If you’ve never fished the dark, cypress-studded rivers that snake through the southern and eastern coastal regions of the U.S., you’ve not lived a complete panfishing life. Tidal flows, vast and small, affected by lunar cycles and wind, are home to a multitude of panfish species. Bull bluegills, fat shellcrackers, and slab crappies are quite at home in the blackwaters. Imagine miles and miles of shoreline cypress, ditches, cuts, guts, embayments, no-name creeks, and tributaries by the thousands. An angler couldn’t live long enough to fish even a fraction of it all.
Jeffrey Abney is giving it his best shot. A nuclear submarine technician from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, he fishes part of this vast panfish paradise in the northeast portion of the state in quest of all species. But at certain times of the year, the abundant blackwater crappies become his primary target. River systems like the Northwest, North, Pasquotank, Yopeum, Little, and Chowan are his playground. His approach employs a number of telescoping fiberglass poles, sensitive floats, and a bucket of small shiners to swing 1,500 to 2,000 blackwater crappies a year over the gunwale.
How To Catch Crappies: Tides
Anyone who has fished tidal waters knows the importance of lunar cycles—that estuaries change from high to low tide approximately every 6.5 hours. Most anglers agree that fishing during the last few hours of an incoming tide or the first few hours of an outgoing tide tend to see more feeding activity by many species, crappies included. Either side of high tide, increased water flow and flooding in shallows and creeks get invertebrates such as grass shrimp, minnows, and other panfish morsels, on the move and more vulnerable to capture. Cold fronts, precipitation, sunlight, and especially, wind, affect this pattern.
Wind enters the picture in a big way in the rivers of Albermarle Sound, which Abney frequently fishes. A strong wind out of the northwest to northeast sweeps across the vast open waters of the Sound, which flows generally north to south, and “pulls” water out of the rivers and creeks, creating a “wind-tide” effect that overrides the lunar cycle. This can create a large region of low tidal levels in these rivers for several days. When a strong southerly or southeast wind persists, waters from the sound are pushed back into the tributaries. The direction of wind affects each river system in a slightly different way, and water levels can vary.
Abney says that on high or flood tide conditions, most big crappies hold tight to fallen cypress trees, submerged cypress knees, and under docks, pilings, and other artificial structures. He finds crappies 2 to 4 feet deep, depending on water depth around the wood. When the wind-tide pulls water out of the Sound and river levels drop, he fishes slightly off the woodcover in water about 5 to 6 feet deep. Tidal slabs in blackwater swamps seldom venture far from wood.
Sunlight affects crappie location, especially during the prespawn, fall, and early winter. As these tannin-stained waters are literally black, they can warm several degrees in areas of prolonged sunlight. In March and April, before foliage envelopes the shoreline, areas that have northern and northwest pockets and embayments receive more sunlight. By late afternoon water temperatures can rise 2 to 5 degrees above that of surrounding waters, drawing prespawn crappies regardless of tidal effects. This can vary slightly from one river system to the next. Small and isolated pockets can draw hordes of crappies at this time.
Sun-warmed shallows are a late-fall option as well. In late October 2013, I fished with Abney on the Northwest River, an intricate tidal system that meanders near the Virginia-North Carolina border. A record cold front had dropped water temperatures 10 to 12 degrees during the previous several days, and my hopes of putting a few crappies in the livewell were doubtful. By fishing sun-warmed pockets and wood structures, we managed to beat the cold and iced a respectable batch of black crappies off of two separate structures. One was a shallow, wood-infested point and the other a dock exposed to afternoon sun. Water temperatures rebounded from 54°F to 60°F and those fish responded well to minnow-tipped jigs set 5 feet below sensitive foam bobbers.
How To Catch Crappies: Lairs for Slabs
One of the problems with fishing tidal blackwaters of the coastal rivers of the Carolinas and to some degree the Delmarva tidal flows, is that every place looks incredibly fishy with an abundance of wood structure, both natural and manmade. Shallow, stumpy canals and sloughs that may only be 2 feet deep at high tide draw spawning crappies. Check embayments off of the main flow as they can hold spawning fish that seldom see a minnow. And don’t bypass subdivision canals, excavated coves, or ditches and guts that angle off major tributary arms. At times, terrific fishing can be had within a hundred yards of a public launch that has these features.
In October and November, crappies relate to standing and fallen cypress near 4 to 6 feet of water. A warm spell can push them shallower, but deeper wood and docks are better. Sunken barges or vessels in 5 feet of water or deeper are year-round draws. Many coastal rivers average only 6 to 10 feet deep, and crappie location seems to be more affected by cover than depth. Crappies prefer wood structures that provide refuge from tides and feeding opportunities.
