May 31, 2023
The late Elwood "Buck" Perry of Hickory, N.C., is known as the father of structure fishing. An ardent angler, Perry spent decades studying fish, their habits and how to successfully catch them. His research taught him that he could hook more fish by finding the underwater features fish followed during their movements from deep water to shallow and back again throughout the year.
Perry called these features "structure" and defined them as "places on the bottom where visible or pronounced changes occur—bottom features that are different from the surrounding bottom areas." This could be a substrate change from soft to hard, a change from shallow to deep or a transition from weedy to clear.
Today's fishermen use the word "structure" to describe almost any type of cover or bottom feature. Bottom channels, riprap, fallen timber, stumps, brush piles, boat docks, weedbeds—you name it and someone will call it structure.
INTRO TO SUPERSTRUCTURE
Perceptive crappie anglers know structure is the place to find their quarry, regardless of the season. Crappies orient to these objects on the bottom year-round. In recent years, however, hardcore panfish anglers have popularized another term that can increase a fisherman's chance of locating crappies. That word is "superstructure."
Superstructure is a smaller, specific component of much larger structure where crappies are likely to gather. For example, if a submerged river channel on a lake bottom is structure, then superstructure might be a short, timbered point jutting into a bend on that channel. If a shoreline boat dock is structure, a brush pile or abrupt drop-off adjacent to the dock might be superstructure.
Similarly, if a large underwater hump is structure, crappies won't be evenly dispersed all around the hump. Instead, they'll be attracted to areas such as a cluster of stumps, a bushy snag or other superstructures distinctly different from the hump. Often, finding such spots requires the use of a sonar unit or bottom-contour map.
Lewis Peeler, an ardent crappie angler from Vanndale, Ark., learned about superstructure on a spring crappie fishing trip in Louisiana.
"A friend and I were jig-fishing on an oxbow lake," he says. "A heavy rain had fallen the day before, and crappie were gathered in mid-lake areas where isolated cypress trees towered over the water."
Peeler continues, "There were several solitary trees on the lake’' north end, but crappie weren't randomly scattered around them. We found the fish congregated in small, slightly deeper pockets of water near certain trees. We knew crappie were in mid-lake haunts, but we had to refine our search to find the particular form of superstructure that attracted fish."
According to Peeler, fishing this lake was an important learning experience. For instance, he would work tube jigs on one side of a tree and not get a nibble. Then, he'll moved to the other side, where the fish finder might indicate the water dropped abruptly from 4 to 6 feet, and would quickly start catching fish.
Prior to that day, before he understood the significance of superstructure, he might have jigged a few spots at a particular location then moved on, not realizing there were plenty of slabs on nearby superstructure.
Peeler has seen virtually the same situation in tracts of flooded dead timber on man-made reservoirs.
"You may fish several hours without catching anything and eventually decide the crappie must have lockjaw. Then, in one specific location that looks the same as scores of others you've already tried, you land a dandy crappie. As you're tossing the fish in the livewell, your buddy casts a little spinner and another slab wallops his lure. You start thinking, ‘thank goodness they've started to bite.’"
While in rare cases the fish may have just started biting, in most instances the crappies were willing to bite all along—you just hadn't found them yet because they were holding near a small yet well-defined piece of superstructure.
Perhaps there was a thick cluster of limbs still clinging to the side of one of the snags below. Maybe a different type of tree created superstructure. If the flooded timber consisted primarily of tall oaks and hickories, the bushy skeleton of a single cedar tree on one edge would probably draw heavy concentrations of crappies. Pinpointing these particular types of superstructure is what will make your catch rates soar.
Peeler's experience brings to mind a small lake where I often fish for crappies. It covers only 20 acres, so it's easy to fish most of it during a one-day outing. A row of cypress trees running through the lake's mid-section provides the only available crappie cover, except for one little pocket at the end of the cypress row where there's a stand of willows.
