April 01, 2017
Maybe you found them by trolling. Maybe they appeared on a sonar screen, concentrated on a small spot. Matched to the reel, rod, and line, the weight of the lure bends the tip down an inch or so. Poised to launch, first looking out for a partner's rod, line, and body, the lure is snapped out across the water at about 100 mph.
Some time later, way out there, the little lure lands. You only know when by the slack in the line, especially with a fair wind at your back. Start counting. One one thousand, two one thousand€¦to five or six. Flip the bail shut manually (never turn the reel handle to close a bail). Start reeling slowly.
The little 1/32-ounce jig with a plastic tail sank a few feet — up to 5 feet, if using 4-pound braid. With 4-pound mono, maybe 3 to 4 feet. Either way, it starts ambling along as you reel, near the top of the water column. Reel slowly enough and the jig remains on a horizontal course. Reel a little faster and it rises. Might work. Usually doesn't.
If it comes all the way home without touching anything, count to seven next time. Keep slipping it deeper until the jig taps boulders, brushpiles, plants, or the edge of a sharp break — whatever it is that brought crappies and you to this spot. At some point the tip of the rod bends down. Could be a weed or some detritus. Could be a crappie. Either way, set the hook.
I'd rather cast and reel tiny softbaits for crappies than catch them any other way. A 7- to 8-foot rod designed to be efficient with 4-pound line is a joy. Never known for its pugilistic prowess, the average crappie feels feisty on such a rod. A big crappie? Wow.
Small cranks, hair jigs, spinners, jigs tipped with bait, jigs tipped with plastic, tiny suspending baits — many lures work. But the object with each tends to be the same: Find the depth they're biting at, get the bait down accurately, and keep it moving horizontally at that level — or swing it to that depth and hold it there vertically.
Technology is responsible for similar sense-driven pleasures derived from pitching light jigs and lures for crappies. New technologies inject lighter, stronger, and better materials into the process. It simply wasn't this much fun in the 1970s with clunky reels, fiberglass rods, and thick monofilaments.
On natural lakes, longer casts are the norm, compared to fishing river backwaters and reservoirs where crappies often gravitate to dense wood and vegetation. Light braided lines in 4- and 6-pound make it easier to cast light baits far to cover entire weedbeds and expansive flats quickly with increased sensitivity. Thin wispy versions of PowerPro, Berkley NanoFil, Sufix Nanobraid, Tuf-Line XP, and others make casting for distance a breeze, even with 1/32-ounce jigheads. The 4- and 6-pound versions of these lines are threadlike, don't stretch, yet break in the 8- to 12-pound range.
In super-clear water, where a fluorocarbon leader is necessary, use a spider hitch to create 8 to 10 inches of doubled line at the end of the braid, creating a single line twice as thick for tying back-to-back uni-knots to connect the fluoro leader. Depending on the density of the cover involved, I choose between 4.5-, 5.6-, or 6.8-pound Raven Invisible leader materials for panfish most of the time.
Where distance is the goal, light-power rods in the 7- to 8-foot range are ideal. Some favorites include the St. Croix Panfish Series PFS80LMF2, Abu Garcia Venerate Series VNRTS70-4, Daiwa Steez STZ68 1MLFSA, and G. Loomis TSR 791. Reels include the Shimano Stradic CI4 1000, Abu Garcia Revo STX20, Daiwa Steez 2500, and Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris JM10 — light, small reels with good line capacity.
When approaching a weedbed, casts need to be made: 1) Over the tops; 2) Through any visible pockets or holes; 3) Along the outside edges both shallow and deep; and 4) Out over adjacent open water. None of these areas should be ignored, but conditions dictate where to start.
During stable weather with a little chop or cloud cover, start over the top of the vegetation. After a cold front, especially on calm "bluebird" days, start along the deep edge with occasional "count-down" casts to open water. Early and late in the day, check both shallow and deep edges, with every other cast over the top of the grass. During midday, concentrate on sharp breaks to open water and big pockets or holes on the deep edge of tall plants like cabbage.
The right lure, most of the time, is a 1/32-ounce jig coupled with a 1.5- to 2.5-inch plastic grub or soft swimbait. A tough yet supple 4-pound mono like Maxima Ultragreen is always on at least one spool for swimming jigs slowly. All colors work, but white is consistent. Works everywhere in all water colors. Cast, count it down to the tops of the vegetation or the base of plants growing on the edge, or to a specified depth over open water, and begin reeling extremely slowly. The goal is a horizontal retrieve. When trying to keep the lure over the vegetation, hold the rod tip higher. When trying to keep the lure down along the deep edge or running deep through open water, point the tip down. If the jig drags on bottom or through stalks, reel faster. If the jig never touches anything, reel slower.
The same tactic applies with jig-spinners. Safety-pin-style spinner arms deflect weeds and wood away from hooks. A slow, steady, horizontal roll tends to work best with baits like the famous Johnson Beetle Spin or the new Stanley Ribbit Runt. Finding crappies is easier than finding the levels they're actively biting in. Horizontal presentations like these need to cover the water column as incrementally as possible, so let the lure drop a little deeper before starting each retrieve until the crappies let you know where to spend the most time.