Not all East Coast flows have abundant cypress trees. On the Maryland and Virginia sides of the Potomac River, crappie activity centers around marina docks, fallen hardwood trees, and sun-warmed bulkheads and riprap. Virginia’s Occoquan River hosts numerous docks and marinas that don’t fill their slips until later in May and June, giving crappie anglers a shot at wood-hugging, prespawn, and spawning fish. Casting to these structures with 1/16-ounce jig-and-minnow combinations with light spinning gear, dock shooting, and tight-lining jigs works well.
Hot spots in spring and fall on the Delmarva Peninsula are heads of tidal rivers and creeks that have been impounded and have a spillway or “tumblehole” immediately below the mill pond dam. At some of these locations, tide is minimal and crappies spawn on shallow, sandy shoals or banks where water temperature and depth remain relatively stable. Access is often limited so most fishing is from the shoreline. One of the best approaches is casting bobber-jig-minnow combinations to bedding areas, with most fish caught in 2 to 3 feet of water. The spillway bite can be sensational to sporadic, as heavy spring rains can muddy the waters and push spawning fish downstream and disorient them until the waters clear. Irrigation canals connected to feeder creeks also can host a flush of big crappies that, traditionally, only the locals know about.
How To Catch Crappies: Pole and Line Savvy
Fishing with telescoping poles can be a superior method in blackwaters, especially when scoping out thick woodcover for fish that are shallow most of the year. Abney is a pole-and-line guru who uses few other options for tidal crappies. Blackwaters allow close presentations without spooking fish and pinpoint deliveries on complex fallen and submerged wood structures.
He rigs with 10- or 12-pound-test monofilament such as Trilene XT or original Stren Fluorescent Clear Blue. Lines this heavy make some panfish enthusiasts shiver, but there’s good reason for the beefy string. Abney finds that the dark water doesn’t require ultrathin, clear monos that are standard for most clearer lakes and rivers. Crappies tend to be less spooky here, and heavier line stands up to larger predators he encounters—channel catfish to 10 pounds, bowfin to 30 inches, and largemouths to 7 pounds—all on poles with attached, fixed lines. Also, wrestling a 14-inch crappie or pounder coppernose bluegill from the jungle isn’t light-duty stuff. Strong line allows hook straightening when you get snagged. Keep a small hook hone handy to touch them up after a recovery.
Poles allow you to reach fish right in thick cover. Abney owns 27 different setups and favors the Bream Buster and Black Widow poles made by B&M Pole Company. Other models from Bass Pro Shops Uncle Buck Crappie Pole series are also in his rod locker. Lengths vary from 10 to 16 feet. Most of his swamp work is done with 10- and 12-footers. If he needs to keep distance from structure, he pulls out a 14- or 16-footer for long-distance lobbing.
Line length should be the same length as the extended pole. Tie the monofilament to the rod just behind the tip-top guide with a clinch knot. Then, wrap 8 to 10 wraps just behind the tip and then feed it through the eyelet. Using this technique, the eyelet won’t pull out of the pole tip section when a 5-pound largemouth shows up.
Abney secures a jig to the line with either a Palomar or improved clinch knot. Then he pegs a small, in-line foam bobber on the line so the jig fishes at the desired depth. Many of his fish are caught from 2 to 4 feet below the float, and for shallow fish he likes a 10-foot pole. If cold fronts push crappies deeper, he pegs the float at 5 to 6 feet deep on a 12- or 13-foot pole. He keeps 6 or 8 poles on board, each prerigged with the most recent effective color and jig style.
The best jigs are 1/32- and 1/64-ounce hair jigs that mimic a grass shrimp or small minnow. His favorites include the Gronaw Grass Shrimp patterns and the beadhead Silent Stinger jigs tied by David Eitutis of Troy Grove, Illinois. Tipped jigs seem to outperform either plain bait or plain jigs.
Grass shrimp are an abundant panfish prey species in this region and a prime jig-tipping agent in early spring through early summer. Tipping with minnows works better in fall and early winter. Crickets also catch their share of crappies during the postspawn, usually May into June. For the past several years, pink has been a good color in blackwater rivers, with olive, beige, silver, and chartreuse catching their share of fish.
Abney probes likely cover by easing up with his trolling motor and dropping jig-and-float rigs tight to the structure, and systematically working through the cover. He probes every available side of a cypress stump, sunken barge, or pier piling before moving to the next spot. Having fished these waters since the early 1990s, he has a good eye for what does and doesn’t hold crappies. Some pockets and structures produce slabs every year, while other spots change over time, with coastal storms and high water events reshaping the shoreline, as new lumber falls and other wood gets washed away.
Every season brings something new. That’s how it is in the blackwaters, it all looks good, and much of it produces crappies.