Opportunities for catching crappies from shore and other panfish exist throughout North America during fall and winter in areas where ice cover isn’t a factor. Within an hour drive of my central Maryland home, several small lakes produced crappies over 3 pounds—and we catch lots of fish over a pound. In other highly populated regions of the East and Mid Atlantic, similar action awaits the angler on foot, as crappies hold near cover that’s only a cast away in numerous small lakes, ponds, and tidal waterways.
Crappies in smaller environments often aren’t drawn to main-lake basin areas because they don’t exist. Millpond crappies might, however, gang up in the deepest area near the face of the dam—and anglers should check for spillover fish that have washed into the pool just below the dam during periods of high water. In farm ponds, crappies might also hold near cover elements in the deeper areas near the face of the dam. Meanwhile, slabs that live in deeper tidal creeks relate to concrete structures like bulkheads and bridges, or to wood cover that has washed in from storms.
Riprap and boulder areas also draw fish as these spots heat up on sunny days and draw baitfish; plus they provide relief from current and offer shade. Beaver lodges, fallen trees, and sunken brush also exist in some waters. These spots also draw bass, chain pickerel, and channel catfish.
Rod & Reel Options
Rod-and-reel choices are governed by what type of cover you’re fishing and how distant it is. If you’re vertically jigging a small spoon at the base of a footbridge at low tide, a 6-foot ultralight spinning setup is best. But if you’re trying to reach brushpiles a bit off shore, a longer rod is necessary. I use 3 basic rod-and-reel setups to cover the situations I fish.
Vertical Rod—This is an ultra-light option from 5 to 6 feet long, coupled with a small spinning reel loaded with 4- or 6-pound mono. I use a Bass Pro Micro Lite Series MC 56 ULS (5.5 feet long) and a Quantum XTRA LITE XLS 56 2SUL (the same length). Both are graphite and make 40-foot casts easily—but the compact size also helps when poking around docks or marina piers and making vertical presentations.
Swimming Rod—A longer rod is required when longer casts are necessary and a swimming retrieve is used to coax fish from the tops of submerged brush or from beside logs. I use light-action Renegade IM8 ULTRA STIKs that are 6.5 and 7 feet long, coupled with a bigger reel with a wider spool. I use either 4- or 6-pound line. The bigger and wider spool allows more line on the reel and line flows off the reel without coiling so tightly as with smaller reels. This allows for smoother, longer casts.
Distance Rod—When extra-long casts are necessary I use Bass Pro Shops rods—the Wally Marshall models WM80PS and the WM90PS, which are 8 and 9 feet, respectively. Another favorite is an 11-foot B&M rod with an ultrasoft tip which aids in strike detection. I also use these rods for slipfloat applications. The same reels used in swimming applications work on these reels, again loaded with either 4- or 6-pound monofilament for most situations. I might switch to heavier line if I’m likely to encounter big bass, or when I’m vertical jigging in heavy cover.
A 1/16-ounce leadhead jig dressed with a plastic body is the standard presentation, but I also carry jigs as heavy as 1/8 ounce and as light as 1/64 ounce. Current and wind call for heavier jigs. So does distance casting. If distance is needed to reach an offshore brushpile, pinch on a lead shot about 16 inches ahead of the lure.
Tube jigs 1.5 to 2.5 inches long or curlytail plastics the same lengths are top choices. My favorite colors are pink, chartreuse, and white, but at times black or dark gray work well. I also use hair jigs, especially when the water temperature drops below 50°F, with favorite colors being pink or chartreuse. It’s the slower fall rate of the hair that sometimes gets more bites in cold water. Other good plastic options are the 1.5-inch Panfish Assassins and Bass Pro Shop’s Stubby.
For crappies deep in a brushpile, a jig that falls too fast often doesn’t get bit, while one that’s too light never makes it to the fish. Using the 6-pound line can slow a jig’s decent just enough to make your presentation just right. On the other hand, 6-pound might be just a bit too heavy to allow you to cast far enough to reach the cover where fish are holding. I keep extra spools with 4- and 6-pound line on hand for various situations. Expect to have to vary retrieves, too. Active fish prefer swimming retrieves with twitches, while neutral fish often respond best to a straight slow fall that puts the jig right in their face.
Small spoons such as the Acme Kastmaster and the Swedish Pimple also work, as the fluttering action and flash can sometimes trigger fish. I also use horizontal baits like the Jigging Rapala for vertical fishing around marina docks, and bridge pilings.
Floats allow an angler to hang a jig right in a fish’s face until they bite. Some anglers heave solid wooden bobbers fixed to the line. They use long, soft noodle rods and the fixed dropper maintains the exact depth every cast. The other option is a slipfloat to get the jig to the intended depth, a much easier option for most anglers because it’s easier to cast.
Across much of North America, once water temperatures start to drop in fall, crappies are within reach from shore on many small waters. Of course you can’t always just drive up to water and fish the closest spots to the vehicle. You usually need to hoof it down the shoreline looking for some of the spots I mentioned. Fish as you go. Probe this spot and that. You’ll find sweet spots that hold fish all winter long. It’s not only challenging fun and great exercise, but keeping a few fish means some fine eating.
*Jim Gronaw is an exceptional panfish angler who has written several previous articles for In-Fisherman publications.