September 30, 2010
This northeast Mississippi reservoir is noted for producing smallmouth bass, but this month, the attention is on spawning crappie! (April 2010)
By Stan Warren
April is said to be the month that finally delivers what March promised. With crappie and most other popular species headed for spawning areas it is really time to shake off the last vestiges of cabin fever. On most lakes you now can find shallow-water, visible cover fishing for crappie. And Pickwick Lake is no different this month.
The closest launching sites are just off of State Route 25 at the Scruggs Bridge ramp or at Goat Island Recreational Area, which is also accessible from SR 25. These ramps become especially welcome in the event of a spring storm, when you need to stay out of the wind and get off the water.
This prolific waterhole meanders through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Thanks to a reciprocal license agreement you, can fish all three states' waters in a single day and be on crappie all of the time.
When pondering just where to go and what to do, asking advice from one of the country's top crappie guides makes sense, so I sat down with long-time guide and professional papermouth angler Roger Gant and asked a few questions. Here are some gems of wisdom that he shared.
"Pickwick in April is just about as good as it gets, unless Mother Nature throws a tantrum, hitting us with a bunch of cold fronts and unusually high water. On the Mississippi portion of the lake, the fish are very predictable, and by the first of April, they will certainly have spawning on their minds. That means that plenty of crappie will be starting to move into shallow water and these are the fish that most fishermen can find and catch.
"In areas like Yellow and Indian creeks," he continued, "shallow water can mean not much more than enough to cover their dorsal fins. This is especially true when we have reasonably warm conditions and a full moon. Moon cycles play a part in spawning activity, so don't disregard them thinking that it's just an old tall tale. Warming water and a full moon early in April means that the crappie will be in the shallows and other bedding locations."
One of Gant's top picks for this early-season shallow action in Yellow Creek includes the stretch between Hubbard Branch on the east and Glade Arnold Branch on the east. Similar conditions are found near Tackett Branch in the same area. On a lake map, look for the Pickett Branch day beacon at mile marker 446.1.
If the weather does become questionable, it is nice to know that there are wide expanses of shallow cover within short jumps of either of the ramps mentioned. Possibly one of the least fished and quite good places in the embayment is just around the corner from the Goat Island launching site. Most anglers seem to feel that if they don't run their outboards for at least 15 minutes, then they are not really fishing. They often make a real mistake here since there is plenty of deep water to provide sanctuary and travel lanes close to all of the shallow cover.
According to Roger Gant, there is a shelf just north of Goat Island and humps on the backside that always warrant a little attention before heading farther out. He also mentioned that early in April the old ramp area on the west side of Coleman Park can be very good, and later in the month the north side across from the park comes into its own. Long boat rides may be fun, but they are not usually necessary if you are an April crappie chaser.
"Indian Creek is basically just a smaller version of Yellow Creek," Gant said. "The same sequence of events takes place there and along the same time frame.
"Shallow cover is plentiful along a substantial stretch above and below where Kreamer Branch comes into the bay," the guide continued. "The closest boat ramp is at J.P. Coleman State Park off of Tishomingo County Road 321 and on days when the weather does turn bad, Indian Creek is well protected from all but the very worst."
Although home-cut cane poles and the store-bought bamboo versions of my youth have long since given over to those made from fiberglass, graphite or other more exotic, manmade fibers, "pole fishing' is still de rigueur for some old-timers and newcomers alike. You can still dip small shiners or Tuffie minnows under a bobber and crappie still eat them when you drop a bait close enough. No other fishing method allows a more precise bait placement. Where a cast can miss its intended target by a couple of inches and wind up snagged, the minnow on the end of a line attached to a nice, reliable pole can be stuck exactly where you want. When a crappie sucks the bait down, it can then be hoisted straight out of the brush.
"What a lot of people don't seem to realize is that not all crappie come into the shallow spawning areas at the same time," Gant went on to say. "Action can be hot for a few days, then taper off and it looks like things are pretty much over. That's not true. You'll have bedding fish moving in and out for a couple of weeks.
"Another mistake is to catch the smaller male crappie at a certain depth and to keep trying for these runts. The males are often on the nesting sites with the females hanging out nearby, maybe suspended at about the same depth away from cover, just waiting to make their run in and lay eggs. They don't stay on the nesting sites as long as the males do."
A good example of what he described took place one afternoon when Tim Stevens, a long-time friend and Pickwick veteran, and I were fishing a shoreline on Zippy Branch, one of the many arms of Yellow Creek. The day was overcast, chilly with a southwest wind and we were working small jigs and horsehead spinners back in the quiet pocket. The bottom is mostly gravel here with a few remaining stumps and some blown-down trees, but because the water goes from shallow to deep rather quickly, it is not often considered much in terms of early spawning activity.
