Anglers who fish natural lakes or lowland impoundments usually lack the opportunity to fish riprap for crappies. Elsewhere, plentiful crappies await those who master specialized tactics for probing this monotonous-looking structure. Brad Whitehead, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, guides on Wilson and Pickwick reservoirs on the Tennessee River. Miles of riprap line the industrialized banks of Wilson and Pickwick, but in early spring, with the mighty Tennessee River coursing heavily through the main reservoir, Whitehead fishes the extensive riprap on dams at far smaller Cedar Creek, Little Bear, and Bear Creek reservoirs. His favorite time period is mid-March through mid-April.
When the wind is moderate, Whitehead favors tightlining, a variation of spider-rigging, to probe dam riprap. It involves trolling with a set of rods protruding from both bow and stern, making the craft resemble a water-striding spider. Spider-rigging is an easy way for guided clients to catch a lot of crappies. It avoids casting, which can be an ordeal with novices aboard wielding lengthy poles and casting jigs to snaggy riprap.
Rigging: Whitehead and his clients employ 16 rods—8 on the bow and off the transom, all 12-foot B’n’M PST122 trolling rods with Pflueger Echelon casting reels spooled with 10-pound-test Silver Thread AN40 monofilament. He fishes jigs, often a mixed array of 1/16-ounce Southern Pro heads with a #2 hook and a 2-inch Yum Vibra Tube in shad hues, and Teezur Tackle Jigs with Carolina -pumpkin–chartreuse 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertails.
To keep the jigs directly below the rod tip, Whitehead loops a 3/4-ounce XCalibur Tungsten Barrel Sinker 2 feet above the jig, threading the line three times to secure it.
Length of line is easily adjusted to match the depth crappies are holding. He has a marker on his rod 2 feet from the reel, allowing precise line adjustment by his clients. From mid-March to mid-April, crappies along these reservoir dams typically are bottom-oriented and holding in 7 to 19 feet or so, feeding on shad, and occasionally, invertebrates. He speculates that shad are attracted to algae that flourishes on submerged rock when water temperatures range from 58°F to 62°F.
Why It Works: Whitehead’s spread of 16 rods allows him to meticulously cover an 18-foot-wide swath of riprap. Jigs are set to run about 6 to 12 inches off bottom. Starting at one end of the dam, he uses his bowmount electric to slowly troll across it.
On the initial troll, he zigzags, slowly snaking the boat over 8 to 20 feet of water, which requires frequent depth adjustment of the jigs. His serpentine approach allows him to determine the depth of actively feeding crappies, and a 2-foot adjustment often improves the frequency of bites. If he catches more crappies in 8 feet, he sets all rods to that depth until the bite slows or he spots alternate holding depths on sonar. His snakelike maneuvers enable him to relocate groups of fish quickly.
Day in and day out, riprap crappies rarely remain at the same locale. Shad and crappies also may move throughout each day. Whitehead suspects that wind, clouds, and other elements that affect light intensity influence the location of the fish and their prey. It’s often necessary to search the entire expanse of riprap on every outing.
Even though fish location can vary from day to day, they often gather along the bottom edges of the riprap. As he experiments with depth, he also observes which jig body works best. If, for example, the Wooly Beavertail draws most strikes, he sets 11 rods with them, leaving just 5 with tubes. “I always offer an option,” he notes, “since crappies can change favorites and you can’t detect it unless you have alternatives down.”
He also fine-tunes the presentation with his trolling motor, testing at what speed crappies seem to want jigs moving. “They sometimes bite best when you move at a constant pace. Other times, they want a jig that glides along then hovers,” he says. “And as with their location and lure preferences, optimal speed and action fluctuate from day to day and throughout a given day.”
The Casting Option: Precise tightline presentations can be challenging in wind and waves. “In those situations, we often cast,” Whitehead says. “I stow the long poles and use 61⁄2-foot SP65G B’n’M spinning rods with Pflueger GX-7 Trion reels and 6-pound-test AN40 Silver Thread.” A 1/8-ounce Southern Pro or Teezur jig and 3-inch Yum Walleye Grub are a good match. Chartreuse-pearl works well, though at times a junebug–chartreuse Walleye Grub is better. Again, keep experimenting.
“Cast the grub to the edge of the riprap. As it hits the water, turn the reel handle slowly so the jig glides just above the shallowest rock. After two turns of the reel, pause for a second or two and let it fall a bit deeper, then start reeling again.”
