Fishing guides feel a double dose of pressure to find fish and think of ways for clients to catch them. John Harrison is a master at this taskâone of the best crappie guides in North America. He has 40 years of experience fishing the trophy crappie waters in northern Mississippi, particularly Grenada Lake. This is a look at how he conducts his business, which highlights techniques anglers might wish to use from the Prespawn Period into the Summer Period.
When Harrison wants to cover water quickly and efficiently to catch prespawn or spawning crappies scattered on the flats of Grenada, a flatland reservoir in northcentral Mississippi, he relies on spider-rigging with heavy jigheads. The system produces no matter what type of weather conditions he encounters. âItâs one of the most efficient ways ever devised to systematically find and catch crappies,â he says.
He usually has two clients, each allowed three rods, so he runs six 14-foot BânâM poles spread across the bow of his boat, placing them in Driftmaster Crappie Stalker System rod holders, with the rod tips about a foot above the water. For fishing water less than about 3 feet deep, each rod is rigged with a single pink or orange 1/4-ounce jighead. The line is 8-pound Capps and Coleman Series Championship Crappie and Panfish Monofilament. The jigs are dressed with Southern Pro Umbrella Tubes in color combos of black and chartreuse or orange and chartreuse.
He often adds a 3-inch minnow. âAdding the minnow makes this a big, bold presentation, measuring 4 inches or so,â he says. âBut a 2-pound crappie has a mouth that can easily handle that. A 3-pounder could eat a baseball. Minnows are important in dirty water, because they struggle on the jighead, adding vibrations that crappies may sense before they see the jig. The big presentation also helps in dirty water, making it easier for the fish to see the jig.â
A heavy jig offers control as he moves the boat along. âI run at speeds that keep those jigheads running perfectly smoothly no more than about 15 degrees from vertical,â he says. âWhenever I slow the boat, the jigs quickly drift back to vertical and hang there with the minnows struggling.
âIn about 3 feet of water, I run the jigs about 18 inches deep. It works best to get crappies to move up to get jigs. If I slide 4 to 7 feet deep, which is as deep as I fish in spring, I go with two jigs on each line, tied 18 inches apartâand I experiment with depth. Lots of times the fish are only 2, 3, or 4 feet down in that deeper water. Donât fish the jigs too deep.â
He begins probing on shallow flats, hoping to find active fish, but if bites are scarce he moves deeper. âMost days in spring if the fish arenât shallow to begin, they move in after things warm up. I always check back shallow as the day progresses. The water might warm 5 degrees during the day when the sun is out.â
He controls boat speed by setting the dial on his trolling motor and moving with the wind. This offers more control than pushing into the wind. He drags log chain to slow his movement as the wind picks up. Driftsocks work well for spider-rigging in deeper water, but the chains work better moving through stump-filled shallows. âThe chain drags freely through the thickest stumps you can fish,â he says.
âIn lighter winds, I use 4-foot sections of 1-inch log chain, tying them off each corner of the stern on 8-foot rope sections. In high wind, I use 12-foot chain sections and vary rope lengths. On the windiest days, I might have 50 feet of rope out. I have knots tied in the rope at 4-foot intervals so I can keep the lines even. The test is being able to keep the jigs riding along smoothly at the chosen depth. You need control.â
Harrison hands clients a single pole when crappies move into heavy shallow cover during prespawn in March and into the spawn in late March or early April. âA lot of fish, particularly males, hold tight on stickups when they move shallow as the water temperature rises into the mid-50Â°F range,â he says. âI like the 11-foot BânâM Buckâs Best Ultra-Lite pole and a BânâM Buckâs Mini Reel loaded with 8-pound fluorocarbon. We dip jigs next to visible stumps, using 1/8-ounce jigheads dressed with either a Mr. Twister VIE Shiner in black-silver flake, or a Southern Pro tube in orange and chartreuse or chartreuse and lime.â
Grenada also has shallow cypress cover. As he dips around a cypress stump, or any piece of cover, he slowly lowers his jig, probing from just below the surface to the bottom, pausing at intervals, but all the while twitching his line and lure by shaking his wrist. âThe waterâs so dirty at times in spring that fish can often feel the presence of the jig before they see it,â he says. âThatâs why that nervous twitch is so important. The twitching means I donât have to tip with minnows to send out all those good vibrations.
