July 16, 2015
Plucking wood crappies from fallen trees, brushpiles, and submerged timber is a common theme in spring. The shallows warm, drawing crappies to spots where they feel insecure without cover. Methods that work best for cropping wood-dwelling crappies are determined by several factors, including the layout, extent, and type of cover being used.
Crappies are right at home in cover, but most of the minnows they forage on are not. Young-of-the-year shad and shiners tend to be plankton feeders, which means they feed and school within a few feet of the surface most of the time, in spring. That doesn't mean minnows won't use wood cover, because they do. But it often means that crappies have to rise above brushpiles or out to the edges of fallen or submerged trees to feed when highly active -- a lucky break for anglers. Still, most of the day we have to probe deep into cover to catch any number of those big slabs we came to see.
Crappies can find other things to feed on in wood, however. Nymphs, freshwater shrimp, epiphytes (aquatic insects that cling to weed stalks and branches), zooplankton, and various forms of insect larvae can be relatively abundant in and around wood cover. Choices crappies make about forage and how to go about capturing it also determine how to approach them in wood.
Weather and water conditions can indicate how to approach wood, too. And, when fishing in wood for any species, the ultimate key is to keep fishing. Efficiency is the order of the day. Few crappies come aboard while we re-rig or tie knots. Efficiency means not only avoiding snags, but using the simplest possible system. The best rigs and lures in wood involve the fewest possible components and knots.
When the weather is stable, the winds light to moderate, and the water is warming and fairly clear, crappies tend to hold above or out on the edge of wood cover, where casting and pitching works best. Crappies feeding primarily on minnows can be caught on lures at almost any point during the season, even in early spring. Even though many lures can be fished efficiently above and through the edges of wood cover, lures are generally overlooked options for crappies in spring. In some areas, however, guides have come across some valuable presentations that involve small spinnerbaits, spoons, minnowbaits, and jig-plastic combinations that imitate the natural forage to a 'T' and work efficiently around timber.
Kerr Lake, which sprawls across the Virginia-North Carolina border, is one of the most prolific big-crappie venues in the world. In spring, high water often pushes into shoreline brush, creating the only available shallow cover for crappies in some areas. Guides there have learned that a small spinnerbait, like the Blue Fox Big Crappie Spinner, becomes an invaluable tool because it can be pitched into the wood and, when worked correctly, it comes back out. The V-shaped arm of a spinnerbait deflects wood while being retrieved, so the blade keeps churning along, attracting crappies with flash and vibration.
Equipment and technique become equally critical with spinnerbaits in wood cover. The bait must be stopped over the water and the retrieve started before it hits the surface, so the lure is oriented properly before it has a chance to encounter any wood, with the hook protected. Slow retrieves are essential in spring, and that means heavy line. The lighter the line, the faster a spinnerbait drops -- even while being retrieved. The heavier and thicker the line, the slower and shallower a spinnerbait can be worked.
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The Big Crappie Spinner and similar baits on the market weigh 1/16 ounce or less and have size #0 to size #1 blades. Even though the bait is light, the blade offers little resistance, suggesting monofilament line testing at about 8 pounds. Accuracy around overhanging branches requires a fairly short, medium-light rod of 5 1„2 to 6 feet -- just right for skipping spinnerbaits under docks and tree trunks. The heavier line also allows you to work these baits free without losing them as often, and crappies are rarely line-shy around spinnerbaits.
Doug Stange, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief, has been carrying spinnerbaits with him on his television filming journeys across the South the last two springs. "I keep trying to get on a good spinnerbait bite for TV, but conditions have to be ideal," he says. "The water has to be fairly clear and the fish have to be pushed up shallow and feeding aggressively. It's a late Prespawn Period into Spawn Period thing. I know from past experience that when you get it right the fishing's spectacular, but most days the fish just aren't that hot and you end up fishing more precisely, with jigs or jigs under floats. In those lakes where crappies stay shallow, spinnerbaits tend to become increasingly productive past spawning into summer, too."
Another overlooked option around shallow brushpiles and fallen trees is the suspending minnowbait. Ultralight versions like the Excalibur Ghost Minnow (2 inches long) only dive about 2 feet at the most, which is perfect in many cases because crappies tend to enjoy feeling the sun on their backs and find a lot of their minnow forage close to the surface during spring. Replace the trebles with small single hooks and these baits become amazingly effective even around relatively thick cover, especially when working them very slowly with long pauses -- the best way to work them for crappies in cool water.
Crappies find it hard to resist a realistic minnow imitation that simply hangs there in the water column as they approach within close proximity. Braided lines like Power Pro testing 4 to 6 pounds will take these baits deeper, and monofilaments testing 6 pounds or so keep them higher, so you can tailor the presentation to some degree to the depth or extent of the wood cover. Often the object with suspending baits is covering water with a premium on distance over accuracy, and a 7-foot light or ultralight rod delivers them farther than shorter rods.
