Creek-Channel Crappie

In winter and early spring, sunken creek channels attract slabs. Why is that? And how do you locate these hotspots?

Professional crappie angler Kent Driscoll targets slabs along their migration routes in old creek channels.
Photo by Phillip Gentry.

Take a look at any piece of property on dry land, and it'll be pretty obvious if, and where, travel takes place on it. People travel via roads and sidewalks; game animals such use well-worn trails to get from one area to another.

So why should fish be any different? For crappie, creek channels serve as something like underwater highways.

If anyone understands the seasonal movements of crappie, it's Kent Driscoll, a professional crappie angler who fishes major tournaments across the country as well as the pro-staff manager for B'n'M Poles, a manufacturer dedicated almost exclusively to making rods for catching crappie; he's also on staff with War Eagle Boats.

Quite frequently, Driscoll is faced with the challenge of having to locate crappie and put together a pattern in just a couple of days when preparing for a tournament. Regardless of the lake he's fishing, he'll first check out the creek channels.

"By the time February rolls around, crappie have spent the entire winter deep in major river channels, relating to ledges that are formed by the edge of the channel," he explained. "Their biological clocks are starting to tick and they know it's time to start getting ready to move. As daylight lengthens and water temperatures start to change, they start moving up the creeks."

Crappie use each type of the several different classes of creek channel depending on the shape and location of the impoundment. In order to understand the way in which crappie relate to different types of channels, Driscoll compares the creeks to a public road system: The major river channels that create an impoundment can be considered interstates; larger tributary creek channels off those act as major highways, smaller creeks resemble access roads linking to "neighborhoods," and the neighborhoods have streets, which for crappie are subtle ditches and hollows.

"It's important to realize that crappie are not highly migratory and rarely hold in water deeper than 20 feet in a lowland reservoir and 30 feet in a deeper upland reservoir." Driscoll noted. "This means they do very little interstate travel, but are well known to over winter at the intersection of the main river channel and a major tributary."

Thus, early February finds crappie staging at the mouth of a major creek. As the month progresses, the fish begin to move along the creek channel edges heading from the highway to the neighborhood in which, when conditions are right in a month or so, they spawn.

"Just like any highway, there are rest stops along the road where crappie pause along their migration route," the crappie pro explained. "These rest stops are places where crappie can get out of the current to rest and eat. These areas have some type of structure that provides enough profile to block any current and also attract baitfish. "

When it comes to rest areas, Driscoll listed several. "First is a big old stump," he said. "Second is either natural or manmade brush piles, and third are manmade stakebeds Crappie hold along a creek channel on the downcurrent side of any of this structure, out of the flow of water."

But finding and catching crappie isn't as simple as identifying any brush or stump on a channel and pulling out a fish. Crappie prefer a gradual slope into a creek channel to a sharp drop. A sharp dropoff will funnel current flow, especially during late winter and early spring, when run-off loads up reservoirs, and dams release a lot of water through impoundments.

"Look for a gentle slope like an inside bend in the channel." said Driscoll. "Slack water piles up on the inside of a bend and forms eddies, while current will trace the outside of the bend, which moves water faster."

In order to locate this feature in a creek channel, Driscoll uses the side-finder technology built into his combination sonar/GPS unit, thus eliminating a lot of searching. He can motor up a creek channel and take note of every piece of structure on both sides, using the mapping software of the GPS to mark channel bends and slack water eddies.

But it's not all a matter of high tech: Before hitting the water, Driscoll spends some time with a topographic map that shows terrain elevations on the bottom under the water that he intends to fish. He uses elevation lines -- tighter lines indicating a sharper incline, loose lines a gentler slope -- to find the proper drops into the channel. This knowledge allows him to narrow his search to specific creeks and specific locations on the creeks that he's targeting.

According to Driscoll, visual reference points can clue you in to prime crappie spots once you're on the water. "By paying attention to the surface of the water, you can often find eddies behind underwater stumps and sandbars," he noted. "Although you can usually tell by looking at the shoreline what terrain features may be underwater, other visual signs might be water bugs, leaf litter or a stick in the water. It you find an area where these items spin or hover, it's likely you've found a seam" -- an area at which a swift flow breaks away from still water.

Creek channels often create seams near the shoreline. Crappie hold in the edge of the slack water behind the current break, waiting there for the moving water to sweep baitfish by their location. Finding such a seam is almost sure to reveal a spot holding crappie.

Once Driscoll finds likely structure along a creek channel, he then uses one of two separate approaches for catching crappie; which of them he selects will depend on whether he's fishing live or artificial bait. In both approaches he moves over the top of the fish in his boat and presents the bait straight down.

"For artificial baits, I like a single jig in weights between 1/16 to 1/8 ounce, depending on the depth of water," he said. "If crappie are holding deeper than 20 feet, I add a No. 5 split shot about 18 inches above the jig. I am also going to apply some type of scent or attach an attractant like a crappie nibble to the jig, since coldwater crappie respond better to scents this time of year."

For live bait he reverses the order of the weight. "I use a 1/2-ounce bell sinker at the end of my line," he said, "and loop a size No. 2 red hook about 18 inches above the weight, and often may add another hooked bait above that. I hook a live minnow through

the lips and bounce that weight on the bottom, knowing that will put the minnow right in the crappie's face."

Since he'll be sitting right over the fish, Driscoll forgoes the longer rods popular with crappie anglers and opts for a shorter 7 1/2-foot B'n'M Sam's Super Sensitive graphite rod. The shorter rod gives him both better feel and more control over the deep bait.

"The bite this time of year is mushy," he offered by way of description. "Any resistance on the line, I'm going to set the hook. If I can get by without wearing gloves, I like to keep a finger on the line just above the reel to feel any light strikes."

During mid-February, crappie are typically on the move, and Driscoll works his way toward the backs of the tributaries. Keeping in mind that creeks with northern exposures have more sunlight on them, Driscoll works the north sides early and then, later in the month, drops back to the southern exposures and repeats the pattern.

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