Not far from civilization there’s this little gem of a crappie lake—a small waterbody we call the Bee Hive. It houses some of the largest, angriest black crappies in the North. The day we discovered it 15 years ago, my friend Tom Herman and I were casting along the edge of a coontail bed, sunglassing for bass, when a wave of imposing brown blurs materialized and instantly vanished into the weedwork.
Assuming these bass-sized shapes were smallmouths, we cast 6-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shads over the deep vegetation and began reel-pause-reel retrieves. On the fifth crank, something stopped my bait in its tracks. The fish fought like a big bass, its throbbing headshakes punctuated by brief power runs below. Finally, a broad silvery flank breached the surface, while my brain attempted to compute reality. This silvery hubcap was no bass, but a gargantuan crappie stretching the tape to 183⁄4 inches. The 6-inch lure was completely engulfed.
Perhaps word of this genetic freak magically spread across the four winds, for in recent years, a number of top manufacturers have introduced highly appealing downsized swimbaits that fit perfectly into cavernous crappie jaws. The best of them do their larger bass-sized brethren proud, inducing bites from some of the heaviest crappies in any lake.
Swimbaits aren’t at their best for producing numbers of smaller crappies. Rather, the best lures—Yamamoto Swim Senko, Castaic Jerky J Swim, and Panic Minnow DropSwim—ping the lateral lines and trigger bites from the largest specimens. Certainly, the right swimbait works beautifully as a search tool, pinpointing the position of entire schools by tempting first the most aggressive fish, which more often than not, are also the largest—the hallowed alpha crappie.
Swimbaits that come to life on a 1/8-, 1/16-, or 1/32-ounce jighead, such as a VMC Half Moon Jig, are often the ones made from the softest hand-poured plastics and measure 31⁄2 to 4 inches. With shorter baits, or those made of stiffer plastics, the tails aren’t as flexible and active, making it more difficult to produce the tight strumming motion that appeals to big crappies. Beyond the choice unrigged versions mentioned above, pre-rigged swimmers come into play as well. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange notes that the Storm WildEye Swim Shad in 3- and 4-inch sizes is among the top prerigged ones available.
When we began seriously fishing swimbaits for crappies and other panfish about 10 years ago, a rod like St. Croix’s Panfish Series didn’t exist. These aren’t, after all, the noodlish ultralights of yesteryear, rather new generation panfish rods like the Panfish Series, of light, high-strain graphite blanks with fast actions that propel 1/16-ounce jigs out of sight. The 7-foot PFS70LXF weighs a mere 3.1 ounces, and when you add a Shimano Stradic CI4 Mircoline reel, which contains no metallic parts, the combo weighs just over 9 ounces.
Swimbaits are perfect for spooling with the latest micro superlines, including the lightest Sufix 832 or Berkley NanoFil, both of which shoot through line guides like greased silk. Tie in a 12-inch leader of 4-pound-test fluorocarbon (I like Sufix Invisiline) with a double uni- knot and start the search. If you’re fishing around heavier cover, such as downed brush or trees, it’s wise to notch up to 8-pound test. Pull gradually back on snags to straighten the hook and get back to fishing.
At the Bee Hive and many other waters, swimbaits excel in certain scenarios. Crappies here aren’t representative of crappies everywhere. Alpha crappies gravitate toward the most attractive cover, but just as often might use open-water zones where optimal depth and temperature ranges unite.
From just after ice-out to the Spawn Period in late May or early June, crappies in the Bee Hive gather in groups of 5 to 10. They hover anywhere from just beneath the surface to a few feet above bottom over 10- to 20-foot points. The best points usually open into a large shallow bay. Sometimes, the spots aren’t even on points, but rather the best cover-laden shoreline slopes just outside a shallow bay.
Later in June and July, crappies do an about-face, pausing for a time at the mouths of spawning bays before filtering back out to main-lake areas. They often still hover in shallower zones early and late in the day, but the rest of the time suspend in schools over as much as 40 feet of water.
If the lake or reservoir you’re on has crappies over 14 inches, they frequently position at least a foot or two shallower than most of their neighbors. Even if you locate a pack hovering within an old submerged cottonwood, and most of the fish are 17 feet down, you often get the biggest fish in 12 to 15 feet. At this point, it depends on priorities. Work over the entire school if you’re out to selectively harvest a batch of 9- to 11-inchers, or you can move a swimbait through a slightly shallower zone and catch one or two alphas, before locating the next school.
On expansive natural lakes full of potential habitat, the plan—before and after crappies flock into shallow feeding or spawning zones—is to find fish within two casts of the deep weededge. When water temps remain under 70°F, crappies may still linger on flats or points near a shallow bay. As water warms in early summer, fish begin using expansive, cover-strewn flats in 15 to 30 feet of water, or they suspend a few casts from weededges.
