Virginia's Top Tidewater Crappie Trips

It may be a little too early to head to our lakes, but crappie in Virginia's tidal rivers are red hot right now.

By David Hart

A couple of warm days and the next thing you know, Virginia crappie anglers are uncovering their boats, dusting off their tackle and heading for the nearest lake or tidal river. However, the anglers who spend a day on still water will likely go home with an empty livewell and a mild case of depression.

"Too early," they'll say.

But those who spend a day casting tiny tubes and grubs to laydowns and other wood cover on rivers - the Chickahominy, the James, the Potomac or the Rappahannock, for instance - are basking in the glory of a cooler full of slab crappie. It's never too early to fish a tidal river.

While crappie in Virginia's reservoirs are, for the most part, still hugging brush in 25 feet of water, tidewater crappie are as vulnerable as they will be all year. The fish will be in predictable locations and they'll be eager to eat a jig or a minnow. All you have to do is find them (an easy task right now) and put something in front of them. They'll take care of the rest.

When Bob Parker drops his boat into the Potomac River for an afternoon of crappie fishing, the long-time Stafford resident doesn't have to travel far. He lives within minutes of a private ramp deep in the back of Aquia Creek, a major tributary that is also home to a tremendous population of crappie.

But just because Parker, a bass and crappie guide, spends the bulk of his time in the creek so close to his doorstep, don't assume you have to go there, too. Virtually every major tributary of the tidal Potomac is home an abundant population of crappie.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"I've done very well in the Occoquan (River), Little Hunting Creek, Potomac Creek and the major tributaries on the Maryland side, as well . . . they are all pretty much the same and I'll fish them all the same way I fish Aquia," he said.

Parker actually prefers the colder months simply because the fish that scatter in the summer are stacked up in predictable places in the tidal creeks when the water temperature drops down into the low 50s or lower. During the warmer months, tidewater crappie tend to move into thick stands of aquatic vegetation, even going out to the main river where they forage and spawn in the dense grassbeds found throughout the main river and larger sections of the tributaries. In other words, they could be anywhere in a couple of months. But right now, finding a mess of Potomac slabs is as simple as heading to the nearest major creek.

In order to find the fish this time of year, Parker simply puts a foot on his trolling motor pedal and keeps moving and casting until he finds fish. Contrary to popular belief, however, the crappie that he catches aren't hunkered down 20 feet below the surface. Parker will catch late-winter and early-spring crappie in as little as 2 feet of water, no matter what the water temperature is.

"I've caught them in water as cold as 39 degrees right up on the banks. It pretty much shuts down if it gets any colder, though," he said.

His choices of lures are as simple as his tactics. Most of the time, he's throwing run-of-the-mill 1 1/2-inch crappie tubes rigged on a 1/16-ounce jighead. If the current is pulling hard or if there is a steady breeze, he'll move up to a 1/8-ounce head. The colors he uses vary daily, but only because crappie are notoriously fickle, shunning a color that worked so well the previous day and favoring something completely different. Even Parker admits that he has to work through a couple of colors until he finds the right one for the day.

"I use black and chartreuse a lot. That's probably the color combination I have my best success on. I also use red and white and solid chartreuse. I'll fish with a particular color for 20 minutes or so and if I haven't caught anything, I'll try another. Sooner or later, I'll figure out the best color," he said.

Parker casts to obvious shoreline cover such as wood and docks, but he'll also cast to banks that seem to offer no obvious hiding places. Sometimes, the fish are indeed holding on brush under the surface, or they are simply cruising the bank in search of an easy meal.

"I just cast and slowly retrieve the lure as it falls through the water as I make my way down the bank," he said. "It's that simple. Sooner or later, I'll find the fish."

It's important to remember that crappie can be just as tide-sensitive as bass, shutting down when the water comes to a halt and picking back up again when the tides shifts and the river starts to flow. In other words, if you aren't catching fish, wait an hour or so.

Parker can be reached at (540) 659-9860.

Like the Potomac and just about every other major tidal river in Virginia, the Chickahominy River is well known for it's great bass fishing. But the Chick, as most Virginians call it, is also a dynamite crappie river. And like the crappie in the Potomac and the James, the fish here are easy to locate and catch this time of year. Kelly Pratt, who was born and raised on the banks of this tidal river, has been targeting bass, crappie, catfish and perch for his entire life.

"The last couple of years were pretty tough all-around on the river. The real dry weather allowed the salinity level to go up pretty high and that made fishing tough," said Pratt. "But with all the rain we had last winter and this year, I expect it to be real good right now. It got real good after we started getting rain last year. The fish will stack up in the backs of creeks, and all you have to do is find the deeper holes and you can do real well."

He favors such larger tributaries as Morris and Gordon's Creeks, but adds that just about every creek will have an excellent population of crappie right now. Pratt also catches crappie at Walker's Dam, specifically in the deeper holes found within casting distance of the steel and concrete dam.

"When I'm fishing the creeks, which is where I prefer to fish for crappie on the Chick, I just head up to the very ends of the creeks and find the last few deep holes before it flattens out or becomes too small to reach with a boat. Everything stacks up in those upper holes this time of year," he said.

To catch the fish, he simply rigs a minnow under a bobber and probes different depths until he figures out where the fish are holding on that day. Sometimes, he finds them in as little as 2 feet of water. Other days, they'll b

e holding just above the bottom in those holes. Typically, however, he'll start by fishing a minnow about 4 feet under a bobber, casting his bait toward fallen trees, partially submerged logs and just about any other type of obstruction he can find. Pratt says it's vital to use light line, he likes 4- to 6-pound monofilament, because the water tends to run fairly clear this time of year.

