crappies with crankbaits on several occasions.

Through conversations with other anglers and experimentations, I have discovered specific applications of crankbaits for crappies. Sometimes they work. Other times they don't. Minnows and jigs clearly form the center of most crappie fishing strategies. However, there are times papermouths want something different. Under certain conditions that something is a micro-sized crankbait.

On days when crappies pick plugs over traditional offerings, fishermen gain one major advantage. Even a small plug is a decent-sized bite for the average crappie, so crankbaits tend to attract bigger fish. Big numbers become secondary, when every crappie that comes in the boat weighs 1 pound or more. Crappies tend to turn onto crankbaits at any time, but small, thick-bodied forage fish move into waters that crappies are using. When crappies begin keying on forage fish that have rounded profiles, a crankbait offers a better match than a jig or even a live minnow. Any time an angler spots schools of baitfish that are thicker than the average minnow in an area that he plans to probe for crappies, he should consider using crankbaits.

Other conditions that tend to bring out the best in small crankbaits include heavy winds and high waters, both of which are common through the first part of spring. Either condition tends to reduce visibility, making fish less tentative and forcing them to look harder for their meals. Crankbaits that offer added motion and a larger size than traditional offerings, often work wonderfully in murky water.

Arguably, the biggest advantage that crankbaits provide over more traditional crappie offerings is the out-standing depth control while covering a broad area. Crappies are very depth-oriented, so if one fish is caught at 4 feet deep, several more are apt to be holding at the same depth. In a vast stumpfield, there might be only one or two fish on each stump, with almost all the fish holding at the same depth.

Crankbaits (except lipless models) run to the same depth at every cast if the retrieval speed and lines size remain constant. If a fisherman catches a couple of crappies on a crankbait, given normal retrieves, he should not think about depths anymore and can instead concentrate on making more casts to similar types of areas and around the same kinds of cover.

The biggest limitation of a crankbait is its tendency to grab hold of a brushpile or treetop and hold onto it. Crappies prefer the densest cover they can find, and even square-billed crankbaits are far from being completely brush-proof. Some crappie hotspots, like holes in mats of floating debris or aquatic vegetation, simply cannot be fished with a crankbait.

That said, a crankbait works fine over submerged vegetation and can be fished carefully between branches of treetops. For casting under docks, around boats, beside bridge pilings and along riprap banks, six exposed hook points create no extra problems.

Turning to crankbait selection, a good starting point is with the size. While large plugs will catch crappies on occasion, crankbaits selected to target the species should be no larger than 2 inches long. One- to 1 1/2-inch-long models work even better in most instances. If any baitfish are visible, the ideal-sized plug will "match the hatch."

Staying with the theme of matching the appearance of the forage, the best crankbaits for crappies, under most conditions, have natural color patterns. Prevalent baitfish in most waters are silver or gold with dark backs. The best crankbait patterns feature the same colors. Again, if any baitfish are visible, the best lures will be those that look the most like the real thing.

The big exception comes when wind or rain really cloud up the water. Most fishermen will stay home if the water turns really dirty, knowing that the crappies will have a hard time finding their baits. The fish will feed hard on the baits they can locate, however, making fire-tiger, chartreuse or other bright colors and color patterns are excellent choices.

Depth is the most important determinant of choosing the right crankbait. Different baits are designed to run at different depths. Individual lures run to different depths, according to line size; however, depth ratings printed on lure packages allow for comparisons to determine which lures run deepest.

To accurately gauge running depths, fishermen can take a tip from crankbait bass fishermen. Before casting where he thinks the bass will be, a crankbait specialist will often go to an area with a clean, slow sloping bottom. Using the line size he plans to fish with, he will test several specific crankbaits to see how deep each runs. Armed with a depthfinder and a rod that have a sensitive tip, it is easy to measure running depths by simply finding the depth where a bait barely touches the bottom.

One limitation of tiny crankbaits is that many won't run as deep as anglers need them to go to get to the crappies on some days. A simple solution is to run a tiny crankbait as a trailer behind a deeper-diving plug, with the leader tied to one of the big plug's back hooks. The same combination also adds significant casting distance and will occasionally result in a big bass on the line.

At times, conditions will call for fishing a range of depth. Rock banks, which crappies will hold along to, offer a good example. In such cases, lipless crankbaits, which sink when they are not being pulled through the water, offer the best bets. Lipless baits can also be fished slightly deeper then many micro-sized crankbaits by allowing them to sink before beginning the retrieve.

Beyond the depth it will run to, a crankbait's wobble should be taken into consideration. Flat-sided baits, generally speaking, have quick, tight wobbles. Fat plugs, by way of contrast, have slow, wide wobbles. Neither is necessarily best, but crappies will sho

w definite preferences, so experimentation is important.

However a particular crankbait wobbles, that wobble probably provides all the action that is needed. Twitching crankbaits and pulling them through the water in big sweeps will draw hard hits from bass, but the same tactics will keep crappies hiding in the bushes. Crappies like things moving slowly and steadily.

Suspending crankbaits provide the only significant exception to the rule of slow, steady retrieves. With a suspender, a slow and otherwise steady retrieve should be interrupted by long pauses, especially when the bait moves beside a specific piece of cover, like a bridge piling, a dock support or a stump. A crappie has a hard time resisting something that swims slowly into its living room and then stops, especially when that something looks just like one of its favorite kinds of meals.

At times, conditions, visible baitfish or cover types in an area make crankbaits obvious kinds of lures to try. However, only experimentation will reveal that a small plug will produce more (or larger) fish than will jigs or minnows. Until a pattern is clearly established, crappie fishermen should be quick to experiment, and every angler on a boat should try something different.

If crappies do show a preference to a hardbait, other anglers aboard should alter their offerings. However, unless the fisherman who is cranking in crappies has already experimented with several baits, it is best for each other angler to try a slightly different color pattern, size or shape of a plug. It could be that any plug will produce more crappies than any jig that day, but a particular plug will far outproduce the rest.

So, if you are out this spring and the crappies seem "cranky," consider an alternative approach. It might be that you simply aren't cranking the right bait in front of the fish.

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