Enticements for pre-spawn crappie: Just when you think you've figured out what they want, crappie slam their mouths shut. Here are some openers.
Pre-spawn crappie can be easy or difficult, everywhere or nowhere.
They often tear up one lure one day and won't look at it the next. It is possible, nevertheless, to get them to open those big mouths and take what you offer — if you serve a buffet instead of a single entrée.
Certainly, jigs make great enticements. And live shiners — well, a crappie wouldn't be likely to turn its nose up at those!
There are occasions when these popular goodies just won't buy you a bite, however, and you need to pull something different from your tackle box to coax a strike from tight-lipped fish.
When that's the challenge you confront, consider using one of these often-overlooked enticements. A different action, flash, shape or size may be just what the doctor prescribed for crappie with a bad case of lockjaw.
Few crappie anglers use spoons, but these metal lures are great for catching crappie in deep water. The best are jigging spoons, such as Cotton Cordell's Little Mickey and the Hopkins Shorty, which can work wonders on finicky late-winter slabs.
Stick to smaller spoons — 1/4- to 1/6-ounce. Position your boat over target structure, then lower the lure until it hits bottom. Engage your reel and take up slack, sweep your rod tip upward 1 to 3 feet, then slowly drop the rod tip, letting the lure free-fall. Maneuver your boat along the structure, jigging the spoon this way. Most strikes come as the spoon falls and feel like faint taps or a "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. And a fast-action rod may work better than the medium- or slow-action rods typically used for crappie fishing. That's because a too-limber rod decreases sensitivity and makes strike detection and hook-setting more difficult.
In late winter and early spring, when water is still cold and crappie are deep, blade baits — sometimes called vibrators — are hot crappie lures, too. Popular models include the Heddon Sonar, Cotton Cordell Gay Blade, Luhr Jensen's Rat'lin Rippletail and the ReefRunner Cicada.
Snapped upward, these lures swim through the water and create a pulsating vibration that mimics an injured or escaping baitfish. That attracts crappie and allows the fish to home in on the lure, especially when water is murky.
You can vertically jig a blade bait to create a subtle swimming and fluttering motion, effective at attracting skittish, light-biting crappie, or retrieve it with occasional rips and runs to produce a dynamic, erratic action that might interest a slab in need of a wake-up call.
Blade baits also are effective when targeting transition crappie on dropoffs and humps. When fishing dropoffs, keep your boat directly over the drop and cast to the top of the breakline, hopping the lure back to the boat. When fishing humps, position the boat off the hump and cast to the rise, working the bait on top first, then down the sides into deep water.
Most blade bait strikes occur on the fall. Watch your line closely and keep it tight during the retrieve.
Smaller blade baits, 1/4- to 1/2-ounce, generally work best for crappie, but bigger models can produce where slabs in the 2-pound range are expected.
Some blade baits have two or three holes on the top edge for line connection. Each placement allows for a different vibrating action so read the manufacturer's instructions detailing which hole is most suitable for those applications. If there are two holes, generally the front one, with its tighter wiggling action and less vibration, is the best bet for vertical jigging. When three holes are available, choose the center one.
Never tie your line directly to a blade bait. One good smack from a crappie and the thin metal body will shear monofilament like thread. Use a round-bend snap or a split ring to make the connection.
As pre-spawn crappie start moving into shallow water to prepare their nests, small baitfish-imitating crankbaits become very effective lures. Crappie are very protective of their spawning grounds and will hit these lures for that reason alone.
Small floating/diving lures such as Rebel's Super Teeny-R and 1/4-ounce Humpback work especially well during that time. Those lures float up away from snags when the retrieve is stopped, a necessity when fishing the thick cover where crappie like to bed.
If you want to move even further toward eliminating hangups, fish crankbaits for crappie near bridge pilings, riprap, rock outcroppings, boat docks, underwater points and humps where snags are less of a problem. In oxbow lakes, crappie often hold near the bases of big trees where crankbaits also are very effective and hangups less of a problem.
During periods when the weather is still erratic — relatively warm one day, cold the next — you might find crappie holding on long points sloping toward bottom channels. Here again, crankbaits are top enticements, but it's often difficult to keep those lures at favored depths and still move them slowly enough to entice lethargic slabs. Using a neutral buoyancy or sinking crankbait eliminates these problems.
Using light line — 4- to 6-pound-test — crank the lure down to the proper depth then slowly crawl it across the bottom, retrieving the lure from shallow water to deep, or working across the point toward the deepest side. Crank your lure hard and fast several turns to get it near bottom before slowing to an effective pace. If possible, bump the lure against stumps, logs, boulders, etc. to elicit strikes.
THE TINY TRAP
Bill Lewis Lures' 1/8-ounce Tiny Trap, a miniature version of the Rat-L-Trap, works great on deep pre-spawn crappie.
Lower the lure to the target structure. Reel up slack, and then begin a delicate upward sweep of the rod tip to activate the lure.
Move the rod tip as little as 12 inches or as much as 36 inches, experimenting to determine if crappie have a preference.
Then slowly drop the rod tip, letting the lure free-fall back down. Dynamite!
Many crappie anglers prefer fishing with live minnows, which are hard-to-beat enticements any time of year. What many don't know, however, is that some types of minnows may outshine others at this time of year.
The two species of minnows most used by crappie anglers are the golden shiner and fathead minnow, both produced by the tons on commercial fish farms and widely available at bait shops around the country. Of the two, fatheads, which include rosy-red or pink minnows, are by far the hardiest. Unlike shiners, these baitfish can thrive for long periods in cold or muddy water and can withstand low oxygen levels and bait-bucket crowding. As a result, if you can find them, fatheads should be your bait of choice. They'll stay much livelier on the hook and coax more finicky pre-spawn slabs to bite.
When using minnows, stick with a fine-wired, long-shanked hook that won't injure the minnow as much as a heavier hook. Such a hook also is more easily removed from the crappie's mouth. My favorites are size 6 Carlisle cricket hooks. These may seem small compared to the Aberdeen hooks used by many anglers, but the thin wire results in many more hookups with light-biting pre-spawn slabs.
Because pre-spawn crappie can be shallow, deep or somewhere in between, you'll be best served by using a slip-cork rig for fishing minnows. Put a bobber-stop on your main line, add a small slip-cork beneath it, and then tie your hook to the line's end and pinch on a couple of split shot just above the hook. By sliding the bobber-stop up or down your line, you can easily fish different depths as you move from one area to another, staying in the strike zone wherever you find crappie.
Small fatheads also make great additions to jigs and other lures when crappie seem exceptionally persnickety. The added taste and smell will garner bites when plain lures just won't work.
When you're all rigged up, all that's left is the catching. Drop your minnow beside crappie cover and watch your bobber until you see the fish's subtle bite. Set the hook, reel 'em in, and you're on your way to a delicious meal of fried crappie! Good luck.