Like tidal bass, crappie that live in tidal rivers will stop feeding when the tide quits moving, so if you aren't catching fish, says Pratt, try another spot or wait a while. The tide will turn and that will turn on the fish.

"It's not out of the question to catch them during all stages of the tides, but if I had to choose my favorite, I'd say the first hour or so of an incoming tide is ideal. The crappie don't seem to be as tide-sensitive now as they are in the spring and summer," he adds.

Although Pratt has seen crappie up to 2 1/2 pounds come from the tidal Chickahominy, he catches lots of fish around 1 pound, a good average for any water. He also catches tons of yellow perch and lots of quality bass, as well.

"The ring perch (yellows) seem to be getting more numerous every year. Sometimes it's hard to catch a crappie with all the perch, but they run pretty big, so unless you just can't stand catching yellow perch, you shouldn't have anything to complain about. You can also catch some real nice bass doing the same thing you do to catch the crappie," he said.

If you don't want to mess with live bait, Pratt suggests using small Beetle Spins, 1- to 2-inch tubes and grubs and even in-line spinners. Tubes and grubs should be rigged on heads that weigh between 1/32-ounce and 1/8-ounce. Smaller heads work best when the fish are either in shallow water or unwilling to move fast to eat. Pratt also goes a little heavier if the tide is moving fast or if there is a steady breeze.

Winter is a great time to head to the tidal James River for a variety of fish, but guide Neil Renouf, who targets crappie, catfish, stripers and bass, will likely be casting for crappie if the weather is right.

"Winter is the best time to target crappie on the James. The fish really stack up in specific spots and they can be real easy to catch. It can slow down if it gets real cold, but that's true of a lot of fishing, anyway. If the water stays above 40 degrees, you can catch them pretty consistently. I've caught them in colder water, but you really need to switch to minnows and you won't catch very many," he said. "However, it seems like the crappie in the James prefer medium minnows over smalls. I don't know why that is."

When the water is suitable for a day of crappie fishing, Renouf will seek vertical structure with deep water - over 12 feet - nearby. However, not all structure will hold fish this time of year. Renouf says he only finds crappie on wood cover such as old docks and bulkheads.

"Sometimes I'll catch them off metal structure, but its mostly wood this time of year," he said.

One of his favorite places to target winter crappie on the James is in the old river channel where warm water is discharged from a nearby power plant. That constant flow of warmed water draws and holds baitfish, and that attracts crappie. The constant water temperature also keeps the fish active throughout the winter. Again, Renouf seeks vertical cover, which is liberally scattered throughout the area.

"I like to rig a small jig under a slip bobber. I pretty much use a pearl crappie tube rigged on a 1/32-ounce jig head all the time. Sometimes I'll use a purple tube with a metal flake tail. I don't think color makes a huge difference. In my experience, if the fish are there, they'll eat it," he explains.

What is important, however, is line diameter, and, says Renouf, the type of line you use. Renouf uses a 6-pound-test braided line. He notes that this line has two advantages. First, while winter crappie will occasionally strike hard, most of the time the bites will be soft, so braided line, which is extremely sensitive, helps the angler detect the strike. Second, you'll be fishing around heavy cover, and the toughness of braided line will reduce the percentage of fish you lose.

Like crappie in any tidal river, the fish in the James are influenced by the tides, so if you aren't catching fish, wait a little while and give the spots that looked good another try. Renouf prefers to fish the last hour of a falling tide and the first hour or so of an incoming tide.

Neil Renouf can be contacted at (804) 266-1469.

Access to the Rappahannock is limited to just a handful of public boat ramps, which means this river's crappie rarely see a jig. And since so few anglers bother to fish this time of year, it's a safe bet you'll practically have the entire river and all the crappie to yourself.

"It all depends on the water temperature. If it's been a real cold winter and the water is down below about 39 degrees, it gets real tough. I tend to do best when the water is between 40 and 45 degrees. Again, it depends on the weather, but if it's been a mild winter, it's not out of the question to have that temperature range right through February and into March," says guide Andy Andrzejewski, who can be reached at (301) 932-1509. "The Rapp is an excellent river and the fish can average above a pound. I've caught them over 2 pounds before."

He focuses his attention on a couple of larger creeks, including Cat Point and Green Bay Creeks, but says virtually any of the Rapp's major tributaries will hold good numbers of crappie now. Andrzejewski also spends time on the main river, specifically the section of river above Port Royal where the river channel is narrower and the fish have fewer places to hide.

"I look for wood cover, particularly old pilings close to deeper water. I consider anything over 10 feet deep. I also like fallen trees that come out into deep water and I catch lots of fish off sharp dropoffs back up in the creeks, especially drops that have gravel on them," he said. "I just stay on the move until I find some fish. Either they are there or they aren't, and if you find them, you'll probably catch them."

His favorite baits include small orange or chartreuse tubes rigged on 1/16-ounce jigheads and avocado grubs. Andrzejewski rigs the tubes 3 to 4 feet below a bobber and fishes them so the lure is a few feet up off the bottom. He says it's critical to keep the bait above the fish, noting that crappie tend to feed "up": They'll move up to take a lure but they won't drop down. He rigs his grubs on quarter-ounce ball-head jigs and fishes them on the bottom much the way he fishes a Texas-rigged plastic worm-with a lift-and-wind retrieve that bounces the bait up and down cross the bottom. It's a technique that also catches tremendous numbers of perch and largemouth bass.

"I think it's real important to use a scent this time of year," he adds. "I know a tube isn't supposed to imitate a crawfish, but I tend to have the best

results with that scent."

It may be February, a tough time to catch crappie in Virginia's lakes, but it's prime time to target crappie in our tidal rivers. As long as the water is above 39 degrees, all you have to do is keep moving and sooner or later, you'll find some fish.

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