The day dawned cold and windy — not the ideal conditions for heading out to a huge lake to catch crappies. However, enduring such weather is all in a day’s work for guide Marc Deschenes.
“This is the best time of year to catch big crappies, so you have to go,” he says. “Big crappies eat big prey. That’s why I use crankbaits.”
A fishing guide out of Blacks Camp on South Carolina’s famous Santee-Cooper River System of lakes Marion and Moultrie, he also fishes 10 private ponds created as borrow pits for the construction of SC Highway 17A near Summerville. He fished the B.A.S.S. circuit as a professional, finishing in the top 40 three years in a row.
“Now, I concentrate mostly on my guide business, V.I.P. Adventures,” Deschenes says. “I run 125 trips a year, and we catch lots of largemouth bass, but people are astounded when we catch two-pound crappies on bass crankbaits. Success with crankbaits depends upon the type of cover you are fishing and how you present your lures.”
What jumpstarted Deschenes’ experiments in cranking up super-sized crappies was actually what he thought were poor fishing conditions. Lake Moultrie had some artificial reefs created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other management partners. Some of them consisted of oyster shells.
“A drought had the water at an extremely low level,” he says. “I checked out the fish attractors, turning over some oyster shells. It seemed like every shell had a crayfish underneath. I already had some bass crankbaits tied on my rods so I started casting. I was amazed when I started catching some of the biggest crappies I had ever seen.”
A light bulb switched on in the analytical brain of the fishing pro. Big crappies must eat crayfish, so all an angler has to do is find cover that holds crayfish and it should also hold big crappies. Prospecting for prodigious numbers of ponderous crappies around the fish attractors was just the beginning of what was to become the premier fishing adventure for which Deschenes’ guide service would come to be known. He began fishing other areas, especially in spring during the pre-spawn. However, the methods also work during the spawning period.
“Some crappies will be in the deeper channels even after most of them go to the shallow brush to spawn,” he says. “I look for submerged canals, ditches and creek channels that have stumps or rocks along their sides. I avoid casting over the edges because that is where all the snags are located. Orient your boat so you can cast your crankbait right down the center of the channel, and you won’t get your lure hung.
“The wobble and vibration of the crankbait brings crappies out of the cover along the edges and attracts schooling crappies in the center,” Deschenes continues. “The type of cover is key. In most lakes, rocks hold the most crayfish. But woody cover—stumps, deadfalls and standing timber—is also good. A lot of anglers create their own brush piles and bamboo attractors. If there are any shell attractors, find them. If you have your own pond, you might try putting in some shells or gravel.”
A great thing about crankbaits is that they work in any water conditions. During prime crappie fishing months for the South, for example, water in most lakes can suffer heavy turbidity from rainfall runoff.
“Even if the water is brick-red, a crappie can sense a crankbait from a long distance away,” Deschenes says. “That means you don’t have to cast it right into the cover. If there is a particular stump or laydown that is holding fish and you snag it, moving too close to free the lure can scatter the crappie. You might have to wait a long time for the crappie to return so you can catch them again.”
Nevertheless, one of his favorite tactics is drifting over a cover area, using an electric trolling motor on the bow of his bass boat to control the direction and speed of the drift. Two anglers casting at approximately 45-degree angles to the direction of the drift can cover a lot of water as they cast and retrieve their lures. They are going to snag stumps, rocks and other objects if they are fishing the area the first time. But it’s the only way to discover the location of the “safe” casting lanes for subsequent drifts. Since the boat is moving and they are hitting unseen cover as they approach it, they are constantly hitting new cover. Crappie crankbaits typically run two to five feet deep, so they can be poked free with a rod tip or by pulling them from the opposite direction they were running.
“You should cast at an angle that allows you to retrieve your lure at the correct speed so it wobbles properly while keeping the line tight,” says Deschenes. “Try different speeds until you find what is working best on that day.”
Deschenes began our day on areas of Lake Moultrie that had a submerged quarry and an old hatchery with attendant ditches, roadbeds and dips, as well as places with deep canals and dikes created by the canals’ excavations. Declaring the water too cold after experiencing so-so luck, he hauled his boat and drove to the borrow pit ponds. The ponds vary in size, with the largestbeing about 10 acres.
Here, the water was warmer and we were out of the wind, so Deschenes felt the fish should be biting better. “Water temperature is important. You have to keep moving. If you aren’t catching fish, you should find warmer water with the same type of cover,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Deschenes struck a mother lode of silver. The mirrorlike fish were the large white crappies the area is famous for producing. Sometimes we drifted an area and elicited a few strikes. Other times, we were catching a crappie on every other cast, may of them weighing well over a pound.
It was living proof that crankbaits are more size-selective than tiny jigs with hair dressings or plastic curly-tailed trailers. Deschenes pointed out pods of large shad skittering across the surface. His reasoning was that if a crappie is big enough to gobble a crawfish or a big shad, it’s going to go gaga over a crankbait.
Using a digital scale, we weighed some of the fish to gauge their true size. Many anglers may say they are catching two-pound crappies. However, fish of that size are rare when they actually hit the scales. Most of the fish weighed between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds. The morning’s catch was about 60 crappies, and 10 of them, all big enough to fillet, were destined for dinner.
Choosing Crappie Crankbaits and Rigging Them Right
Guide Marc Deschenes’ favorite crankbaits for crappies include the Yo-Zuri Hi Speed Vibe, Rapala Risto Rap, Rapala Shad Rap and Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap. The best colors are those resembling crayfish, such as combinations of black and orange, or those resembling shad, such as silver and blue.
He fishes with light spinning rigs with reels filled with 10-pound-test braided line. The lure is not tied to a leader, but knotted directly to the line to increase sensitivity.
The trick is to keep slack out of the line by paying attention to the speed and direction of the drifting boat. If slack gets in the line, the angler should increase the angle of the cast in relation to the direction of the drift. The most productive retrieve rhythm is stop-and-go.
“I usually crank the reel handle 10 turns, then stop the lure for one full second,” he says. “If a crappie is following the lure, he runs right over it.”