June 24, 2022
Rivers and crappies. To most anglers, those words are as incompatible as ketchup and chocolate cake.
Crappies are considered lake fish, after all, and when we plan a trip to catch these good-eating scrappers, Southern rivers usually receive little attention.
Despite popular misconceptions, however, crappies inhabit many rivers throughout the region and are quite abundant in some. If you know which ones to fish, and have an understanding of the proper methods for catching the crappies that live in them, you can enjoy crappie fishing action comparable to that on any lake or reservoir in the South.
RIVER CRAPPIE BASICS
It’s important to know that the best crappie fishing rivers tend to be warm lowland streams that meander through fertile bottomland soils. If a river is cold enough and swift enough for trout, it’s not likely to hold many crappies. Broad, slow-moving delta rivers, on the other hand, have temperatures and current speeds more suited to crappies and often support bustling populations.
Know, too, that river crappies position themselves at strategic places to feed, rest and spawn. Resting fish prefer areas with very little current. Moderate current is preferred when feeding by ambush. When spawning, crappies usually leave the main river and move into shallow backwaters, oxbows and tributaries with almost no current. Understanding these points is the first step to reading a crappie river.
Of course, how you present your bait or lure is also crucial to catching fish. Crappies will almost always be facing upstream as they wait for edibles to drift to them, so baits and lures should be cast upstream beyond the structure where you believe fish lurk. This allows your enticements to be carried downstream in the current in as natural a manner as possible, resulting in more hook-ups.
Secondary willows rank high among my favorite river crappie hotspots. These are long bands of willows that grow out into a backwater as the backwater silts in. The water rises and falls year after year, depositing more silt. As the silt piles up, the willows take hold farther and farther from the bank. Fishing the outermost willows in these areas often produces lots of big crappies.
To get to the biggest and wariest of those fish, you need a long jigging pole—12 to 14 feet—and some 1/32- to 1/16-ounce tube jigs. Pull the front of your boat into the willow stand as far from the outer edge as possible, then pull the jig tight to the end of the pole and work the pole back as far as you can. In the nether reaches of that willow stand is where the real slabs are likely to be. Release the jig when you have it positioned over an opening, then try to just hold it steady a foot or two beneath the surface. The jig will actually quiver and wobble ever so slightly, and any hungry crappie that sees it will dart over for an easy meal.
Summer crappies also school together around pilings beneath river bridges. To locate them, move slowly from one piling to the next with your sonar on. Determine the depth of any schools you see, then back away and cast a jig or small spinner beyond the pilings, allowing the lure to fall to the correct depth before beginning a slow retrieve. To trigger more strikes, keep the lure very close to the pilings, bumping them occasionally.
Other good lures for bridge pilings include blade baits such as the Heddon Sonar, Cotton Cordell Gay Blade and Reef Runner Cicada. These compact lures sink quickly, even in moderate current, and maintain depth when worked in a yo-yo fashion around pilings and rock piles. An upward rod sweep lifts the lure, causing a fish-attracting vibration. Then, as the rod is lowered, the lure begins a spiral fall that triggers an instinctive attack from crappies. To eliminate line twist, snip the line 8 inches above the lure and tie a barrel swivel to both cut ends.
Don’t overlook the opportunity to take loads of crappies in the tailwater below your local dam. River crappies move upstream in late winter or early spring, searching for spawning sites. When they reach a dam, they congregate and mill around the area for weeks—sometimes months—and you’ll have excellent chances for extraordinary catches there.
A jig-and-minnow combination often outproduces a jig or minnow alone in this situation. Use a leadhead heavy enough to get down in the current, and cast the rig around wing dams, boulders, lock walls, sandbar edges and other features that break the current.
Fishing the backs of tributary creeks is another good summer strategy on rivers. Look for those with slow, steady current and plentiful woody cover. Motor upstream as far as possible, then fish your way out. Use a jigging pole with jigs or minnows and work the creek channel and shallow banks on each side, taking time to fish all the dense cover.
Also watch for sonar blips indicating suspended fish around inundated stream channels. Start first at the mouth of a tributary, trolling back and forth across the area, then move up the stream channel itself. Follow the channel edge as closely as possible, looking for signs of unusual structure—bank cuts, humps, points, bends, lines of timber, etc.—that may concentrate crappies.
Outside bends and junctions of two channels are hotspots to check, especially during hot, sunny days. As summer wanes and autumn draws near, watch for river crappies slashing through schools of small shad on the water’s surface.
This is a visible phenomenon that often occurs along the edges of secondary willows, near tributary mouths and along seams of water separating backwaters and the main river. Lipless crankbaits such as Cotton Cordell’s Spot Minnow and Bill Lewis’ Mini-Trap are baitfish imitators, so they’re very effective for catching these schooling crappies.
They work best if you make long casts beyond surface-feeding schools and reel the lure back fast on or very near the surface. When the crappies sound, let the crankbait sink and work it back with a pumping retrieve so it jumps and flutters through the school.
Many of the best crappie rivers are associated with oxbow lakes created when the river channel changed course. When river water is high, it spills into oxbow lakes in the floodplain. When water falls, the river and oxbows are no longer connected.
River anglers should learn about the part of this phenomenon known as the “run-off.” This occurs when a river falls out of a connected oxbow, usually in early summer when overflow waters recede from the river bottoms.
At some point, the only connections between an oxbow and its parent stream are small chutes or “runouts” created by low points in the topography. Sometimes only one runout exists; other times there are several. All runouts, however, serve up extraordinary crappie fishing for savvy anglers.
The key to runout fishing is timing. The best fishing is during the few days before the river falls completely out of the lake. Water constricted in the runout chutes increases in velocity. Minnows and other forage animals are pulled by current into the rushing stream of water and adjacent areas.
When this happens, crappies gather for the feast. Most hold near cover at the head of the runout in the lake, feeding ravenously on this seasonal bounty. Any minnow or crappie lure fished here is likely to be taken.
For runout fishing to be successful, you must learn the river-gauge level at which the parent river overflows into each oxbow. When gauge numbers are higher than this number, the river level is so low it doesn’t flow into the lake.
Runout conditions exist when the river level is just slightly higher than that magic gauge number, and it is during the few days when this occurs that runout crappie fishing is best.
To obtain the “magic” gauge number, inquire at bait shops or ask local anglers. You then can read the current gauge number in local newspapers or on government websites to plan trips during peak periods. Use the river gauge to track changing water levels when fishing other parts of a river as well. The best fishing is when there’s a slow rate of change or no change at all, so try to plan your trip when the river’s stable.
Scout when the water is up for best results.
Visit any tackle shop and ask the locals when the best time is to scout a river and you’ll likely start a firestorm.
Like bass fishermen, many crappie anglers feel it is best to scout when the water is low. However, decades of experience have taught me to scout when the river is high and muddy and the fishing is poor.
High water offers you access to chutes, cuts and backwaters off the river—places you may not have been before. While you’re in these areas, you may find that water off the main river is clearer and easier to fish. High water also reveals intermediate areas with structure worth visiting as the water falls. These are spots crappies frequent when the water drops, and most fishermen never fish them since they are off the main river and not communal spots.
Always take a rod and reel when scouting; you never know when you’ll find a spot worthy of a cast or two. If you find the right spot, it could turn a scouting day into a good day of fishing.