June 07, 2004
By John E. Phillips
Listen to the wrong anglers, and you just might think that fishing jigs and minnows around brushpiles is the only way to catch big crappie. But trust us -- there are other methods!
I never met more of a crappie-fishing angler than Skeeter Skelton, a friend who could catch crappie when no else could. He employed a technique that you'd have to see to believe.
When I first fished with Skelton about two decades ago, and asked him if we would fish for crappie with minnows or jigs, he answered, "No - knitting thread."
I asked what he meant, and he replied, "Knitting thread is what we're going to use to fish for crappie."
If you're confused, think about me as I tried to make a decision about whether to carry a cane pole, a bait-casting outfit, a spinning rod or some other type of tackle to fish with knitting thread. But I learned the wisdom of Skelton's crappie-catching technique that day when he and I fished together.
Skelton always searched for what he called "hidden trees." "Look for stumps on the banks where a tree once was, broken-off trees and/or holes where the tree roots were blown down by a mighty wind," Skelton explained. "From the holes and the stumps, you should be able to guess about how big the tree was. Then figure out approximately where the top of that tree would be if it fell into the lake."
Skelton fished successfully for crappie in the days before the depthfinder by identifying those invisible trees. Once he determined the approximate position of the treetop in the water, he'd pull out a variety of his homemade jigs.
"Those store-bought jigs are so expensive that I'll go broke buying them," he said. "I've bought a split shot lead mold from the Herter's catalog. I pour up 1/8-, 1/4- and 1/2-ounce split shot from the lead I pick up around town. Next I get some wire crappie hooks and several different-colored skeins of knitting thread. I cut the knitting thread into various lengths, put three strands of knitting thread and the hook in a shot lead and crimp the shot lead closed. I now have a knitting-thread jig, and if I lose it, I've lost pennies instead of quarters."
Skelton needed to fish only with inexpensive jigs, since he generally fished 15 to 20 treetops each morning and the same number in the afternoon.
"Crappie will be in one of those treetops," he explained. "All I've got to do is find out which treetop they're in, and then, once I start catching them, I just change out the color of my knitting thread until I take a good mess of crappie from the same treetop."
Every time I got hung-up in a tree limb, Skelton would call, "Break it off - it's just knitting thread. I've got plenty more where that jig came from. If we run out of our knitting-thread jigs, I've got the makings for thousands more right here in the boat. If we each don't break off 50 to 75 jigs in a day, we're not fishing where the crappie are."
On that day, he and I caught a total of more than 100 crappie, but only kept the ones that weighed 1 1/2-pounds or better. We filled up two coolers - his and mine.
Even today when I crappie-fish for a day, I always carry some wire hooks, split shots and one or two skeins of knitting thread with me. Then I'm prepared if I run out of my expensive crappie baits.
Here's a look at some other offbeat ways to catch crappie.
When we think about goldfish, there comes immediately to mind the image of children amused by watching the shiny orange creatures swim round and round in a fishbowl like one in Dr. Seuss. But some anglers buy these staples of the home aquarium to fish for crappie, believing that using goldfish instead of minnows catches them bigger slabs. And crappie will indeed bite goldfish more readily than they do some other baits, perhaps because of the bait's high visibility, especially in stained water. Further, goldfish do seem to live longer than minnows do.
Today, some crappie fishermen use quart bleach bottles to catch crappie, just as other anglers jug for catfish. Tying monofilament on the necks of the jugs, they suspend either goldfish or live minnows on hooks or 1/24- or 1/32-ounce crappie jigs on the lines; then they allow the jugs to blow across the mouths of creeks, river ledges and shallow-water coves where the crappie may spawn during the spring. When the crappie take the jigs, they tip up the jugs, and the angler brings in the crappie.
Be sure to check the regulations where you plan to fish before using this method.
Try chumming, a technique usually associated with saltwater angling, to improve your crappie fishing. Anchor over a likely-looking spot and sprinkle cornmeal around the boat every few minutes; soon, minnows will begin to gather to feed on the chum, and the minnows will attract the crappie.
This technique works even better if you can start the chumming a day or two before you start fishing. The crappie will be lined up for you then.
To attract minnows and, thus, crappie to your fishing area, crush your breakfast eggshells, take them to the lake, and sprinkle the shell pieces overboard in a circle around the boat. The pieces will flutter seductively down through the water and draw in first minnows and then crappie.
Whether the pieces of shell look like the scales of just-eaten baitfish or the crappie just like the fluttering motion is of no real consequence. Whatever the reason, it'll help you catch more slabs.
FLY-FISHING FOR CRAPPIE
Few people fly-fish for crappie, so some may find this an unusual approach to catching crappie. But you can have great fun taking crappie on your fly rod. Use a 4- to 6- weight outfit and weight-forward floating or fast-sink tip line and attach a 4- to 6-foot leader tapering down to a 6- to 8-pound tippet; fish with a small streamer fly in sizes 2 to 6. You may have to crimp a small split shot on the leader a foot in front of the fly for extra weight.
Cast the fly near deep points, bridge pilings and flooded timber, along dropoffs and to the edges of weedbeds. Then retrieve with short, sharp strips to work the fly at 4- to 12-foot depths.
During the spawn, crappie often spawn so far under a dock that you can't cast to them. To solve this problem, use a small 4 1/2- to 5-foot light-action spinning rod and 4- to 6-pound-test line. Leave about 3 feet of line hanging down from the end of the rod.
Pick up the line closest to the reel with your index finger and hold the line with your finger as if you were preparing to cast. With your other hand, take hold of the jig between your thumb and index finger, the hook pointing away from you. Pull the jig back so that the rod bends. Aim the rod under the dock and release the jig; just as the jig clears the end of the rod, release the line you're holding with your finger in the other hand. The rod then will shoot the jig under the dock, where you can't cast. Once the jig hits the water, begin a slow, steady retrieve to catch slabsides in a place that few crappie anglers fish in.
MAGGOTING UP YOUR JIGS
Tip a 1/32-ounce jig with a live Eurolarva (maggot). Fish the jig and the maggot combination on 4-pound-test line wherever you've located standing timber on the edges of underwater creek channels or in small creeks that have deep eddy pools close to the bank. Let the Eurolarva and jig free-fall to the bottom, and watch your line for the bite.
CRANKING 'EM UP
Fish small deep-diving bass crankbaits to catch deep crappie on underwater dropoffs, ledges or stumps. Cast them out and swim them along the edges of the cover, or crash them into underwater stumps and logs. As the baits float up after the collision, the crappie often will attack.
Some anglers prefer to troll crankbaits for crappie. As one fisherman noted, "Even with a 10- or a 20-mph wind, I can troll crankbaits 100 feet behind my boat, have them run true and catch crappie."
If you fish with either jigs or minnows in a wind like that, your baits will bounce up and down as your boat rides the waves. But a big crankbait will pull hard, the line will knife through the water, and the crankbait will run naturally.
JARRING FOR CRAPPIE
Ever try this age-old jar trick? Fill a gallon glass jar with water and put a lid with holes punched in it on the jar. Tie the neck of the jar with a strong piece of string. Put 6 to 12 minnows in the jar, and lower it to the depth at which you've previously caught crappie.
Crappie will spot the minnows in the jar, but not the glass - so they'll attack the jar. Put live minnows on hooks down right beside the jar, and the crappie will take the bait.