March 04, 2020
By M.D. Johnson
I grew up in Ohio. Twenty-eight years in The Buckeye State, which may partially explain why I was raised by two generations of crappie fishermen. Oh, they’d catch a walleye time and again. Or a channel cat. But all, typically, while dunking minnows under red-and-white bobbers among the yellow-flowered flooded willow trees during the spring. The target species? Crappies.
Fast forward to today. While my wife, also an avid angler, and I make our home in southwest Washington and are surrounded by glamour species like salmon and steelhead, it’s crappies I get a hankering for each and every spring. Fortunately, the West is full of options holding excellent populations of these prolific panfish, giving anglers ample opportunities to pursue these fine-eating, easy-to-catch game fish.
WHY AND WHERE
Why crappies? The West has so much to offer in terms of species. Why, then, a panfish more closely associated with waters throughout the Midwest and South than the cool, clear ponds and lakes west of the Continental Divide?
The crappie’s rise in popularity may very well have something to do with today’s often-limited angling opportunities for more traditional species like salmon and steelhead. Runs are down. Numbers are down almost across the board. However, anglers aren’t willing to hang up their rods and reels, so they’re turning to non-traditional species and opportunities. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are two. Walleyes are another. Channel cats yet another. Then there’s crappies.
“I think part of the crappie’s popularity lies in the fact that you can catch so many when you find them schooled up,” said Ed Legan of Clearlake, Calif., who handles the duties as tournament coordinator for the Clear Lake Crappie Association, as well as operates Clear Lake Family Guide Service ( 702-497-8938). “I think that’s the difference between crappie fishing and bass fishing. [Crappie] are easy to catch once you pattern the fish, once you know what depth and what they’re hitting on. That’s the key right there.”
Now to the “where” portion of the crappie equation. True, every western lake holding crappie is going to be slightly different in terms of water depth, water clarity, vegetation, bottom composition, structure, and angling pressure, among other variables. The key, according to Legan, regardless of the location, is elemental: you must find them first.
“I use a combination of Old School knowledge and electronics. On Clear Lake, the key to finding fish are the side scan sonar units we’re using. Right now, I’m using a Humminbird on the back [of the boat] with side scan, and a Lowrance unit on the front with down scan,” Legan said. “I’ll take that combination and I’ll run the lake focusing on docks. The problem is that these fish will only be under certain types of docks. Shade. Water depth. Deep water access. It’s all important. I’ve found fish under four docks in the past but had to scan 200 to find those. But once you do it can be a fish every cast.”
BAIT AND TACKLE
Back in the day, when I started crappie fishing, the gear and bait were as simple as it gets. The aforementioned minnows, Eagle Claw No. 4 snelled hooks along with a red-and-white bobber, all dipped among the willows on cane poles or, if we were getting fancy, repurposed fly rods. Today, crappie gear is a bit more high-tech.
“I’m using either a 7 1/2-foot Okuma SST ultralight or a one-piece graphite Hyper Sense 7 from Jenko Fishing,” Legan said. “All the reels are spooled with green Mr. Crappie monofilament in either 4- or 6-pound-test. As for the green line, I believe these fish can see line and refused to use it for years. A friend of mine, who’s also a guide, was outfishing me (with green line), and it’s all I use now. You can really see that line pop when you get a hit. It’s changed the way I fish with jigs.”
At this point, I made an assumption, that being Legan’s go-to presentation would be live minnows. California, it seems, allows the use of live minnows for bait; some western states, like Washington and Oregon, prohibit the use of this most traditional crappie presentation.
“I never use live minnows,” Legan said, without hesitation. “I don’t need them. Once you find these fish, you just don’t need them. I could do just as well without the minnows.”
In lieu of live minnows, Legan prefers a trio of soft plastics, all fished on a unique wire keeper-style 1/32- or 1/16-ounce lead-head jig he pours himself.
“I’m partial to the Keitech 2.5 Swing Impact (grub), Bass Assassin’s Panfish Assassin, or the 2-inch Fringe Fry grub from Jenko Fishing,” Legan said.
As for colors, traditionally an important factor in crappie success, if not the principle factor, Legan is and isn’t a believer.
“I think it’s a confidence thing with people who catch crappies on certain colors, but I do like a white bait. White and chartreuse. White and blue. Blue ice,” Legan said. “In the spring, I like a red-and-white tube bait. Keitech puts a squid oil in their (jig) packages, and I do think that really makes a difference, too.”
Legan’s tactics are simple—simple, that is, once he’s found the fish.
“I’ll free-fall a jig through the schools. Or work (the lure) back to the boat with a very slow retrieve. Sometimes I’m using a single jig. Sometimes, I’ll run a tandem rig. The key is finding the depth,” Legan said. “Crappie look up. You have to have your bait above them. If you get below them…well, they’re not looking down. I’ll count down my bait, or, if they’re suspended fish, use a slip bobber.”
No, crappies may not be as “cool” as salmon or steelhead, trout or even smallmouth bass. However, it’s no challenge for guides like Legan to have crappie converts aboard his skiff at day’s end.
“Usually, people come out and want to go bass fishing. I always try to get my clients to try crappie fishing. Maybe we’ll go out in the morning, catch 60 crappies, and then go bass fishing,” Legan said. “Usually, on the way in that next day, they’ll ask, ‘Do you think we can go back and do that with the crappies again?’ They get addicted to crappies pretty quick.”