âBe thorough but donât waste time,â he says, referring to the importance of probing each side of cover. âIn cold-front conditions, I move along slower than when I know the fish are hitting good. Read the conditions as you go to determine how fast to moveâand, as Iâve said, that often changes as the day wears on.â
BânâM poles have a âtouch systemâ with a notch for your finger, to increase sensitivity. âAnything that breathes on that pole you can feel,â he says. âItâs my favorite way to fish, so itâs what I usually do if Iâm not fishing with clients. The fluorocarbon has the strength and abrasion resistance to help haul big crappies out of cover. â
Itâs a judgement call whether he spends more time spider-rigging or single-pole dipping. âAs I said, spider-rigging is the most effective means Iâve ever seen for finding crappies and catching them in most instances,â he says. âEspecially when lots of fish are spawning, they might only be readily available in numbers for a small portion of the day, before they push shallower, and become a little more difficult to get at by spider-rigging. If the waterâs high, many times single-poling is the way to go.â
Wading in High Water
In springs with exceptionally high water, once fish start spawning, they move into flooded brush, at times so shallow and far back into thickets that the only way to get to them is to wade into it and get after them. Harrison: âMost of the time enough fish are around the edges of cover that I donât wade with clients, we fish single poles. But wading can be the only way to catch fish that push back so far thereâs no way to get a boat to them without spooking them. So I usually park the boat, put waders on, and slip into the water. Once youâre in the water, you have perfect control and can fish each piece of cover as you go.â
How shallow is shallow in this situation? âTypical depths are about 21â2 feet or less,â he says. âI catch lots of fish in a foot or so, fishing the jig near the surface. I wade into the wind to keep from stirring up the bottom so a cloud of silt doesnât get too far in front of me. I use the same 10-foot pole I use for single-pole dipping from the boat. If the poleâs too long it gets tough to control as you maneuver through the brush.â
All aspects of wading require separate coverage, but the fundamentals are easy to picture. Wading usually begins about the time the water temperature reaches a sustained 56Â°F and lasts through the spawn, when temperatures surpass about 65Â°F. âDonât be in a big rush once you start fishing,â Harrison says. âThereâs a lot of brush to fish and this is one time I donât always start fishing a lure right next to cover, but begin a bit away from cover. If you catch fish right on cover you often spook the other fish that are tight to it, so sometimes it pays to first probe for fish away from cover first.
âSometimes patterns develop, where youâre getting your fish tight to cover, or youâre catching them from a bunch of stickups, as opposed to single stickups. Sometimes vine tangles are key; other times cypress stumps are good. Other times youâre getting fish at various cover options along your route.â
Once you park the boat, get out and find a route, moving into the wind, and fish the tangles near the boat. Then backtrack a bit before picking another route that takes you into the wind, once again so youâre not spooking fish as you go. âThis is another situation where shaking the jig as you fish helps to alert fish to the presence of the jig. Itâs an effective and fun way to fish in the right conditions,â he says.
Summertime Spider-Rigging and Pulling
After crappies spawn and fish settle into summer patternsâtypically by May, but certainly by Juneâmuch of Harrisonâs fishing is in clearer water near the dam, where he often spider-rigs along drop-offs. When fishing shallow flats it isnât so vital to watch sonar closely, but during summer itâs important to keep the boat over specific depths.
For this fishing, he uses 16-foot BânâM poles with 12-pound monofilament tied to Capps and Coleman Double Minnow Rigs baited with minnows 3 to 31â2 inches long. The rigs are anchored with a 1-ounce weight, and he moves along at 0.4 or 0.5 mph, a faster pace than during spring. The 1-ounce weights help keep the baits running smoothly and in a near-vertical position.
âWhen water temperatures are above 70Â°F, I also troll crankbaits (itâs called âpullingâ in many parts of the South) along river channel drops and points, typically at depths of 10 to 15 feet,â he says. âIt depends how scattered the fish are whether spider-rigging is the way to go or you should be pulling crankbaits. A lot of scattered fish calls for pulling. Then if I find pockets of concentrated fish by trolling, I might switch to spider-rigging.â
Monitoring sonar to pinpoint fish depth helps to determine crankbait choice. If crappies are suspended in less than 5 feet, he uses Bandit 100-series crankbaits. Bandit 200s are for the 5- to 8-foot range; and Bandit 300s are for fishing deeper than 8 feet. Favorite colors include glow, black, pink, and Grenada shad (black-and-plum).
To pull six crankbaits, he uses rods measuring 8, 12, and 16 feet on each side of the back of the boat. The lures on the 8-foot rods are 150 feet back, 120 feet back on 12 footers, and 100 feet back on 16-footers. The line is 10-pound high-visibility Vicious monofilament and he typically runs at 1.6 to 1.7 mph. When crappies bite the outside lines, they struggle to the surface, slide over the other lines, and are netted directly behind the boat.
Longline trolling jig-and-plastic combinations is another common technique on reservoirs across North America. This is guide Lee Pittsâ favorite tactic for putting clients on crappies during spring on the Coosa River chain of lakes, in Alabama. He makes a long cast behind the boat and strips out one more rod-length of line, so his lures typically run about 90 feet behind the boat. The object is to run the lures over shallow humps, along cover, including rows of trees and brush that prespawn crappies usually suspend around.
Boat speed is important. âI run lures that weigh from 1/24 to 1/32 ounce on lines testing either 6 pounds (away from cover) or 10 pounds (near cover) at speeds from 0.7 to 0.9 mph. That gets the lures about 31â2 to 4 feet down,â he says.
He uses 6- to 7-foot spinning rods and Lewâs Speed Spin spinning reels, placing them in Driftmaster rod holders. His favorite lures are the Bobby Garland Baby Shad and StrollâR. âThe Baby Shad is a better option for covering water,â he says. âI switch to the StrollâR, which has a heavier thumping tail, when I slow down a bit in dirty water. My favorite colors are monkey milk and blue ice in early spring when the water is clear, and black and chartreuse in dirty water.â
If a cold front drives crappie deeper, he uses lead shot to get his presentations deeper.
*John Neporadny Jr. is a veteran outdoor writer and frequent contributor to In-ÂFisherman publications.