Make long casts and determine the lure’s drop speed. Figure about one-foot per second with 6-pound line, using a 1/16-ounce jighead and 31⁄2-inch Jerky J Swim or Panic Minnow. I often begin by determining the maximum depth of sun penetration. Drop a big white grub or spinnerbait (or a 12-inch Secchi disk if you have one) into the water and when you can no longer see it, measure this depth to the surface and double it. You might be amazed by how often the depth of crappies is within a foot or two of this level, especially on sunny days. On cloudy days, fish may hold substantially shallower.
If you suspect crappies are stationed in and above submerged vegetation, it’s typically only necessary to count the bait down 2 to 6 feet before beginning the retrieve. It doesn’t get much simpler than fishing a swimbait through open water. Rod tip pointed down, crank the reel handle slightly less than one revolution per second, doing 5 to 7 revolutions before giving a quick pause, letting the swimbait flutter for a two-count before commencing the retrieve. This move often triggers fish to bite.
If you’re working in and around visible cover, such as docks, timber, brush, or high-growing pondweed, it’s often effective to stop and kill the bait at select times. “Bumping the stump” isn’t usually effective with crappies. Nor are swimbaits the most effective lures when you’re spot-fishing specific dense cover objects, such as individual stumps or brushpiles.
When faced with sparser cover, such as scattered trees or pondweed on middepth flats or shoreline breaks, swimbaits often become superior fish-finding tools. You typically want to pause the bait at least once during the retrieve, especially as it approaches the end of a branch or at intersections of multiple limbs. Fluttering then becomes a critical maneuver—often the best thing you can do to trigger a big bite. For smaller fish, other baits, such as tubes or grubs often shine here. One option is to begin with a swimbait, tagging the available alphas, before switching to traditional approaches to tempt smaller fish from the same piece of cover.
When you’re casting larger zones lacking dense cover, another type of flutter retrieve can produce superior results. If there’s a light to moderate wind pushing current across a zone that holds crappies, one of the finest approaches involves a sort of controlled drift. Point the nose of the boat into the wind and cast straight behind the boat (downwind.) Keep the trolling motor running with just enough juice to hold your position or creep slowly forward, just off the edge of a weedflat in 18 feet of water.
Keeping your rod tip low, feather the line with your index finger and gently let the bait glide and swim lightly against the opposing current. Use the line above the water as a sail, letting wind lift and hover the bait in place, while you occasionally lightly pop the rod tip for little darting motions. The Panic Minnow works beautifully here, though I’ve also used a 3-inch Lunker City Slug-Go in this scenario for many years, and have caught numerous 14- to 16-inch crappies with this lure.
On Deep and Shallow Flats
Other noteworthy swimbait scenarios occur when crappies move onto shallow or deep flats. In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has for years employed various crankbaits for shallow fish, his best being the smallest Rapala Husky Jerk and X-Rap, although he also catches numerous big crappies on the 4-inch Husky Jerk HJ10. These baits stretch the definition of swimbait and work in distinctly separate scenarios, including trolling.
Straw offers an alternative for targeting crappies deep. “The 3-inch Berkley Ripple Shad is a menace to the crappie world. It works well from late summer on, from the deep weedline, to bottom transitions, to basins. Cast, let it fall to bottom on a 1/16-ounce head and swim or ‘stroll’ it along near bottom. Crappies definitely have preferences. Some days it’s depth, color, or profile. Sometimes it’s the shape of the lure’s tail. Most days it involves speed.”
Playing on several of these themes is a new plan that works both shallow and deep. Density Tackle owner Brian Andersen, creator of the Panic Minnow, showed me a unique tactic he calls “drop-swimming.” Straw writes about drop-swimming for smallmouths in this magazine. Andersen rigs one of his 31⁄2-inch DropSwim Minnows on a standard drop-shot rig. In shallow water, the bait is placed within a foot of the drop-shot sinker.
When targeting deeper crappies, it’s best to separate the two by at least 30 inches, sometimes more, depending on the level of crappies. Cast and slowly maneuver the rig along, the bait swimming just above bottom, while the sinker navigates the terrain. In water deeper than 15 feet, you can also “stroll” it, dropping the rig to the bottom, then slowly moving forward with your trolling motor. Keep the bait’s tail flapping enticingly, and you surely get “stung.”
It’s one thing to execute such swimbait plans on a small lake like the Bee Hive, where a great day is perhaps 10 crappies over 14 inches, including one or two goliaths. But in most cases the largest crappies live in larger lakes and reservoirs, where the fish can spread far and wide—especially in reservoirs hosting vast stretches of snag-infested timber. Too many anglers still haven’t learned that releasing fish over 12 inches can help sustain good fishing for alpha crappies. The reality is that just one skilled angler can in one season wipe the slate clean on a small lake like the Bee Hive. But for now, it remains a happy secret.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota, area.