Jig-plastic combos can be very effective in both horizontal and vertical venues. When crappies are most active, suspended just above or outside wood cover, use small auger-tail grubs like the Berkley 2-inch Power Grub or Bobby Garland Custom Softbaits grub on a 1/32-ounce jig. Tiny shad-style plastics, like the Stanley Wedge Tail and the Berkley Micro Power Minnow, can be highly effective, too. The combination of the plastic body, the action tail, and the light jig keeps these baits up high when worked at a very slow pace on 4-pound monofilament. Casting this light package any distance requires a 7-foot ultralight rod. If the wood cover is dense, try a small jig with a thin wire weedguard.
When probing vertically down into brushpiles and submerged timber, try slowly drifting or control drifting with the trolling motor over the top with a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig and the smallest versions of the Stanley Wedge Tail or Northland Mimic Minnow bodies, before probing deeper into the wood with livebait. Highly active crappies do not require livebait -- and it's another way to stay efficient. Constantly baiting up during a hot bite can be a waste of precious time. At other times, livebait is the only way to go.
Cold fronts and big wind seem to make crappies less active. They push far back into fallen trees, hover near the trunk of submerged trees, or bury themselves in brushpiles. This often calls for hovering livebait presentations in their faces for extended periods of time, though we've found that plastics work better than livebait, at times.
In clear lakes with shallow brush and trees, small floats presented on long poles tend to work best. A long pole extended back into the branches where the bait can simply be dropped on the key spot is much more efficient than casting or pitching. And with the tip of the pole hovering right above the float, the presentation can be strictly controlled even in fairly heavy wind.
Poles, today, are available from Bass Pro Shops, B'n'M, Cabela's, Shakespeare, Zebco, and several others. Models from 10 to 20 feet long are available, and lengths should be chosen based on the extent and type of cover, as well as on the clarity of the water and how spooky the fish are. For spooky crappies in clear water, a 16- to 20-foot pole may actually catch more fish than a shorter one. Telescopic and multipiece models tend to fit into the hold of the boat better than the old single-piece bamboo rods, but a long piece of bamboo is relatively inexpensive and efficient for anglers walking the bank. Poles also take baits well away from the boat when spider-rigging in open water for suspended crappies in spring.
The technique used with an extended pole is called dipping, dabbling, or doodle-socking, depending on which portion of the country you hail from. The simplest poles, such as the relatively primitive bamboo models, have a ring at the tip where a prescribed length of mono or Dacron is attached. Most modern poles have reel seats and a full complement of guides. In less-dense wood cover, use a "fixed" float attached to the line with small rubber sleeves that slide on the line for quick depth adjustments. In heavy tangles of brush, use a slipfloat, one split shot, an Aberdeen hook, and a minnow, which creates a smaller package when drawn tight to the tip of the pole. The Aberdeen straightens easily when snagged, and the slipfloat can be quickly adjusted for depth and more efficiently extended into the cover.
A flyrod or an 8- to 9-foot or light-action spinning rod sometimes makes a better tool for fishing vertically around wood, especially in stained or cloudy water. "Some of the reservoirs of Arkansas are like that," Stange says. "Millwood, for instance, is a stained, shallow reservoir where a little wind quickly churns the water and limits visibility. That limits your presentation options. By late March into early and mid-April, when conditions are right the fish push up onto flats and hold near old cypress stumps and trees.
"If the water was clearer, you could pitch small jigs with plastic bodies; but we had to fish vertically tight to the cypress. Using the trolling motor, start downwind from a line or stand of cypress trees and stumps. I moved up slowly into the wind until I could dangle a jig right next to a stump. My rod and reel set-up was a 9-foot Shakespeare Catera rod (SPS 6090-2L) and a simple Shakespeare Synergy Steel Underspin reel with 6-pound-test Berkley Trilene XL line.
"Most of the cypress trees are on flats running 2 to 4 feet deep, so it's classic shallow crappie fishing. Again, just reach up to the tree with the long rod and let out enough line for the jig to reach bottom. The rod's in one hand while the other hand adjusts jig depth by pulling on the line between the reel and the first rod guide.
"The most productive thing to do was to lower the jig to the bottom, then raise it 6 to 8 inches to a foot and hold it still. That's when the water's dirty. In clear water the crappies held from about half way down to about 6 inches above the bottom. In that instance, it worked just as well to set the jig about halfway down and suspend it below a float. Simply cast the combo beyond the stump and bring it past the stump. Or just flip it right up to the stump. Even in the dirty water, crappies often held on the shaded side of a tree if the sun was out.
"Generally speaking," says Stange, "if you have stands of cypress, you're more likely to find fish; but the fishing was slow and we had to cover every tree. But a 2-pounder's no big deal on Millwood. We used 1/16-ounce jigs tipped with 2-inch Berkley Power Minnows. Chartreuse-and-white was a great color.
"As is so often the case around wood, you end up fishing very tight to cover, so fishing vertically is better. One year on Santee-Cooper [SC], however, the lower lake was clear enough that we would start by pitching jigs and plastics around the edge of brushpiles, when crappies and bluegills were aggressive. You just have to experiment after you read the conditions when you get there.
"In stable, warming weather and clearer water, pitch or cast around and above the wood. During and after cold fronts and when the water's dirty, you probably have to fish vertically."
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com