When it comes to catching crappie, that question has plagued anglers for years! Here's some new light to shine on the controversy.
For amateur anglers, the long-standing debate about whether it's jigs or minnows that catch more crappie is semi-serious -- an excuse to swap stories and opinions with fellow anglers while quaffing adult beverages and waiting for those crappie to bite. But for fishing guides who measure their success and income by the number of crappie their clients catch, the question isn't up for debate; their reputations depend on knowing the best tackle and techniques to put fish in the boat day in and day out, spring, summer and fall.
Professional fishing guide Tom Hankins prefers jigs, such as this chartreuse-colored Baby Shad, because they let him cover a lot of water fast in order to find crappie. Photo courtesy of Tom Hankins.
So, with quantifiable comparisons and results as our goal, we surveyed successful fishing guides for their opinions on jigs vs. minnows. We picked their information-packed brains for the optimum times and techniques to use jigs, and we took notes about their strategies for when and where to use minnows. The results just might force amateur anglers to find something else to argue about while waiting for those fish to bite.
IN THIS CORNER: JIGS
Two things surfaced immediately when the topic of jigs vs. minnows was tossed to our expert crappie catchers. Our experts agreed that versatility and variety were the main advantages of jigs over minnows.
"Depending on your bait shop, you're going to have only one, maybe two, and at most three types and sizes of minnows to choose from," said professional fishing guide Gary Klingler (612-810-7330, wwwbigdogguide.net). "But I'll have hundreds of different jigs and jig bodies in my boat at any time. Jigs give me a better chance to offer crappie exactly what they want so I can put more of them in the boat."
Jigs also help crappie anglers find fish faster. Whether they spider-rig a half-dozen rods off the front of a boat or fan-cast jigs into structure, jigs allow anglers to cover more water than minnow rigs.
Spider-rigging -- arranging rods in rod holders across the bow of a boat in a fan-pattern with jigs fished vertically below the rod tips -- allows anglers to cover a broad swath of water with jig depths precisely controlled.
Fishing guide Tom Hankins, (317-557-7549, www.hoosiercrappieandcatfishguideservice.com) uses jigs on six, 14-foot-long B&M crappie rods spider-rigged off the front of his boat. Multiple rods per angler are legal in his state. Make sure they are in yours before fishing that way.
"I'm fishing vertically right below the tips of those rods, slow-trolling," said Hankins. "I watch my Hummingbird and keep those jigs right at the depth where I mark crappie. It's a very precise, accurate presentation."
Klingler prefers to fan-cast jigs with a 7-foot-long spinning rod, which allows him to keep his boat away from spooky crappie in shallow water. He admits that it takes a little "schooling" to teach clients how to keep jigs in the strike zone during the retrieve.
"I teach them to count them down," said Klingler. "If my electronics show crappie suspended at 3 feet in 6 feet of water, I have them cast out the jig and start counting, "One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand," for every foot of depth down to where I want the jig to run. Then I teach them to retrieve the jig very, very slowly. You can keep a jig running horizontal as long as you don't retrieve too fast. Twistertails and swimbait-bodied jigs tend to come up a little, so you have to reel them in a little slower than tube jigs."
Working a jig under a float is an alternative technique that really works. Steve Welch, (217-840-1221, www.lakeshelbyvilleguide.com) likes to rig jigs under spring bobbers when fishing individual stumps and trees in shallow creek mouths where crappie are spooky.
"It's hard to sneak up on them when they're real shallow, so I cast to them using 20-pound-test braided line," said Welch. "There are several things I like about using the braided line with a float and jig. The float keeps the jig out of the brush on the bottom, at exactly the depth I want it. The braided line is so sensitive I usually feel the bite before the float dips, and the braided line also lets me get loose when I snag up. It's easy to straighten out the little wire hooks on crappie jigs when you're using 20-pound braid, so it saves me time and tackle. I won Bass Pro Crappie Masters in 2009 with that technique and strategy, because I could cast and fish in places the spider-rigged guys couldn't get to without spooking the fish."
The wide variety of bodies and colors available to anglers is the greatest advantage of jig-fishing for crappie. Twistertails, tube jigs and a new generation of swimbaits each have times and places where they excel.
"If the water is calm and things are quiet, I like a tube jig," said Klingler. "If there's a little wind and some chop, I look for something with a little more vibration, a little more action, like a Twistertail or the new shad-bodied jigs."
Last year Hankins began using a Live Baby Shad jig offered by Lake Fork Trophy Lures, and was impressed. Klingler also was impressed with downsized swimbaits. "We absolutely clobbered crappie last year on those little swimbait-style jigs," he said. "That didn't surprise me, because Sassy Shads used to be really hot. The newer ones are thinner, not as deep-bodied as Sassy Shads, with less of a tail, and crappie were nuts for them last year."
