Pulled it once. Pause. Twitch. Tick. Fish came right in. A 10-inch crappie. Fluke. Right? The lure was almost half the length of the fish. Fired it back out there. Another crappie, followed by six more. Fun, but not much. Bass tackle for 10- to 12-inch crappies seemed like overkill. So I grabbed a panfish rod and clipped on a smaller Husky Jerk. Nothing. They wanted the big bait. So I gave it to them.
"I thought ol' Tony Puccio using big cranks for crappies in Arkansas was crazy," says Tommy Skarlis, now a renowned crappie pro. "When I started chasing crappies competitively, Travis and Charles Bunting handed me a pile of 3/8-ounce jigs with 2/0 and 3/0 hooks.
'The hooks look too big,' I told them, but they just shrugged. Once the competition started, I soon realized that what I used to think of as 'big' is normal. Now the first crank I grab is a #7, and go up or down from there."
Skarlis, who won a major crappie tournament two years ago pulling bass-sized cranks, was referring to the "Two Giant Steps Beyond Crappie Tradition" article I wrote with Puccio over 10 years ago. Prefishing for a Professional Walleye Trail tournament in Arkansas, he started catching crappies on Mann's Stretch 10 crankbaits. Lots of them. So he tried a Stretch 5. "Didn't work," Puccio reported. "They wanted big cranks."
The man credited by most with starting the "go big" revolution is Todd Huckabee of Oklahoma, one of the nation's top crappie guides. "I used a Smithwick Rogue on a lake near you in Minnesota and caught I don't know how many black crappies one day," Huckabee says. "I've had other days like that where all the crappies came by bass fishing. Couldn't catch one crappie fishing. People underestimate how aggressive crappies can be — like vicious little street ninjas. It's true all year — most anglers never go big enough. They think you should downsize in winter, but that's when shad are at their biggest. In winter, there are no shad fry.
You have to convince yourself to use bigger baits all year. When people say they had to downsize, they were fishing for inactive crappies. Better to find fish actively feeding and give them what they want."
I called In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, a former Ontario fishery manager, for a word from the northern edge of the crappie universe. Does "go big or go home" apply up there? "Science has shown us that adult crappies, which have large mouths for their bulk, have an optimal forage size of 2½ inches," Pyzer says. "Late last summer I spotted suspended fish and dropped a 3/16-ounce chartreuse jig with a brown chenille body, felt a distinct thump, and reeled up a plump 13-inch black crappie. There were so many more crappies on the sonar screen that I knew it was time for some research.
"After I caught three or four more gorgeous 12- to 14-inch fish, I picked up an outfit with a much smaller jig. I struggled to get a bite. The fish were notably less excited about the appetizer than they were with a big meal. Then I began catching fish just 8 or 9 inches long. They all wanted bigger lures. I love fishing finesse," Pyzer says, "but ever since that day, I've not hesitated to use a much larger than normal lure for crappies."
Big Bait Tactics
Huckabee prefers 1/4-ounce jigs with 2/0 hooks, tipped with a Red Neck Rubber Beaver Bottom. "It's basically the old Yum Beavertail," Huckabee says. "We're making it again with PRADCO's permission. It's 2 inches of big-ribbed bait that gives crappies something to hold on to. When a crappie sucks in a big bait, the chance of a big fish being able to spit it out without that hook finding purchase is slim. I haven't used anything else for 10 years."
The key to big is heavy. "When you're talking big plastics you're talking heavier jigs," Huckabee says. "Staying in contact is important. I can't stress it enough. At least 10 times per year I hear the same statement from clients: 'Fish are really hammering these baits.' People are accustomed to using light jigs for crappies. But the heavier the jig, the tighter your line. I don't know why anyone would use less than 1/4 ounce. I can control the drop by lowering it slower on a tight line. You can control the fall when casting with rod control.
But you can't speed the fall of a lighter jig. I snag up less with the heavier jig because I can feel everything. You don't know what a light jig is doing because the line isn't tight."
Is there a best time or place to work bigger jigs and plastics? "Yes — all year," Huckabee says. "But I'm no dock-shooting or spider-rigging expert. In those situations, lighter jigs make more sense."
Kyle Schoenherr, guide from Illinois, and former national champion with both Crappie Masters and Crappie USA circuits, says, "I use bait about half the time. The clearer the water the more I use bait. In stained to muddy water, I use artificials a lot. And I use big baits when males are guarding their territory during postspawn, like a 1/8-ounce Pro Series Road Runner tipped with a 3-inch Muddy Water Tube. And I add a 3-inch minnow to that, so it's 5 to 6 inches long. Then I pull the tentacles apart so it flares even bigger. Those tubes are soft, with a big flare out at the end."