Jig-spinners catch active, aggressive crappies which, in stable weather, ride higher in cover and open water. Crappies outside weededges or riding high over woodcover often respond to spinning blades, but small swimbaits and hardbaits can be even more productive in stable conditions. A small Rapala X-Rap worked over grass and out over open water is more fun than a barrel of crappies. Small lipless and lipped crankbaits, like the new Rapala Ultralight Rippin' Rap and Ultralight Shad, can work dramatically at times and are even more fun. Anglers should take advantage of hardbaits during a hot bite, if only to save money on bait.
Timid, post-frontal crappies often respond better to a jig tipped with a minnow, a straight-tailed softbait, or a scented bait like the Berkley Gulp! Minnow. The keys in those conditions are subtle colors and painfully slow speeds. After severe fronts, spot-on-the-spot slipfloat and fixed-float techniques take over.
Tommy Skarlis, a winner and high finisher in many national crappie tournaments with state-of-the art trolling techniques, would rather cast to crappies when he can. "I cast when crappies are shallow or near cover where I feel getting the boat too close or overhead may spook them," he says. "In clear water, you end up catching fewer fish when you park on them. I cast in deep water when it's clear, too, if crappies are grouped."
Finding crappies in riverine environments (including reservoirs) can be the biggest challenge for most of us. Constantly exploring new water for tournaments, Skarlis depends on electronics built for speed. "Raymarine Side Vision allows me to cover ground three times faster than traditional side-finders," he says. "I can find cover at 10 mph and see details. Fish show up as little white blobs and you can tell right away if the cover has fish on it. You can get a Dragonfly from Raymarine for around $500 with Side Vision and GPS that allows you to go back to the exact spot once you find it."
But sometimes pitching and electronics don't match. "When pitching around shoreline cover, I don't need electronics," he says. "I turn them off and turn the trolling motor down to the slowest speed, trying to eliminate noise. Approaching shallow crappies in clear water, you have to get close. The less obtrusive you are, the more fish you catch."
Skarlis pitches into shore or shallow cover and brings the jig back through various depths with a kind of swing-drop maneuver. "Pitching allows me to work shallow to deep, swimming that jig over different contours and more habitat," he says. "When fishing vertically, you have to move the boat or the rod to do that. On Mississippi River backwaters, a log can be golden. The root wad is the key area. You have a lot of water to cover around, behind, beside, and above the root wad and along the log. Circle it if possible, and keep pitching. I catch a ton of crappies that way, coming at wood cover from all angles."
Once a crappie is caught, maintain boat position and keep casting to that spot. "White crappies hate current," he says. "Black crappies can stand a little current, but mostly, they position on the downcurrent side of cover and respond only to lures that pass within a foot of it. If you're pitching a couple feet from cover, don't be surprised if you get blanked."
In reservoirs, Skarlis uses a similar pitch-swim-swing approach. "I position next to standing timber and make short, measured pitches beyond it. I cast past it and let the jig swing by the cover. If a tree is in 10 feet of water, I pitch 5 feet past it, close the bail, and hold the rod still. The bait pendulums on a tight line until it's directly under the rod tip. Work it vertically a little, reel up, and cast a little farther each time until the jig is at the base of the cover."
The "depth of activity" is always the key element to find when casting for crappies. "Try to find the depth of the biters," Skarlis says. "Sometimes they're 5 feet down along that tree, sometimes right on bottom, sometimes in-between. If you keep swinging it to the bottom and they're biting 8 feet down, you're not catching fish. After a cold front, they hold tight to cover. On bright, sunny, flat days, they also hold tight to cover. During stable weather under a little chop or cloud cover, fish can be spread out above and around the cover. It pays to cast all around that piece of cover, whatever it is."
Bobber tactics may not be considered "pitching" but "a light jig under a slipbobber can be worked slowly," he says. "After fronts, it can be deadly because you can pause it at the level of activity. In that case, I may use braided line, which floats, but I've grown fond of mono for pitching jigs in all other situations. I use bright green 6- to 8-pound Berkley Trilene XT Solar. Mono won't disturb the cover and spook as many fish. Braid is harder to break while mono is more forgiving."
Skarlis favors three jig colors. "I like orange," he says. "Sometimes I use chartreuse or glow, but I generally use a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Do-it Molds Bat Jig. It's a triangular, wedge-shaped head. The hook has a small gap, which snags less. In deeper water I may fish the 1/4-ounce version. I tip a plain lead jig with a small minnow in tough conditions. When crappies are active, bright colors are better with larger minnows or plastics like Berkley PowerBait Nymphs, Ripple Shads, and Ribbontail Grubs."
He uses medium-light St. Croix Panfish Series and Avids from 6½ to 7 feet in length. "You need fast action with some backbone to pull 2-pound crappies out of heavy cover," he says.
The bait plops through the surface film. Start counting. One one thousand, two one thousand. Flip the bail shut. Start swimming the bait slowly along. When a crappie pops a horizontal, swimming presentation, the take is distinct. Not the cross between a tap and a jolt produced by smallmouths, or the electric jab of a walleye, but a distinct pop. Might feel gentle, but crappies pop to kill, just like every other predator. Make a few pitches at that "flight or bite" mentality with aggressive horizontal techniques whenever you find crappies grouped in a small area. –
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a panfish fanatic and also a connoisseur of fine rods.
> Matt Straw emphasizes the importance of moving small baits slowly through the depth zone crappies are feeding in.