To execute this maneuver, he holds the rod at the 1-o’clock position and reels so the jig-and-grub swims just off bottom, allowing it to follow the contour of the riprap. Occasionally he’s found that in low-light conditions, the jig should ride less than 10 feet deep; when the sun is high, he might have to work it as deep as 14 feet.
Casting Tactics for Causeway Crappies
About 120 miles east of Whitehead’s favorite riprap haunts on Cedar Creek Lake lie the upper portions of Lake Guntersville, where Michael Carter of Ider, Alabama, guides for crappies. Guntersville is a 76-mile‑long impoundment on the Tennessee River covering 67,900 acres, 890 miles of shoreline and several hundred miles of riprap.
Many observers of piscatorial pursuits, including Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times, call Guntersville a crappie angler’s nirvana. Raines grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and he writes in his book Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis that the riprap along the South Sauty Creek causeway yielded washtubs full of crappies for his family during the 1940s and 1950s.
More than half a century after Raines’ family waylaid Guntersville’s crappies, Michael Carter and the folks he guides continue that tradition, catching and releasing as many as 200 crappies during a spring outing. He reports that Guntersville’s best riprap fishing occurs in March and April before the spawn begins.
Prespawn Patterns: In March, Carter works the riprap causeways on the upper portions of Guntersville. The water upriver reaches spawning temperature in April, while in downriver sections, not until late April or early May. “Some crappies spawn on riprap banks,” he says, “but most on flats adjacent to the riprap causeways. But if a strong cold front arrives while fish are bedding, they leave their nests and return to the causeways.” Crappies remain on riprap, where Carter and his clients catch them, until the water warms enough to bring them back to their spawning grounds.
A number of Guntersville’s crappie anglers fish its riprap with spider rigs. But Carter enjoys casting and retrieving a jig. “I like a 6-foot medium-light-action Berkley spinning rod and Quantum SS 10 reel, spooled with 4-pound-test clear blue Stren Original. That line is highly visible and you can detect the lightest bites,” he says. “When the wind is calm and crappies roam shallow, I use a 1/32-ounce head with a red # 2 hook. But if the wind rises or crappies go deeper, I switch to a 1/16-ounce jig, even an 1/8-ouncer at times.” He dresses his jig with either a 2-inch Bass Pro Shops tube or curlytail grub, typically blue with a clear tail or blue with a bubblegum tail.
“I fish the lightest jig possible, since they snag less than heavier ones. It’s irritating for clients to continually snag in crevices between rocks. A 1/32-ounce jig glides across the crevices without snagging. It also helps to reduce the jig’s hook size to #4 or even #6.”
Carter begins each outing at the shallow end of a causeway and works towards the river channel, casting so the jig falls into about 2 feet of water. Before the jig contacts rock, he turns the reel handle and retrieves so it periodically grazes the riprap. Throughout the retrieve, he holds his rod between the 1-o’clock and 2-o’clock positions, retrieving all the way to the boat unless a crappie interrupts the action. When wind hampers jig control, he casts and retrieves a jig-and-bobber combination over the rocks, experimenting with depth settings, typically setting the bobber 4 feet above the jig.
Causeways in the upper end of Guntersville are shallow with a gradual slope, dropping to 10 feet at their deepest spots. Until crappies are on the verge of moving to spawning sites on nearby flats, he finds them near the deeper portions of the riprap, often along the edge where riprap meets the reservoir floor. Up-lake causeways run 200 to 300 yards long, while those toward the dam may stretch a mile or more and also are steeper and deeper than those in upstream reaches.
His only variation is to work jigs into deeper water. Instead of holding his boat in 8 to 10 feet of water, he floats it in 20 or more feet. Though causeway crappies in both the lower and upper portions of Guntersville like to hold along the edges where riprap meets bottom, their whereabouts vary from day to day and throughout the day. Crappies gather around shad, and shad location is affected by wind and intensity of the sun.
Vegetation is thicker in the shallow upper end of the reservoir. As summer progresses, milfoil and hydrilla grow along the rock, making it harder to fish. In the lower portions, banks are deeper and Carter catches crappies there year-round. “You also can catch fish along the dam year-round, but during summer, most of the fish aren’t right on the rocks but suspending several yards off the riprap. It’s a good night-bite on minnows,” he says.
In fall, riprap again becomes a crappie magnet. Vast numbers return to the causeways in late October through November, yielding a bite as good as in spring. Whitehead also enjoys a hot autumn bite on the riprap of the dams he fishes.
It’s a good bet that, at hundreds of riprap-endowed impoundments from California to Virginia, similar scenarios play out. The methods Whitehead, Martin, and Carter employ with such success will have you rippin’ lips, as well.