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In Search of Your Biggest Crappie

Numbers are usually the name of the game when it comes to springtime crappie fishing, but what about the real "slabs"? How do you go about catching the crappie of a lifetime?

How big is a trophy crappie? That depends on several things - the body of water you're fishing, the state in which you fish, how big a crappie you've caught before. Speaking in generalities, however, any crappie over 1 1/2 pounds is an exceptional fish, and for most anglers in most waters, a crappie over 2 pounds would be the trophy of a lifetime.

How can you catch your biggest crappie ever? Many anglers want a simple answer to that question - a magic pill, a silver bullet, or some tight-lipped secret the anglers who are consistently catching trophy crappie must know about but won't tell. Unfortunately, there's not one. But there are proven tips and tactics you can employ that are likely to add up to eventual success. Here are some to get you started.

All waters are not created equal. You'll home in on a trophy much quicker if you choose those proven to produce extra-large crappie, even if it means traveling. Contact your state fisheries department or a local fisheries biologist for information that will lead to such waters. Check with those in other states, too, and if necessary, plan a vacation that will take you to some of the best waters.

Some lakes and reservoirs have special management regulations such as length or slot limits that encourage the growth of larger crappie. These, in particular, are worth trying.

When fishing new lakes, start by visiting the local marina or bait shop. While purchasing your bait (it helps if you spend some money), strike up a conversation with the proprietor and any anglers who happen to be there, and ask some questions. How deep are they biting? What kind of cover are they holding in? Are they hitting jigs or minnows best? What colors and sizes of jigs? Any parts of the lake seem more productive than others? Occasionally you'll be led astray by some ne'er-do-well, but more often than not you'll leave with a plethora of useful fishing info.

Catching a "barn door" crappie like this 2-pounder requires special tactics. Photo by Keith Sutton

Spawning season offers the best slab-hooking opportunities. Crappie move shallow then and are more easily found. Big egg-laden females weigh more than after spawning. However, savvy trophy hunters know big crappie can be taken year 'round, and those who take trophy fish consistently are on the water many days year 'round. Follow their example. Don't wait for perfect conditions. Get out there and fish.

Barn-door crappie get cagey when people and boats are swarming. Fish when fewer folks are on the water - weekdays, in winter, at night. Better yet, fish fertile backcountry crappie waters that seldom see other anglers at all. These can often be found in wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges and national forests. Many of them hold gigantic crappie, thanks to the lack of fishing pressure.

Larger crappie often use isolated underwater logs, treetops, etc. instead of visible cover pounded by more anglers. The hotspots usually are near (not necessarily in) deeper water, where big crappie can simply move deeper when feeling threatened.

During pre-spawn periods, you'll have an advantage if you fish a lake's northwest section. Cold northerly winds blow over northwest banks, resulting in water that's as much as five degrees warmer here. This is highly attractive to big pre-spawn slabs.

Don't lose the crappie of a lifetime because of avoidable problems: the line was frayed or too light for conditions; the hooks didn't hold; the drag was too loose or too tight, or the tackle was inadequate. Check often for fraying; cut and retie if necessary. Use the heaviest line suitable for conditions. Use premium hooks - always needle sharp. Always set your drag properly. Use quality poles, rods, reels and other tackle.

Are other anglers zigging? Maybe you should zag. Fish become conditioned to certain baits, lures and presentations, and you may catch more lunkers by trying something unconventional - a rosy red minnow instead of a golden shiner, for example, or a new lure or presentation that hasn't caught on yet. Give a small bass spinnerbait a try, or a jigging spoon. Be open-minded. Experiment.

Although you may not catch as many fish, crappie taken on crankbaits average larger than fish taken on jigs or minnows. Also, since crankbaits are a little heavier than most other crappie baits, they can be cast farther with light tackle. This allows you to keep well away from the area you're fishing, a real advantage when you're targeting usually spooky trophies. Most any small crankbait, and many large ones, can be used to entice crappie. But those mimicking the natural movements and colors of shad or other baitfish are best suited for inclusion in the crappie angler's arsenal of lures. Small floating/ diving lures work especially well during spring. These lures float up and away from snags when the retrieve is stopped, a necessity when fishing the thick spawning cover in most crappie lakes. Sinking and deep-diving crankbaits are excellent during summer, autumn and winter when crappie often are suspended in deep-water areas.

Crappie are called "papermouths" with good reason. It's easy to tear the hook from the mouth if you apply too much pressure. But you can lose a big crappie just as easily by applying too little pressure. Keep a tight line at all times, but don't play the fish too long or too hard.

Bad things happen when you don't use a net: The fish thrashes off when you bend to grab it, or the hook rips out when you try swinging it in. A landing net is the best way to efficiently handle big crappie. Use one with a long handle that lets you stand while netting, giving an extra few feet of reach when you need it most.

Small crappie are good practice subjects, but if you start catching lots of runts when targeting slabs, move somewhere else. The little guys are fun, but big ones aren't likely to be among them.

In the situation just mentioned, most anglers will tend to move deeper. Deep water holds mystique; we believe it's where the lunkers lurk. But that's not the case with crappie in most waters. When catching loads of small crappie, more often than not you'll find Mr. Big in shallower water, not deeper. Try it and see.

Remember the

precise locations where you catch, lose or see big crappie - the specific stump, the particular bush, etc. A return visit could turn up the barn door that you missed, another trophy that moved in or a crappie that grew bigger after you released it. Use a good lake map or, better yet, a GPS unit, to mark hotspots in case memory fails.

Maintaining a low profile shifts the odds in your favor when hunting wary trophies. Using a smaller boat - a 12-foot aluminum johnboat, for example, instead of a big bass boat - is one way to do this. Sitting, not standing, is another.

Trophy-class crappie often hide deep within button willow thickets or other dense cover, away from the outer edges that most anglers fish. Catching these fish seems impossible, but it can be done with a 12- to 16-foot fiberglass jigging pole. The best poles for this situation have line guides attached, and a line-holder or small reel to hold plenty of line. Tie on a crappie jig, pulling the knot up to the top of the hook eye so the jig hangs perpendicular to the line. Let the wind push your boat up against the brush, or, if you're using a small boat, pull it into the thicket as far as you can, away from the heavily fished edge.

Next, you should grab the line near the line-holder, pull the jig all the way up to the rod tip, work the pole back into the brush carefully and release your line, lowering the jig down through an opening into the water. Now, slowly raise and lower your rod tip, letting the jig down to the bottom, gradually bring it to the surface and repeat the process. If this doesn't elicit a quick strike, lower the jig to middepths, and then hold it at that level. A stationary jig quivers and "breathes" like a nervous baitfish, and that's usually all it takes to entice a nearby slab to strike.

You still must contend with break-offs, and you'll get hung up a lot, but you'll be amazed at how many crappie you can extract from hidey-holes like this you once passed by.

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