Heavy lures require at least 6-pound mono and a stiff rod that can pull crappies out of spawning cover quickly. "When fishing buckbrush, you see the limbs move on the other side as they come to get it," Schoenherr says. "They get it before you can set the hook and pull them out of there. A crappie's like a snake. If they can get their mouth around it, they eat it. White crappies especially are prone to eating oversized baits. They can see it and sense it from a distance and bigger baits raise their excitement level. With big, defensive, postspawn males, those bigger baits are key."
At other times of the year, Schoenherr catches big crappies with big baits in river backwaters. "In Ohio River backwaters, crappies like a big, slow-falling bait," he says. "We used a 1/8-ounce ballhead jig and 4-inch curlytail grubs on 8-pound line, pitching it a foot past a stump and swinging it pendulum-style on a tight line. The big grub slows the drop and big white crappies slam it. They hold in stumpflats in 1 to 2 feet of water a lot, or as deep as 6 feet, even in mid-summer. Even in 6 feet, a lot of fish held only a foot under the surface in cloudy water. Even when the water is 42°F in February, we catch big crappies up in stumpfields only a foot to six inches down. Water clarity is more a driver than the temperature. Crappies can definitely feel a bigger grub from farther away and they come after it."
The Crankbait Connection
Huckabee told me I needed to "talk to those Lake of the Ozarks guys about the jerkbait bite for crappies. They're throwing bass-sized jerkbaits over brushpiles from fall into winter and say they can't catch them any other way."
One of those "Ozark guys" is Travis Bunting, who teamed with his father Charlie Bunting to win national championships on the Crappie USA circuit in 2005 and the Crappie Masters circuit in 2012, and the national points championship in Crappie USA in 2007. "In any lake with clear water, big crappies love big jerkbaits," Travis says. "The pattern heats up when water temperature chills down to 45°F. Our best baits have been 3/8-ounce and heavier Megabass X-80 and X-110 Trick Darters — sometimes Smithwick Rogues.
We fish them on 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon. I don't want any give, so I use a 6-foot, dock-shooting rod. Stiff blanks throw these baits a mile and a half then set hooks with authority."
Suspending baits for suspending fish, Bunting says. "Crappies in these reservoirs suspend 10 to 15 feet down over depths of 30 to 50 feet a lot," he says. "The lure only gets down 4 to 5 feet, but they come up for it. If we have to hunt open water, we use side-imaging to find schools. We want them to be no deeper than 15 feet down. Deeper than that it takes a lot of patience."
As so often happens, wind can determine location. "Wind is a big part of the pattern," Bunting says. "Anything more than a 2-day blow in the same direction piles crappies up wherever the wind is blowing into main points, secondary points, weedflats or any kind of cover," he says. "Sometimes they're right on the bank or schooling around cables coming off marina docks. Sometimes it's just grass on a flat, way back in a creek. Flats 10 feet deep with vegetation become key spots where the wind is blowing into the area for days."
"Work jerkbaits with a snap-snap-pause retrieve," Bunting says. "Crank it down to its running depth and work it. You want the bait to turn nearly 90 degrees. The right sequence and the length of the pause varies from day-to-day, but find the trigger and crappies bust big suspending baits. They're eating shad and shad are big this time of year. That's why wind has such an effect on the pattern. Shad follow plankton, crappies follow shad. The colder it gets, the larger the lure. In the low-40°F range, we use the X-110 Trick Darter."
The Buntings pull bass-sized cranks, too. "You can pull cranks any time of year," Bunting says, "but we think the most effective time is during postspawn, as the water hits 70°F.
After the spawn, crappies move out into open water and start feeding up. They're looking for big baitfish again. Once they move to open water, they're less picky. They have to take what they can find. We sometimes run a 3/8-ounce, homemade, soft-plastic swimbait with a 5/0 hook. Add a minnow to that and the package is 5 to 6 inches long. I hand-pour 3.5-inch lures that we pull behind trolling boards, just like crankbaits."
Skarlis pulls all kinds of cranks. "I'm not sponsored by any hardbait company anymore, and I love it," he says. "We pulled #6 and #7 Berkley Flicker Shads and #4 and #5 Salmo Hornets to win a National Championship in 2013, pulling Off-Shore in-line boards with 8-foot St. Croix walleye rods to cover a broad expanse of open water when crappies were suspended at Grenada Reservoir in Mississippi. Rapala Shad Raps, Bandits, Storm Arashis, Reef Runners, Livetarget cranks, and others work. We pull 3/8-ounce jigs with 4- and 5-inch plastics behind boards, too. Never be afraid to experiment. There are days when you might as well go home if you don't go big."
If the bite gets tough, upsize? Are we fishing too small for slabs? All the time? "When we produced the 3-inch Beavertail people said I was crazy," Huckabee recalls. "Clients hop aboard, look at my jigs, and ask, 'You don't really use that stuff do you?' Nah. Just 24-7-365."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, is an astute multispecies angler and stays in contact with top tournament anglers.