April 03, 2023
Spring rains have fallen for days, but the weather finally breaks. My fishing partner and I slide my johnboat into our favorite oxbow lake as a rising sun greets us. I scull the boat to the lake’s upper end while my buddy ties a jig to the line on a long pole and slides into his waders.
The boat serves merely to transport us from the ramp to flooded woods on the oxbow’s far side. Today, we’ll be wade-fishing. Both of us know this is a hit-or-miss situation. Water temperature, day length and other factors must be perfect for our mission to be successful.
Sometimes we time it right; other times we fail. But when all is right, we come to this seldom-fished lake in March and find crappies spawning in astounding numbers.
Fortunately for us, everything is perfect on this day. The rising lake has inundated the low-lying woods along its edge. The water temp is just right. As soon as we start wading, we see them. The water they are in is just inches deep. In most places, it’s not enough to hide the crappies’ protruding dorsal fins. Even where it is, we can see the swirls the fish make as they move through the shallows.
A flip of the line places my buddy’s jig beside one swirl. Instantly, a crappie nabs the lure. The pole bows as my friend lifts the speckled panfish, unhooks it and places it in the floating fish basket tied to his waist.
I’m using a different tactic—pitching a Crappie Slider rigged on an ultralight spinning outfit. This proves equally effective. I cast to one fin and barely move the lure when a crappie strikes. It’s a dandy, but when I reach down to lip it, the fish thrashes and escapes. Not to worry, though. I’ll have more chances. I see crappies in every direction. An hour later, with a heavy fish basket, I return to the boat where my partner is counting the crappies he’s caught. "Twenty-one, 22, 23 … 23 crappies. Not too bad, huh?" he says. Not bad indeed. I had 22.
Many anglers employ sight-fishing to catch their favored targets. In clear mountain streams, fly fishermen see trout profiles and place their lures within slurping distance. From a bass boat’s bow, an angler casts to spawning largemouths in the shallows. In a johnboat, a fisherman watches for the telltale "honeycombs" of bluegill nests. Sight-fishing for crappies, however, remains a seldom-used tactic.
To some extent, the crappie’s cover-loving nature accounts for the lack of participants. Unlike bass and bluegills, which often nest on open bottom where they are easily seen, crappies prefer bedding sites in flooded vegetation or waters thick with dead-wood cover like brush, logs and stumps.
Sight-fishing in these areas seems as absurd as star-gazing on a cloudy night. The crappie’s superb camouflage also makes it a difficult sight-fishing target. This fish is invisible to all but the keenest eyes, and you can’t sight-fish for quarry you cannot see.
Consider, too, that crappies often spawn in deep water. Beds 10 to 20 feet down are not unusual in clear lakes. Combine this with the fact that crappies have poorly defined nests and the problems are further compounded. Even in crystal-clear water, these fish and their beds are hard to see.
At times, however, sight-fishing for crappies proves quite productive, especially during the peak of spawning season. The operative word here is "peak." Laying eyes on a crappie is troublesome at best before and after the nesting period. But for several weeks each spring, crappies enter that shallow-water world between dry land and deep water, and if you know when this occurs and what to look for, you can use your eyes to pinpoint and catch bedding fish.
BEST OF THE NESTS
If you’ve fished a body of water before and know the locations of previous crappie bedding sites, return to those areas. Undisturbed crappies nest in the same spots year after year. If this is your first visit to a lake, examine a bottom-contour map or scout with your fish finder to pinpoint likely hotspots. Look for places where creek channels approach the shore. Crappies follow channels from deep water to shallow and spread out on either side of the junction of the channel and spawning cover if conditions are suitable.
Shallow water in the backs of feeder-creek bays often proves good as well. Look, too, for visible migration corridors leading to shallow-water cover—stump rows, old fence lines, weed lines, ditches and the like. The key combination is shallow water with abundant cover and a firm, not silty, bottom.
Some of the best sight-fishing locales are woodlands and brushy areas temporarily flooded by high water. These spots may not exist unless heavy rainfall or other conditions create them. They may never exist on some upland impoundments. They occur with some regularity, however, on oxbow lakes and occasionally on impoundments subject to high water during rainy springs.
When rising water inundates these places, crappies often leave traditional spawning sites and nest instead in the flood pool. Here, they are much more visible to the astute angler. As often as not, you’ll find them in the shallowest areas at the edge of high water where they’re easy to see. In most cases, the best way to reach these areas is by wading. In some situations, however, you may be able to position a boat close enough to fish the beds.
When sight-fishing for crappies, be sure to wear polarized sunglasses. They reduce surface glare so you can see the fish better. You’ll spot twice as many crappies with polarized glasses as you would without.
There are two things you may see that will tip you off to the location of an individual fish: the fish itself or water movement—a swirl, splash or wake—made by the fish. In the case of the former, you may see only part of the fish—a fin or tail protruding from the water, for example. Or perhaps all you’ll see is a shadowy figure hovering over the bottom. A crappie that’s not moving is almost invisible, even in clear water. But as you gain experience, you’ll learn how to discern a crappie from its surroundings.
More often, you’ll see only signs that a crappie is present. Perhaps it will be a shallow wake as a male guarding a nest chases an intruder. Or it could be a disturbance on the water’s surface as a crappie rises to gobble a passing minnow. Stop when you spot the first fish and scan all around it to see if you can spy others. On a good bed, the fins of a dozen or more crappies may be visible. Knowing where the fish are helps determine which you should target first so you don’t spook some away unnecessarily.
When a fish is pinpointed, present a bait or lure right in front of it. Some anglers prefer a long pole to swing a jig or minnow to each fish. Others prefer using a spinning or spincast outfit to work the bait from a greater distance.
One of my favorite setups is a Charlie Brewer Weedless Crappie Slider fished under a slip cork rigged for a shallow presentation. The cork lets me cast farther, and because the Slider is weedless, I can cast and retrieve it without hang-ups. I cast the Slider just beyond the spot where I see a crappie and then bring it back past the fish.
This tactic works well with small floating crankbaits, too. Productive models include Rebel's Super Teeny Wee-R and quarter-ounce Humpback, Bass Pro Shops' 1 1/4-inch XTS Micro Light Mini Crankbaits, Rapala's 2-inch Shallow Shad Rap and Mann's Tiny 1-Minus. Jig-and-spinner combos like Johnson's Beetle Spin also work well.
If the water is clear but nests are in brushy areas or weed beds, I use a jigging pole and try to place a minnow or jig on top of any fish I see. It’s best to stand so you can better see crappies hovering over their nests, then push the bait back toward the fish and lower it quietly into the water. No movement of your enticement is necessary. If the crappie is in a feeding mood or actively guarding the nest, a strike will come quickly.
Of course, you don’t have to see crappies to catch them, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch a fish finning in the water and send a lure its way, or to cast to a boil in the water and reel in the big crappie that hits. You’ll also increase your cast-to-hookup ratio by sight-fishing. And that, more than anything, provides a good reason to try it.