Color selection of jig bodies is an inexact science. If there is a universal color, it's chartreuse. After that, it's a guessing game. Hankins said his favorite color is actually a combination of colors. "It's a Southern Pro tube jig that's black on the front, lime green in the middle and chartreuse on the fringe at the rear. Sometimes the difference in what crappie want is subtle. I've seen the time when they were barely interested in a chartreuse jig, but went crazy over chartreuse with glitter in it. You've got to experiment to find out what they want, and jigs let you do that sort of experimentation."
While color is critical to catching crappie, flavor is also a factor. "I won't run a jig without a Crappie Nibble on there to add a little flavor," said Hankins. "They're like little flavored marshmallows. I thread one onto the curve of the hook, behind the plastic body. The only problem is that they're soft and hard to keep on the hook. I found out that if you lay them out on the
deck of the boat in the sun, they dry out and toughen up a bit and are easier to keep on the hook."
Welch uses flavors only when the bite is slow. "If they're biting good I don't worry about flavors," he said. "If it's a slow day, I load up a bait pump with crappie nibbles or Berkley Gulp! wax worms. The pump squishes them into a paste, and I extrude that paste up into the body of a hollow tube jig. That bit of flavor can really turn them on and improve the bite on slow days."
THE CHALLENGER: MINNOWS
"Slow days" are often the days when our guides reach for their minnow bucket to ensure their clients catch crappie.
"If crappie aren't active, if they're buried deep in brushpiles, that's the time you want a live minnow swimming around, tantalizing them into a reaction strike," said Hankins. "If things are slow, I'll use my sonar to pinpoint their location, and then I'll put a minnow right in front of their nose, and annoy them into biting. Minnows can save the day when the bite is tough."
Presentation of minnows influences their effectiveness. Steve Welch prefers to hook his minnows through the lower jaw, up through one of the nostrils. "I think hooking them through the back kills them sooner," he said. "I'm picky about using lively minnows. Other guys buy a couple of dozen minnows for a day's fishing. I buy 15 dozen (minnows) for me and two clients. My rule is to change minnows if you don't get a bite in 5 or 10 minutes. And I tell my clients, 'Don't even think about using the same minnow if we move to another spot.' I want fresh minnows on every hook, all the time, when I'm using live bait."
Because Hankins spider rigs and focuses on a vertical presentation, he prefers to hook minnows through the back. "Hooking through the back gives them a natural swimming presentation when I'm slowly, slowly moving the boat forward," he said. "We can use double-minnow rigs in our state, so sometimes I'll have one minnow lip-hooked and one hooked through the back. More times than not, the back-hooked minnow is the one that gets the bite."
Keeping a float "on target" can be a challenge on windy days. Welch said if the wind threatens to blow his bobbers away from brushpiles or structure he's targeting, he'll add just enough weight to the line below the float to submerge the float's body but keep the stem just above the surface.
"The stem doesn't offer as much wind resistance and your float and minnow will stay where you want them," he said.
One constant among our guides when they use minnows is the size of the minnows they choose. They consider traditional "crappie minnows" sold by many bait shops to be too small. Welch uses king-size minnows, especially late in the year.
"Pay attention when you clean a bunch of big crappie and they'll have big baitfish in their guts," he said. "I like 3-, maybe 4-inch shiners when I can get them. They tend to catch bigger crappie, but you'll be surprised at the number of mid-sized crappie that go after those big baits. Big baits don't intimidate crappie."
Klingler uses the crappie's fondness for minnows to tempt them into biting on "off" days. "When they're just not biting aggressively, or I notice they're favoring bigger baits, I'll rig up a minnow on a spinner rig and slow-troll that spinner through the middle of a school," he said. "I downsize the spinner to a No. 1 or No. 2 blade with a No. 4 or No. 6 hook, put a big minnow on the hook, and that often seems to turn them on when nothing else will."
AND THE WINNER IS...
Even though minnows are the "go-to" bait when the bite is tough, our professional guides unanimously voted jigs as the winner in the jig vs. minnow debate.
"I prefer jigs," said Hankins. "I always have minnows in the boat, but jigs cover more water, find crappie faster, and offer me more opportunity with size, color and shape to give crappie what they want on a particular day."
Welch said he uses jigs 90 percent of the time, saving minnows for that special window of water temperature during the spawn when, "nothing beats minnows."
Klingler didn't hesitate when asked to choose between jigs or minnows as his preferred crappie bait. "I use way more jigs than minnows," he said. "I even use more small crankbaits than minnows. Artificials let me cover more water and give me more choices than minnows.
"Besides," he chuckled, "none of the bait shops open early enough to sell me minnows when I go out in the mornings."