I've never been able to resist the temptation of jigging around all the cypress trees, and on each visit I'll pick up a few nice crappies there. When I think back, though, I realize I've probably wasted a lot of time fishing around the cypress trees because more than half the crappies I've caught in that lake have come from within that patch of willows.
IN OR OUT
Crappie anglers should also learn to distinguish between "in-structures" and "out-structures." In-structures are always connected to the shore. Out-structures are away from the shore, often in the middle of the lake.
One example of in-structure for crappies is a long, brush-covered point that gradually slopes into deeper water. A tree that has become uprooted and fallen over into the water would be in-structure, as would a fishing pier or anything else that is clearly part of the shoreline.
Out-structures include features like inundated (underwater) stream channels, humps, inundated ponds, saddles between islands, man-made fish attractors, timbered bars and related features well away from the shoreline.
The most important difference between these two fishing areas is that crappies generally use in-structures in spring and fall and out-structures in summer and winter. The only time crappies travel any appreciable distance is when they're making seasonal migrations from in-structures to out-structures or vice versa.
"This is important for crappie fisherman to know," Peeler says. "Each bit of superstructure where you find crappie should, if it remains unchanged, always attract crappie. But in most cases, crappie will only be found on that piece of superstructure during the proper season—on in-structure in spring and fall, on out-structure in summer and winter."
Peeler recommends concentrating your attention on superstructure regardless of the season. For example, if you're fishing in-structure during the spring spawn, look for something slightly different on the main structure that will concentrate crappies.
A patch of green willows may contain a log or cluster of stumps that draws crappie. If you're fishing a brushy cove, look for small points or other features along the perimeter where crappies are likely to hold. If you find crappies scattered here and there around cypress trees, watch for unusual stands of knees that might tend to keep crappies more tightly schooled—knees in slightly deeper water or knees more tightly bunched.
Likewise, if you're fishing around out-structure during summer and winter, focus your attention on superstructure that shows up on your sonar.
"Primary creek channels are among the best structures to fish during these seasons, but crappie won't be along their entire length," Peeler says. "They'll gather in small, dense schools where the channel exhibits a change of some sort."
This may be a bit of cover where a secondary channel intersects the main channel, or around a tall tree standing on a sharp bend in the channel—anything different from the norm. Finding these types of superstructures can mean the difference between catching lots of crappies or none at all.
Every good crappie fisherman knows the fundamentals of structure fishing. But if you want to improve your success rate even more, learn how to find and fish superstructure. This advanced form of structure fishing will become the foundation and source of some of the best crappie fishing you have ever enjoyed.
TOP SPINNERS FOR CRAPPIES
There's a good reason these little spinnerbaits have been made by the millions. They all catch crappies.
- JOHNSON BEETLE SPIN: Snap on the safety-pin spinner and retrieve a Beetle Spin along weedline edges, around brushpiles and through stump fields. Or jiggle a spinnerless Beetle Spin under a bobber for all the crappie action you can handle. The 1/32-ounce model is ideal when you want to catch lots of crappies, no matter what the size. Your catch rate will fall with the 1/8- or 1/4-ounce versions, but the crappies you hook will be big. ($1.99; purefishing.com/johnson)
- BLAKEMORE ROAD RUNNER: Fish it slow or fast, deep or shallow. Cast it, jig it or troll it. The versatile Road Runner comes in several body styles, all with an underside spinner that imparts instant flash attraction. Try a creeping retrieve—just enough forward motion to make the blade spin—from shallow to deep water on points and humps. ($3.19; tticompanies.com)
- WORDEN'S ROOSTER TAIL: Combining flash with the pulsating motion of the colorful hackle tail, the Rooster Tail often catches crappies when nothing else will. It's available in 10 sizes and 95 different colors. Cast and retrieve around bridge pilings, riprap, points, humps, thickets, man-made fish attractors, weedbeds and other hideouts. ($3.49; yakimabait.com)