February 26, 2020
By Keith Sutton
Look hard at a crappie and those big owl-like eyes tell you immediately that this animal relies heavily on sight to help pinpoint food. When fishing the deep-winter haunts of these popular panfish, however, light doesn’t penetrate very far in the water column, so eyesight plays a less significant sensory role during feeding. Now, crappies depend more on hearing and the lateral line sense to zero in on prey, and loud lures stimulating those senses might catch more fish. Spinners, spoons and lipless crankbaits that vibrate, rattle and shake are among the best for increasing hook-ups.
Spinners create noisy vibrations very attractive to late-winter crappies in deep or dingy water. Safety-pin models like Johnson’s Beetle Spin rank high among my favorites. If you’re not sure what type structure is out of sight beneath the water, you can fan-cast a semi-weedless spinner like this to find fish. Work one area thoroughly, placing each cast just a few feet from the last until you’ve covered everything in a semicircle in front of you. As you reel the lure, work it over, beside and through woody cover.
It’s difficult to fish a Beetle Spin at the snail’s pace often needed for lethargic winter crappies, but if you rig a sliding bobber above the lure, you resolve this problem. Place a bobber stop on your line at the depth you want to fish. Then add a bead below the stop, followed by the sliding bobber. Finish the rig by tying the spinner at line’s end.
When the bobber hits the water, the lure’s weight pulls line through the float until the bobber abuts the bobber stop. Your bait now sits at the selected depth, which you can easily adjust by moving the bobber stop up or down.
This rig allows a very S-L-O-W presentation and keeps the spinner in the strike zone. Vary your retrieves—small twitches, steady cranking or long pulls with a few seconds of motionlessness between—until you determine a good pattern.
Another dynamite spinner is the Blakemore Road Runner. This lure has a double whammy: crappie-attracting vibrations plus the seductive dance of a marabou or rubber-skirted jig.
Once again, use varied retrieves—fast, slow, smooth, jerky. Occasionally, let the Road Runner fall to the bottom, then rip it upward again. These shenanigans usually are more than crappies can bear, and the flash of the spinner whirling through the water just ahead of the action tail entices strikes, even from finicky coldwater slabs. Buzz one of these babies near cover—not too fast—and hungry crappies are sure to attack it.
In-line spinners also nab crappies. On these, the spinner blade revolves around a wire shaft. Below the blade is a heavy body that can be almost any shape or color. Noteworthy examples include the Mepps Aglia, Panther Martin Spinner, Worden’s Rooster Tail and the Luhr-Jensen Shyster.
Great options for winter fishing are sonic-type in-lines such as the Rooster Tail or Panther Martin. The blade on these is concave on one end and convex on the other, so it turns easily and will spin at very slow retrieval speeds, ideal for persnickety cold-weather crappies. To keep from snagging them, concentrate on open-water structures—bridge pilings, riprap, docks, points, humps, etc. Or fish the lures along cover edges, avoiding the tangles within.
Trolling with spinners is an offbeat yet productive tactic. Cast the lures 50 to 75 feet behind the boat, place your poles in rod holders, engage your reel and drift slowly with a breeze or use an electric motor to maintain a creep-along speed. Movement should be just fast enough to turn the spinner blades. Few tactics work better on winter crappies suspended over inundated creek and river channels.
Most small spoons used to catch crappies—Cotton Cordell’s Little Mickey and the Hopkins Shorty, for example—aren’t inherently noisy, but the hook and O-ring rattling against the metal body are enough to attract attention, and a small rattle attached with super glue adds additional sound to produce hard-to-beat winter enticements. Really primo spoons have built-in rattles, like Northland Fishing Tackle’s 1/16-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Rapala’s 1-inch Rattle Spoon and Lindy’s 1/16- and 1/8-ounce Glow Spoons, which have added attraction in the form of replaceable glow sticks that light up the plastic lure body.
Because crappies instinctively attack dying baitfish such as winter-stressed shad, these injured-prey mimics are hard to resist. To fish them, position your boat over target structure, then lower the lure to the bottom. Reel up slack, sweep the rod tip upward one to three feet, then slowly drop the rod tip, letting the lure free fall. Maneuver the boat along the structure, jigging the spoon this way.
Most strikes come as the spoon falls and feel like faint taps or “heaviness” on the line. Braids and other low-stretch lines are especially good for this type of fishing because of their high sensitivity, which telegraphs each strike. A fast-action rod might work better than the medium- or slow-action rods typically used for crappie fishing because a too-limber rod decreases sensitivity and makes strike detection and hook setting more difficult.
Spoons also are ideal for fishing standing timber in 15 to 25 feet of water, a tactic called “dipping.” Use a long, sensitive jigging pole with an attached spinning or underspin reel to lower the spoon beside a tree. Let the lure slide down, maintaining contact with the wood.
Crappies often are close enough to touch the tree, which gives them a sense of security. Give the spoon a short sideways snap at every 2 feet of depth, then let it fall a foot on slack line. Flicks of the wrist load the long pole, making the spoon hop erratically.
If the spoon reaches bottom before a strike, move the lure up slowly in controlled fashion, stopping it briefly every few feet. Fish it slowly all around the pole, then move to the next pole.
Crappie anglers seldom use lipless crankbaits, or vibrators, but these lures have a convulsive shimmy that shakes the pellets inside, creating a loud clattering noise that entices strikes in the deep, dark water where winter crappie hold. Good ones to try include the 2 1/2-inch Cotton Cordell Super Spot, Bill Lewis Lures’ 1/8-ounce Rat-L-Trap and Rapala’s 1 1/8-inch Ultra Light Rippin’ Rap.
Lipless cranks are great crappie locators. The narrow body has little wind or water resistance, so you can cast long distances and retrieve rapidly, combing broad areas to find active biters. A speedy retrieve with occasional pauses optimizes the lure’s acoustical attraction and allows fast coverage of large areas.
Problem is, winter crappies rarely strike fast-moving lures. A better ploy is to fish vibrators like bass jigs, casting the lure and letting it sink, giving it a hard lift with the rod and reeling in slack as it sinks again. Move the rod tip as little as 12 inches or as much as 36 inches, experimenting as you fish to determine what crappies prefer. Each time you yank the lure upward, there’s a rapid wiggle, and the long-distance sound transmissions make the lure known to nearby crappies like a buzzer announcing lunch time at a school cafeteria. This tactic works great on crappies suspended around ledges, bridge pilings, sunken islands, bluffs and isolated brushpiles.
When fishing deep bottom structure, try using a Carolina-rigged lipless crankbait. Use a 1/2-ounce tungsten weight, which goes on the main line first, then slide on a glass bead. The bead makes noise when the weight hits it and protects the knot on the swivel. Tie a barrel swivel on a 24- to 36-inch leader, then tie the swivel with the leader to the main line. Next, tie a floating-model vibrator to the end of the leader.
Most practitioners work this rig with short, slow pulls that vibrate the bait between brief periods of inaction. The crankbait floats above bottom, and each pull makes the lure swim erratically before it rests again momentarily.
When it comes to selecting crappie baits, many anglers think it has to be jigs or minnows or nothing. But when targeting winter crappies in the dim depths where they usually hang out, jigs and minnows might not work best. Instead, tie on a spinner, rattling spoon or lipless crankbait that will emit “come-eat-me” sounds and vibrations that ring a dinner bell for calico slabs. When properly presented, these often-overlooked lures nab slabs that might otherwise ignore your offerings.