Fishing Tactics of a Master Crappie Guide
April 22, 2013
Fishing guides feel a double dose of pressure to find fish and think of ways for clients to catch them. John Harrison is a master at this task — one of the best crappie guides in North America. He has 40 years of experience fishing the trophy crappie waters in northern Mississippi, particularly Grenada Lake. This is a look at how he conducts his business, which highlights techniques anglers might wish to use from the Prespawn Period into the Summer Period.
When Harrison wants to cover water quickly and efficiently to catch prespawn or spawning crappies scattered on the flats of Grenada, a flatland reservoir in northcentral Mississippi, he relies on spider-rigging with heavy jigheads. The system produces no matter what type of weather conditions he encounters. "It's one of the most efficient ways ever devised to systematically find and catch crappies," he says.
He usually has two clients, each allowed three rods, so he runs six 14-foot B'n'M poles spread across the bow of his boat, placing them in Driftmaster Crappie Stalker System rod holders, with the rod tips about a foot above the water. For fishing water less than about 3 feet deep, each rod is rigged with a single pink or orange 1/4-ounce jighead. The line is 8-pound Capps and Coleman Series Championship Crappie and Panfish Monofilament. The jigs are dressed with Southern Pro Umbrella Tubes in color combos of black and chartreuse or orange and chartreuse.
He often adds a 3-inch minnow. "Adding the minnow makes this a big, bold presentation, measuring 4 inches or so," he says. "But a 2-pound crappie has a mouth that can easily handle that. A 3-pounder could eat a baseball. Minnows are important in dirty water, because they struggle on the jighead, adding vibrations that crappies may sense before they see the jig. The big presentation also helps in dirty water, making it easier for the fish to see the jig."
A heavy jig offers control as he moves the boat along. "I run at speeds that keep those jigheads running perfectly smoothly no more than about 15 degrees from vertical," he says. "Whenever I slow the boat, the jigs quickly drift back to vertical and hang there with the minnows struggling.
"In about 3 feet of water, I run the jigs about 18 inches deep. It works best to get crappies to move up to get jigs. If I slide 4 to 7 feet deep, which is as deep as I fish in spring, I go with two jigs on each line, tied 18 inches apart — and I experiment with depth. Lots of times the fish are only 2, 3, or 4 feet down in that deeper water. Don't fish the jigs too deep."
He begins probing on shallow flats, hoping to find active fish, but if bites are scarce he moves deeper. "Most days in spring if the fish aren't shallow to begin, they move in after things warm up. I always check back shallow as the day progresses. The water might warm 5 degrees during the day when the sun is out."
He controls boat speed by setting the dial on his trolling motor and moving with the wind. This offers more control than pushing into the wind. He drags log chain to slow his movement as the wind picks up. Driftsocks work well for spider-rigging in deeper water, but the chains work better moving through stump-filled shallows. "The chain drags freely through the thickest stumps you can fish," he says.
"In lighter winds, I use 4-foot sections of 1-inch log chain, tying them off each corner of the stern on 8-foot rope sections. In high wind, I use 12-foot chain sections and vary rope lengths. On the windiest days, I might have 50 feet of rope out. I have knots tied in the rope at 4-foot intervals so I can keep the lines even. The test is being able to keep the jigs riding along smoothly at the chosen depth. You need control."
Harrison hands clients a single pole when crappies move into heavy shallow cover during prespawn in March and into the spawn in late March or early April. "A lot of fish, particularly males, hold tight on stickups when they move shallow as the water temperature rises into the mid-50°F range," he says. "I like the 11-foot B'n'M Buck's Best Ultra-Lite pole and a B'n'M Buck's Mini Reel loaded with 8-pound fluorocarbon. We dip jigs next to visible stumps, using 1/8-ounce jigheads dressed with either a Mr. Twister VIE Shiner in black-silver flake, or a Southern Pro tube in orange and chartreuse or chartreuse and lime."
Grenada also has shallow cypress cover. As he dips around a cypress stump, or any piece of cover, he slowly lowers his jig, probing from just below the surface to the bottom, pausing at intervals, but all the while twitching his line and lure by shaking his wrist. "The water's so dirty at times in spring that fish can often feel the presence of the jig before they see it," he says. "That's why that nervous twitch is so important. The twitching means I don't have to tip with minnows to send out all those good vibrations.
"Be thorough but don't waste time," he says, referring to the importance of probing each side of cover. "In cold-front conditions, I move along slower than when I know the fish are hitting good. Read the conditions as you go to determine how fast to move — and, as I've said, that often changes as the day wears on."
B'n'M poles have a "touch system" with a notch for your finger, to increase sensitivity. "Anything that breathes on that pole you can feel," he says. "It's my favorite way to fish, so it's what I usually do if I'm not fishing with clients. The fluorocarbon has the strength and abrasion resistance to help haul big crappies out of cover. "
It's a judgement call whether he spends more time spider-rigging or single-pole dipping. "As I said, spider-rigging is the most effective means I've ever seen for finding crappies and catching them in most instances," he says. "Especially when lots of fish are spawning, they might only be readily available in numbers for a small portion of the day, before they push shallower, and become a little more difficult to get at by spider-rigging. If the water's high, many times single-poling is the way to go."
