April 03, 2014
By Lonnie King
Pockets of popularity you might say. Everyone knows crappies eat crankbaits — at times. That's not good enough for most crappie anglers, who remain largely dependent on a connection to livebait and the variety of techniques that go with it.
But, one of In-Fisherman's fundamental teaching points applies as much to crappies as to any other fish. It's often best to begin with aggressive strategies and let fish tell you whether to temper those strategies to something less aggressive.
In crappie circles, anglers typically begin with tentative tactics, assuming, before they get a judgement from the fish, that such strategies are sure to work best. These anglers believe that because finesse tactics are so prevalent that those tactics must be so good that they are going to produce fish no matter what mood the fish are in.
I admit that where spider-rigging can be used in conjunction with jigs, rigs, and livebait, it's usually hard to beat. And where spider-rigging can't be used, because multiple lines aren't an option, I also admit that straightforward jigging methods usually produce some fish. The crappie is, after all, a fish of comparatively laid-back character.
But not always. Crappies are cranked way more often than most anglers realize — and anglers don't give crappies a chance to tell them how cranked they are. Fish often seem tentative when they're presented with tentative strategies — because they're not interested in those strategies when they're in a more aggressive mood. In not using aggressive tactics to begin with, we often minimize catches by not maximizing strategies that pay off in producing more fish. When crappies are cranked you catch more of them with aggressive tactics. So begins this tale.
Searching for a Clue
Sometimes casting cranks is a great way to get a feeling for what's happening and where at least some of the fish are before you make more refined judgements about how to proceed. I'm at Grenada Reservoir in Mississippi April 7 one spring. It's the home of giant white crappies and I'm there to shoot TV. But I really don't have anyone that I know there that I can call to talk to about conditions — don't have anyone that can tell me exactly what's going on. Should be prime spawning time. I was there two years previous, but the water was very high and most of the fish were pushed shallow into flooded bushes and floating debris. This time the water's high, but not extremely high. Where might the fish be? More precisely, where might the big fish be?
I snoop on crappie101.com and see some of the best local guides are catching fish so long as the weather's decent — but no details about fish location. I drop the boat in and start looking. People are wading and fishing in flooded brush, per usual at this time of year, dipping and dabbling livebait and jigs with long rods. Don't see anyone spider-rigging, which is a common tactic, but that's probably because it's so windy that day. I try fishing shallow and the fish are scattered and average, not exactly what I'm looking for.
I pull out a #4 Glass Shad Rap and start probing basins just outside backwater spawning areas. Most of these basins run 3 to 4 to 7 feet deep. The Shad Rap runs 3 to 4 feet down on 6-pound Sufix 832, a braid, depending how high I keep my rod tip. I'm just casting, making slow retrieves, and covering water looking for fish. I start seeing some fish on the locator and finally catch a big fish, maybe 2.5 pounds. Then another nice one. And another.
Many anglers hesitate to use cranks because compared to a typical crappie jig they seem too big — even immense. But I open the mouth of a 2-pounder that has completely eaten the Shad Rap. This fish could eat 4 Shad Raps at the same time. A 3-pound fish could eat a baseball.
As badly as I want to continue casting cranks, looking for a 3-pound fish, we quickly have enough footage for a nice TV segment, so the next day we move on to other things. The fish in those basins are set up perfectly for spider-rigging. So I do that to shoot another segment and then shoot yet another one concentrating on a discussion of crappie spawning behavior.
So, here's an instance — typical in my experience — where a crank quickly helps me find fish and allows me to consider how to proceed. The 2.5-pound fish also is the biggest I catch during the three days, which isn't unusual when crankbaits are part of the equation with crappies. Cranks tend to get the big bite many times even though they can also be the best option for lots of fish, as my next story illustrates.
To add further perspective to my experience at Grenada, I say this: The cranks got me started, but with the water as dirty as it is, I also soon see that spider-rigging is the way to go for lots of fish. It's also likely that spider-rigging should therefore account for so many fish that overall it produces more big fish than cranking might have in a couple days of fishing. We'll never know for sure.
