Before the fish move to the shores to spawn, crappie can be difficult to find and catch. But these tips can make the chore easier. (March 2006)
Mid-spring attracts crowds of crappie fishermen to many lakes. When the fish move shallow, the fishing gets easy, and anglers show up in numbers to tap into the fast action.
Veteran anglers don't wait for the crappie to move all the way up, however. Instead, they go out during early spring and search in water a little bit deeper, where the crappie stage prior to moving shallow to spawn. During the spring, the fish hold over points or cruise channel edges, often in major creeks or close to pockets off main bodies of lakes where they will spawn. They move up and down in the water column and up and down creeks with changing weather conditions, often moving from stump row to stump row, dock to dock or brushpile to brushpile.
Typically, these fish are deep enough for anglers to set up directly over them and drop jigs or minnows to the fish. Vertical fishing, when done properly, allows you to find crappie -- or at least, cover that's likely to hold fish -- and present offerings very precisely.
THE RIGHT DEPTH
At times, fishing a crappie jig two feet too deep can be little different than leaving the same jig in your boat. Crappie can be extremely depth-specific, so anglers need to figure out the depth range that most fish are using and then present baits effectively at that level. Often crappie all over a lake feed at approximately the same depth, so once an angler catches a few fish, he's taken a significant step in the right direction.
Your search for the right depth can begin a few different ways. If you know the locations of several brushpiles or other pieces of cover, you can let your jigs and minnows show you the right depth simply by working cover with your offering at various depths. More often than not, though, an angler must spend some time watching his electronics, looking for baitfish and cover that has fish around it. If big groups of shad are all 12 feet deep, the crappie are often in the same depth.
Once you've determined the depth of a brushtop or other cover and your boat is in place, one of the simplest ways to get a bait to the proper depth is to measure out line by stripping it against a rod. If you begin with your bait hanging at water level and your rod in a fishing position, you can then strip out line one foot at a time to get it to the intended depth. Some anglers put a piece of tape around their rods, one or two feet from each reel, to ensure accurate stripping.
One of the most effective ways to increase vertical-fishing catch rates is to fish with two jigs or hooks instead of one. Adding a second offering accomplishes much more than doubling the number of baits in the water, although it does that, too. It allows an angler to learn more about the fish by probing two different depths at the same time and experimenting with different colors and body styles. Also, using two baits adds weight to a rig, which makes it easier to keep the line vertical and under control without the need to use larger jigs.
An alternative to fishing two jigs is to double up with a jig and a minnow. The jig should be at the end of the line to anchor the rig. Then, depending on the water depth and the amount of current and wind, the minnow can be presented on a crappie hook or a second jig, with either tied to the line with a polymer knot. An alternative way to add minnows is to use them to tip jigs. Sometimes that helps. Other times, just the plain jigs are more effective.
One of the most important tools for effective vertical fishing is a floating marker buoy. Most veteran anglers agree that anchoring over brushpiles is not a good idea. The anchor often spooks the fish, and can tear up the cover when it is time to move on. Plus, the cover sometimes wins the battle, and the anchor gets hung and ends up lost completely. A much better plan is to drop a floating marker attached to a line and weight. Upon spotting the cover on a graph, you drop it overboard, then use the trolling motor to hold the boat in position. Marking the upwind edge of the structure makes boat handling easier, because it allows an angler to hold the boat into the wind and keep the marker in sight.
The best fishing often won't be right under the buoy. However, the marker, when used in conjunction with shoreline landmarks, provides a reference point for working the area and honing in on hotspots. Once they find cover and a marker is down, veteran anglers spend a bit of time checking out the scope and height of the cover before they put down even a single fishing line.
Anglers are actually wise to carry a several marker buoys. Often a fisherman uses a buoy to mark a stump row or brushpile, only to discover that most of the cover is to one side of that marker. While a single marker does provide a reference point, dropping a second buoy at the opposite edge of the cover -- or over a specific hotpot -- often makes the fishing more efficient.
One of the best places to set up during early spring is the edge of a creek channel. Crappie may be down in the channel or on the high side or over the slope but typically, some fish are somewhere in the vicinity of such a slope. By straddling edges or moving back and forth over slopes, anglers can work a variety of depths without moving their boat very far.
Because fish so often relate to channel edges, bass and crappie fishermen alike commonly sink man-made brushpiles near the same breaks. One of the best ways to find crappie-covered brush in unfamiliar waters is to cruise along the edge of a major creek channel edge, looking for clustered debris near the break. Sometimes crappie are even visible on the screen of a depthfinder, but if they're tight to the brush, they may not show up. Any piece of cover close to an edge deserves a bit of fishing time, especially if it is in the depth zone where you have already found fish that day.
Because crappie move up and down in the water column with every weather change during early spring, some of the best places to hone in on them consistently are around vertical structures, such as bridge pilings, dock posts and flooded trees.
Unless the water is ultraclear or the crappie are really shallow, anglers typically can pull right up to these structures, look for fish on the electronic graph, measure baits down to the crappie and begin catching fish. Fish may all be on the structures' shady side, the sunny side or the down-current side, but once you find the right depth and how the fish are orienting to the cover, you can often move quickly from one piling or tree to the next and continue catching crappie.
If the water is too clear for positioning the boat directly ove
rhead without spooking the fish, anglers can achieve a vertical-type presentation with a cast by adding a slip-bobber to the line. In those situations, finding the ideal depth sometimes requires experimentation by moving the stopper up and down the line.
LESS IS MORE
Crappie tend not to like jigs that are doing a lot of dancing, especially during early spring. You need to minimize movements, lifting the rod tip only occasionally and limiting your action to gentle twitches. It's no coincidence that crappie commonly strike when fishermen are pouring coffee or have their hands otherwise tied up. Some days, in fact, the best way to keep from overworking baits is to put rods in holders.
For the same reason, tube-style bodies or paddle-tailed grubs tend to work better than curlytails early in the spring. A curly-tailed grub sees to have a little too much wiggle for a crappie's tastes.
Along with favoring light action, crappie tend to be light biters. Often, all an angler feels is a gentle tap. Some days, most fish hook themselves, but more often, anglers need to respond with a sharp snap of the wrist.
Finally, when a fish does hit, you should attempt to land the fish with the rod, not turning the reel handle, if the depth you're fishing allows. That lets you return your next offering to the exact same depth -- where another fish is apt to be waiting.