Wading in High Water
In springs with exceptionally high water, once fish start spawning, they move into flooded brush, at times so shallow and far back into thickets that the only way to get to them is to wade into it and get after them. Harrison: "Most of the time enough fish are around the edges of cover that I don't wade with clients, we fish single poles. But wading can be the only way to catch fish that push back so far there's no way to get a boat to them without spooking them. So I usually park the boat, put waders on, and slip into the water. Once you're in the water, you have perfect control and can fish each piece of cover as you go."
How shallow is shallow in this situation? "Typical depths are about 21â„2 feet or less," he says. "I catch lots of fish in a foot or so, fishing the jig near the surface. I wade into the wind to keep from stirring up the bottom so a cloud of silt doesn't get too far in front of me. I use the same 10-foot pole I use for single-pole dipping from the boat. If the pole's too long it gets tough to control as you maneuver through the brush."
All aspects of wading require separate coverage, but the fundamentals are easy to picture. Wading usually begins about the time the water temperature reaches a sustained 56°F and lasts through the spawn, when temperatures surpass about 65°F. "Don't be in a big rush once you start fishing," Harrison says. "There's a lot of brush to fish and this is one time I don't always start fishing a lure right next to cover, but begin a bit away from cover. If you catch fish right on cover you often spook the other fish that are tight to it, so sometimes it pays to first probe for fish away from cover first.
"Sometimes patterns develop, where you're getting your fish tight to cover, or you're catching them from a bunch of stickups, as opposed to single stickups. Sometimes vine tangles are key; other times cypress stumps are good. Other times you're getting fish at various cover options along your route."
Once you park the boat, get out and find a route, moving into the wind, and fish the tangles near the boat. Then backtrack a bit before picking another route that takes you into the wind, once again so you're not spooking fish as you go. "This is another situation where shaking the jig as you fish helps to alert fish to the presence of the jig. It's an effective and fun way to fish in the right conditions," he says.
Summertime Spider-Rigging and Pulling
After crappies spawn and fish settle into summer patterns — typically by May, but certainly by June — much of Harrison's fishing is in clearer water near the dam, where he often spider-rigs along drop-offs. When fishing shallow flats it isn't so vital to watch sonar closely, but during summer it's important to keep the boat over specific depths.
For this fishing, he uses 16-foot B'n'M poles with 12-pound monofilament tied to Capps and Coleman Double Minnow Rigs baited with minnows 3 to 31â„2 inches long. The rigs are anchored with a 1-ounce weight, and he moves along at 0.4 or 0.5 mph, a faster pace than during spring. The 1-ounce weights help keep the baits running smoothly and in a near-vertical position.
"When water temperatures are above 70°F, I also troll crankbaits (it's called 'pulling' in many parts of the South) along river channel drops and points, typically at depths of 10 to 15 feet," he says. "It depends how scattered the fish are whether spider-rigging is the way to go or you should be pulling crankbaits. A lot of scattered fish calls for pulling. Then if I find pockets of concentrated fish by trolling, I might switch to spider-rigging."
Monitoring sonar to pinpoint fish depth helps to determine crankbait choice. If crappies are suspended in less than 5 feet, he uses Bandit 100-series crankbaits. Bandit 200s are for the 5- to 8-foot range; and Bandit 300s are for fishing deeper than 8 feet. Favorite colors include glow, black, pink, and Grenada shad (black-and-plum).
To pull six crankbaits, he uses rods measuring 8, 12, and 16 feet on each side of the back of the boat. The lures on the 8-foot rods are 150 feet back, 120 feet back on 12 footers, and 100 feet back on 16-footers. The line is 10-pound high-visibility Vicious monofilament and he typically runs at 1.6 to 1.7 mph. When crappies bite the outside lines, they struggle to the surface, slide over the other lines, and are netted directly behind the boat.
Longline trolling jig-and-plastic combinations is another common technique on reservoirs across North America. This is guide Lee Pitts' favorite tactic for putting clients on crappies during spring on the Coosa River chain of lakes, in Alabama. He makes a long cast behind the boat and strips out one more rod-length of line, so his lures typically run about 90 feet behind the boat. The object is to run the lures over shallow humps, along cover, including rows of trees and brush that prespawn crappies usually suspend around.
Boat speed is important. "I run lures that weigh from 1/24 to 1/32 ounce on lines testing either 6 pounds (away from cover) or 10 pounds (near cover) at speeds from 0.7 to 0.9 mph. That gets the lures about 31â„2 to 4 feet down," he says.
He uses 6- to 7-foot spinning rods and Lew's Speed Spin spinning reels, placing them in Driftmaster rod holders. His favorite lures are the Bobby Garland Baby Shad and Stroll'R. "The Baby Shad is a better option for covering water," he says. "I switch to the Stroll'R, which has a heavier thumping tail, when I slow down a bit in dirty water. My favorite colors are monkey milk and blue ice in early spring when the water is clear, and black and chartreuse in dirty water."
If a cold front drives crappie deeper, he uses lead shot to get his presentations deeper.
*John Neporadny Jr. is a veteran outdoor writer and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.
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 'œEarthquake Lake' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11â„4 pounds and catches up to 23â„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 'œCrappie 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 13â„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 11â„4 to 21â„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