Yo-Zuri Hardcore Shad SH60
Depth, Speed, Vibration
It isn't just diving cranks that do a job on crappies in certain situations. The key factor in deciding on a crankbait style is always first, where are the fish. How deep are they? Depth control is paramount. Speed control and the way you're working the lure is secondary, but also vital. All the other factors — lure size, color, profile, vibration pattern, and so on — you tinker with after the first two factors are in check. I agree, however, that lures for crappies shouldn't be too big. I also agree there are traditionally productive colors crappies like in various water-clarity situations.
I think the vibration pattern of a lure is more important than the other factors most of the time. Depth, speed and how you're working the lure, then vibration pattern — before considering size, shape, color. The problem is that vibration pattern is dependent on the lure style you choose, so it's hard to factor it in, other than as a matter of switching crankbait styles.
Case in point. I usually spend time each year fishing Lake Fork, Texas. I like the challenge of bass fishing there because so many people fish it. But I also fish for crappies on occasion. On reservoirs like Fork, Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and many smaller waters in Texas; and on traditional reservoirs in Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee — even Florida — at times during prespawn, spawn, and post-spawn the fish are up shallow over hydrilla inside cuts in creek arms, canals, and bays.
Most anglers on Lake Fork fish along slowly with minnows suspended below floats. Of course they're catching fish, but . . . Early on I fished with either a spinnerjig like the Blue Fox Panfish Spinner Jig or with small bass-style spinnerbaits. I thought I was pretty foxy, outfishing everyone because I could move along so much faster than they were. The fish ate the spinner lures well. It was a quicker way to catch fish once I found them — but the main point was that I was finding so many more pockets of fish than everyone else because I was fishing so much more aggressively.
Then I reconsidered my own tactics. If aggressive was good, was I being aggressive enough? I tied on a #3 CountDown Rapala. What a slaughter the first afternoon I fished the lure. It was just make the cast — a really long cast, if necessary — and count the lure down 3 or 4 seconds, then start reeling steady. The fish kept piling on.
When the weather goes sour those fish drop into deeper adjacent water and you have to temper back and pitch jigs to key spots. So, again, cranks aren't going to do it all the time. But they often can be the way you should at least start. Over the last couple years in several situations like that when I'm catching fish I've experimented with other small cranks to see what the fish like best. Countdown style lures remains a hot number, but another option that really whacks and stacks is a little lipless crank like the #4 Rattlin' Rapala. Again, just make long casts and crank the lure in steadily. It's an option for fish holding in less than about 4 feet of water, or holding less than about 4 feet down over deeper water. It's also impressive how many big bass eat these small lures.
I talked with fishery scientist and top-notch angler Lonnie King, from Ottawa, Ontario, about cranking crappies early, after he mentioned doing so well this past year with stickbaits. His first point for crappie anglers is to put into perspective what's happening environmentally during spring that makes crappies a target for the cranking option.
"Crappies start to push shallow as soon as the weather stabilizes and begins to warm," he says. "Some push into bays, others into the back ends of coves and into canals and marinas. In reservoirs they move farther and farther into creek arms, and finally into cuts in creek arms.
"Admittedly, stability rarely lasts long during spring, so the fish are always dropping back deep during poor weather — not all the way back into the main-lake basin, but usually in deeper areas (basins or drop-off areas) adjacent to the shallow places they use to feed. It's all about feeding, not spawning early on. So the fish are up and then they're down. They're moving in and they're moving out.
"Given the number of potential places fish might be," he continues, "the best way to find them usually is with crankbaits. As you mentioned, jigs also work great, but fishing with them is slow by comparison to what we can accomplish — the kind of water that we can cover — with a crank.
"It's the same scenario you addressed earlier when you gave the example of finding fish at Grenada. Just like you, I move steadily along as I search. It isn't like power-fishing with spinnerbaits for bass — I'm not moving along that fast."
King adds perspective to our discussion because his favorite cranks are suspending stickbaits, a class of cranks I haven't often had a chance to fish. He's talking lures like the LiveTarget Smelt and the #4 and #6 Rapala X-Raps.The Smelt is 2.75 inches long and weighs 1/8 ounce. The X-Raps are 1.5 and 2.5 inches and weigh 1/16 and 1/8 ounce, respectively. By comparison, my favorite #3 CountDown Rapala is 1.5 inches and weighs 1/8 ounce. The CountDown sinks at a steady rate, while the suspending sticks dive to a given depth then suspend when they're paused.
