April 23, 2021
By Jim Gronaw
A Southern angler's heart warms when rising temperatures begin to push fish shallow and make them active. Bass are biting, shad are pulsing in the rivers and trout streams are peaking with both native and stocked fish.
During this time, one of my favorite fishing adventures involves tossing a lightweight kayak in the back of the truck and heading to any of my secret crappie holes. Backwater sloughs, ponds and small public lakes are often ignored in favor of large, well-known reservoirs where spider-rig systems and sonar units ruled the day just a month ago.
Shallow slabs are protective of spawning sites and often spooky. In the backwaters and micro-lakes, spawning crappies can be both numerous and of trophy size—and this is the realm of the kayak.
To catch unpressured crappies you first must find them, and the best kayak anglers often spend more time searching for potential hotspots than they do fishing. Small talk in local tackle stores might seem just that, but on more than one instance I have found that the conversation eventually gets around to discussing unknown crappie water. Listen closely, as some of those seasoned veterans often know more than you do, and much can be learned about new waters.
I can think of at least four public venues that I now routinely fish that were revealed through word-of-mouth, each having yielded crappies to 15 inches in recent years. Indeed, sometimes these venues are dead ends, but rest assured, 2-pound slabs are well worth the effort.
Another excellent tool for finding slim crappie waters is Google Earth, which can reveal an incredible amount of information about these areas without you ever having to set foot there.
While searching, don't overlook tidal areas, which are often ignored by the masses in favor of large reservoirs simply because of their limited access. These meandering trickles can wind their way to an expansive spillway or mill pond that sees little to no angling pressure.
Additionally, satellite images offer detail on farm lanes, backroads and access points that permit the kayaker to enter water that is seldom fished. Generally, a good rule of thumb is when you locate a new spot that seems like it’s tough to get to, it’s probably a place you want to fish.
When fishing secluded areas, larger crappies tend to spawn in spots that have brush, wood cover or other hard structure. Lighter braided lines in the 6- to 12-pound-test range will aid in getting slabs in the boat when wood cover is heavy.
I use high-visibility braids with a clear, 20-inch fluorocarbon leader of 8-pound test. Aggressive crappies will not shy away from these lines, plus you have a bit more backup when that occasional 4-pound bass hits. If there is little lumber to deal with, 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament will haul fish from most areas. Have rods spooled with each when kayaking backwaters.
Rod selection is often a personal choice, but I carry ultralights in two different lengths to cover various scenarios: a 6-footer and a 7-foot-6-inch stick. Seldom do I make casts farther than 30 feet, with most being only 10 to 20 feet, and in many situations, I'm vertical jigging in 3 feet of water or less. The shorter rod does well in wood or when overhead cover is present, while the longer one increases my casting distance so I can stay away from skittish spawners.
Traditionally, I use a variety of jigs from 1/64- to 1/16-ounce and thread them with 1 1/2-inch plastic trailers by Bobby Garland, Arkie or Bass Pro Shops. Occasionally, I'll opt for minnow-patterned hair jigs tied on a 1/32-ounce head worked enticingly through shallow cover. When the bite turns tough, I'll switch to a 1-inch Gulp! Alive! Minnow. Or, on occasions when it gets really tough, a live earthworm on a No. 8 Aberdeen hook can save the day.
While perhaps counterintuitive when fishing shallow, don't ignore bobbers. While fish can be skittish, large males are extremely territorial and won’t move much. Place a small float 2 feet above a tiny jig or earthworm and pull it ever so slowly to where you have spotted fish. Some anglers may favor live minnows, but when you’re in a small kayak and bushwhacking for adventure, hauling live bait on hot days can result in a bucketful of dead bait.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Clearly, the phenomenal growth of kayak angling, especially among the bass fraternity, has reached a fevered pitch. Today's bass-equipped kayaks can look like floating science labs with all the various gear and accessories. However, for shallow crappies during the pre- to post-spawn periods, you don't need a lot of equipment.