Stevens is a deadly light-tackle fisherman and it came as no real surprise when he caught a 10-inch male crappie on his spinner. A couple of minutes later, he brought its twin to the boat. Both had come from a flat that was 5 to 6 feet deep, so we flipped on the depthfinder and eased across the area with our eyes glued to the screen. About 40 feet away from the bank, we spotted a loose bunch of fish about 5 feet below the surface. The sows were at the same depth as the males, but had not moved up into the actual spawning area.
At the risk of going out on a personal limb, it seems to me that when you find males on the spawning sites, expect the hen fish to move in closer as the next full moon approaches. Some pundits suggest that three days before and after the actual full moon are prime time and I can find no fault with that notion.
It should also be noted that f
emale crappie may repeat this holding pattern after they have laid their eggs. Whenever you find little male crappie at any given depth, expand your search to see if the females are not somewhere close by.
While the shallow fish in standard spawning patterns generally provides most of the fish that anglers and creel clerks encounter, they are certainly not the only game in town. Crappie on Pickwick, as well as other lakes, spawn considerably deeper than is generally acknowledged.
"In April it is usually simple enough to find spawners somewhere between ankle deep and down to about 10 feet and that's where most minnow-and-bobber users start to lose interest. Even those who use tight lining or casting with jigs may not give much thought to going deeper. They should," Gant emphasized. "Pickwick crappie frequently spawn at 20 feet and sometimes even deeper. Since these fish are harder to locate, they get a whole lot less pressure. That translates into quality-sized crappie and good numbers."
If there are plenty of shallow spawning areas in the Yellow and Indian creek embayments, then there are even more potential hotspots in the deeper stretches. Even the areas mentioned earlier as seeing action around the first of the month have deeper flats and humps, often within casting distance of where your boat is sitting while you dunk minnows around brush.
One of the easiest to find is off the mouth of Glade Arnold Branch where depths of around 20 feet are not far from the shoreline. There are plenty of flats and abundant brush and other spawning niceties to be found.
Virtually anywhere that your depth sounder shows a pronounced hump or channel edge has potential. A good unit can also pick out and define schools of crappie. Unlike white bass and most other schooling fish, crappie seldom show any real vertical spread. Instead, practically every fish in the bunch will be within a foot or so of the same depth.
Adjust your line to the right depth and drift through the area paying close attention for line movement or just the tiniest bit or rod tip movement. Roger Gant recently designed a series of crappie rods for B'n'M Poles for just this type of "visual" fishing.
"What I would recommend is that fishermen who are not used to this kind of fishing is that they locate a likely place and then position their boat to drift across it or pull across using a trolling motor just as slowly as they can. If they have minnows, they can use them with enough weight to keep the bait just off the bottom. If they don't, then by all means, try small jigs, especially the ones tied with brightly colored nylon hair. I fish these jigs pretty much year around and, until the water temperature gets above 70 degrees, I catch as many or more fish on jigs without minnows as with them.
"What I'm basically saying is that just because you don't have live bait doesn't mean you can't catch crappie. A basic selection of leadheads doesn't take up much room in a tackle box and they sure make good insurance," he concluded.
Later this month when the heyday of the shallow spawners is truly over and the only fish left around shallow brush are bluegills and an occasional largemouth, Gant suggested that deeper water is the answer to your crappie questions.
"In the state line area (between Mississippi and Tennessee), it pays to check every ridge, every deep hump and every channel edge that is deeper than 15 feet. I spend a lot of my time pulling baits below the 20-foot level. Although the fish may not be at the exact same spot every day, they will tend to hold pretty steadily at specific depths by this time in the season, so it's just a matter of hunting until you find where they want to be."
But there is more to it.
"At the same time you can't expect the fish to go from a couple of feet deep to 20 feet or more overnight for the same reason they can't move from shallow to deep in a hurry," the guide resumed. "Their air bladder has to adjust to the change in depth and that means that substantial depth changes take time. If you spend enough time on the water you will find what might be called staging areas or migration paths that they follow season after season. Locating a couple of these can really add to your April crappie success."
On days when the spring winds come into play and finesse tactics are out of the question, you might want to try a technique that my old boss, Bill Norman -- who was the owner of Bill Norman Lures -- showed me once when Yellow Creek threatened to give way to whitecaps from one end to the other. Rather than give up on the crappie that we knew to be present, we rigged small shallow-running crankbaits with 1/2-ounce sinkers on dropper lines a couple of feet above the lures and worked our way slowly over the area below Goat Island.
The key was to keep moving slowly, just fast enough for the rod tip to announce that the mini-baits were still in motion and had not picked up any debris. We did not limit out that day, but did manage to boat a respectable catch of very good fish. We were also the only fishermen on the water that blustery morning.
In the years since, that tactic often has been a go-to option. A small gold Rapala or tiny Rebel Crawfish are my baits of choice.