"When I'm searching I make long casts and crank the lure down quickly," King says. "Then I pause a couple seconds, pull the lure forward slowly and steadily another four feet or so, and pause again. Then I reel the lure along steadily another 10 feet to get it into a different trigger zone, before repeating the pause-retrieve scenario. I think suspending lures often are key because they hold at depth, giving crappies time to move to get the lure."
Rods, Reels, Line
King and I agree that no-stretch, thin-diameter lines like Sufix 832 and Berkley FireLine, typically testing 6 pounds, are perfect for fishing with cranks, providing you match them with the right rod and reel combination. The rod should be from 6.5 to 7.5 feet long, light power, and have a slower, rather than faster, action. It's the length in combination with a soft tip that allows the angler to load the rod with the small lure and propel it a good distance. Many of these rods are marketed as trout rods, and they can be expensive graphite models, or less-expensive composite blends of graphite and fiberglass.
King also likes rods made for drop-shotting. They typically are light power but have a faster action. They have enough tip bend to send lures packing into the distance with a wrist snap.
Monofilament works well, too, and is easier to work with for most anglers. Standard break strengths include 3, 4, 5, and 6 pounds. The problem with braided and fused lines for many anglers is that they are so thin that knot tying is a problem. The uni-knot works; so does the Palomar. Knots like a 3-wrap improved clinch knot also work with doubled line.
Stange: "The best option is to add a 3-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament leader at the end of the fused line. This requires attaching the lines together with back-to-back uni-knots (double uni). Make at least 5 wraps on the uni-knots, and the tag end of the fused line must be doubled with a spider hitch before doing the knot. It sounds difficult, but isn't once you practice. One cool place to learn about knots is the website netknots.com.
Don't go ultralight with the matching reel, because they have such small spool diameter as to cut casting distance as the tightly coiled line-loops flow from the spool. I've spent years fishing with Pflueger Supremes to do our TV show, an absolutely smooth, reliable, reel for around $100. They market the Supremes in typical fashion. The ultralight version is the 25 class. Then there's a 30-class (walleye size), a 35, a 40, and so on, with each reel getting a little larger and heavier — and with each reel offering a bit more spool diameter. You want the 30-class reel in this numbering scenario.
There can be no promises in fishing beyond that which we offer here — the promise that fishing for crappies with cranks lends mightily to any angler's arsenal that already includes traditional techniques. Besides often being extremely productive, it's tremendous fun. And many days it's the best way to catch a giant fish.
Tweaking Crankbaits for Crappies
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has been fishing with crankbaits for more than 40 years. "I always remove the split ring from a crank when I can, in favor of securing the lure with a small snap like the #1 Berkley Cross-Lok. The problem with a split ring is that it makes even a well-tuned lure run slightly left or right when wire at the edge of the gap in the ring presses up against the nose eye of the plug on the retrieve. If you tie direct, make sure you cinch up the knot to the gap in the ring where it's a single layer of wire — not where it's doubled.
"Even the #1 snap is too much for the tiniest cranks, like a #2 CountDown Rapala. There, a loop knot does a good job."
CountDown Rapala — One advantage of the CountDown Rapala is that it's actually two lures in one, according to Stange. Right out of the box, it has a tight wobble that often works well. At times, though, a wider wobble works better and this can be accomplished by using pliers to pinch the nose-eye slightly flatter. Then bend it down ever so slightly. At this point, check to see that the lure isn't running slightly left or right. If it is, bend the eye slightly away from the direction it's moving errantly. Stange: "This little tinker allows you to run the lure slower and with a wider wobble. Lots of times this is the key to success with this fantastic lure."
Suspending Stickbaits — It doesn't take much for the little sticks to be affected by the addition of even the #1 Berkley Cross-Lok snap. We usually run with a loop knot for these lures. But where King and many other anglers fish the problem is pike. They love to eat these little sticks as much as crappies do. King uses the lightest titanium wire to make short leaders, which he connects directly to the nose-eye of the lure after removing the split ring. Titanium wire resists the kinking common with stainless-steel wire.