The rule of thumb is to keep it as simple as possible. An economical sit-on-top or sit-in model in the 10-foot range that can easily be hauled with a small truck or SUV is perfect. An anchor system is nice, but not necessary. Portable sonar units and GPS can help when fishing deeper, but aren't needed for shallow, shoreline-oriented fish. Keep in mind that many of the areas you fish will be remote and not large, open-water venues.
Essentially, it is wise to keep your kayak as uncluttered as possible when fishing tight, wood-laden areas for crappies, where overhanging branches, matted vegetation or weeds can hamper a quiet approach. If you plan on keeping some fish for the pan, a small cooler with ice will keep them in good shape for the trip home.
If you fish for crappies from a kayak long enough, you'll eventually encounter a situation where the only possible way to approach the fish is by getting out and wading. If you decide to wade, consider the potential dangers of snakes, alligators, potholes and drop-offs.
The few times I've had to wade were when crappies were spawning in flooded willow bushes along a steep bank and I only had casting room once I got wet. Fortunately, I didn't encounter any unfriendly critters. Water temperature will also play into your decision whether to wade, with safety being paramount.
When wading, keep in mind that a stealth approach is best. That means making minimal noise when entering and exiting the water. Once in the water, keep sediment to a minimum by moving slowly and cautiously. Keep your step height as low as possible, yet high enough that you don’t stumble over underwater objects.
As you move, look well out in front of you. Determine your targets early and move to them in straight lines, which minimizes steps. A quality pair of polarized sunglasses is a must for identifying darker spawning males or other panfish species that could be in the mix.
If you opt for chest waders, make sure they are designed for the season. Heavy, insulated waders are great in winter, but when worn in summer can ruin a wade in short order.
ON THE CHEAP
You needn't spend a lot on a kayak to catch fish.
Simplicity rules the day when kayak crappie fishing. Yes, you can opt for bigger, trailered models with pedal drives, sonar units, electric motors and anchoring systems. Or you can go lighter, stay in smaller waters and find some high-end slabs close to home. Neither is better than the other; they're just different.
For the past five years I have been tossing my 10-foot Sun Dolphin Journey 10SS in the backs of trucks and SUVs on quests not just for big crappies but lunker largemouths, big channel catfish, giant carp and small-stream smallmouth bass. It’s among the most economical "fishing" kayaks on the market.
It's light (44 pounds), easy to drag (which I often do) and serves the purpose of getting out onto some water when no boat ramp is available. I bought it on sale for well under $300, and it has easily been one of the greatest angling investments I have made in my lifetime.
Hobie’s Pro Angler 14
The ultimate fishing kayak when price is of no concern.
Hobie introduced its forward-propulsion system—the MirageDrive—in 1997, and it quickly revolutionized the way we fish from a kayak. No longer did anglers need to juggle a paddle along with rods and whatever other gear they had onboard.
For 2021, Hobie engineers have reimagined their iconic drive and introduced the MirageDrive 360. Featured on the Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14, MirageDrive 360, as its name suggests, offers anglers the ability to move the kayak in any direction with the free-rotating drive system.
The Pro Angler 14 is a spacious and functional craft at 13 feet 8 inches in length, with a maximum width of 38 inches and a 600-pound capacity. The kayak has protected horizontal storage for four rods, three in-hull storage compartments and a large deck storage area for a cooler or optional livewell.
A clever fishfinder transducer mount protects it from shallow, underwater hazards and retracts for transport. An incredibly comfortable seat is standard and accommodates anglers up to 350 pounds.
Having fished a Pro Angler for some time, I can vouch for its stability; it supports stand-up fishing without issue. With a rigged weight of a bit less than 150 pounds, the Pro Angler 14 is no ultralight craft, but it’s manageable by a solo angler.
At $4,999, this Hobie isn't cheap; however, for those who demand only the best in their fishing gear, the Mirage Pro Angler 14 is well worth a look. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn