When sonar shows suspended panfish at various depths in the water column -- vertical suspension -- the bite can be torrid. Crappies, white bass, and bluegills suspended like that are in a chewing mood.
Typical of this scenario, however, is that fish aren't biting at all levels. One or two key depths tend to produce the most fish. Finding the bite zone requires staggering rigs at different depths. One of the best ways to do this is to drift with multiple jig rigs. By fishing with two or more jigs on one line, one rod can cover two or more depths at the same time. Multiple rods can cover the entire water column at two-foot intervals.
There are several ways to stagger jigs up and down along the main line. One of the most common is to tie two loops into the main line at two- or three-foot intervals from the end, for attaching short (6- to 8-inch) loop-end leaders. The end of the line can hold a larger jig or a bell sinker, with lighter jigs tied to each leader.
An even easier method is to use a three-way swivel. Tie on a short leader and jig to one eye, a longer leader and heavier jig to the other eye. The long leader can be 3 to 7 feet long, depending on the length of the rod and the amount of spread desired. Additional weight can be added on the long leader a foot or so above the lower jig, to keep the rig more vertical while drifting and to cover depths more precisely.
Another method is to attach leaders up the line with surgeon's knots. To add a leader with a surgeon's knot, tie a one-foot piece of leader to the main line and trim one end of the knot to leave two ends. The end of the main line can extend 24 inches or more below the nearest tag leader. Tie a heavier jig (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) to the bottom of the rig, depending on wind and depth. Add lighter jigs (1/64- to 1/32-ounce) to the shorter leaders up the line, attaching as many leaders and jigs as the law or common sense dictates. Several other methods can be used, but one of these three should suffice in most situations.
After identifying and marking an area holding vertically suspending fish (with markers or electronic GPS buoys), use the wind or an electric trolling motor to drift or slowly troll through the area, dangling multiple-jig rigs at various depths where fish are showing on sonar. Concentrate on the highest fish first. I start with plastics and hair jigs, usually a slightly different color on each leader. Crappies seldom require bait at this time of year.
Multiple jig rigs are designed for vertically suspending fish, but similar dropper-style rigs can be modified for scattered fish suspending horizontally or vertically, on structure or off. The basic three-way rig is the most versatile. It employs a three-way swivel on the main line, with a short or moderate dropper to a bell sinker off one eye and a longer leader to the bait, which could be a spinner rig, a mini crankbait, a jig, or just a baited hook.
Modifications of the three-way rig include replacing the bell sinker with a crankbait on a slightly longer dropper. The crankbait dives to a known depth with a specific amount of line out, making it possible to work depth ranges more exactly. Trailing along on the other leader above the crankbait could be a tiny panfish spoon, a jig, or a baited spinner rig. On 4- to 6-pound line, the crankbait could be size-specific for bass or walleyes, such as a Storm ThunderStick Jr. or a Mann's Stretch 10. (Mini cranks won't pull the rig deep enough to work anywhere below about five feet.)
Most rigs are used for covering water. Then, again, some rigs are oddballs. The welding rod rig is a tool for fishing vertically from a stationary position over deep, heavy brush. A welding rod is flattened on both ends, holes are drilled in it, and swivels or clips are attached to the holes. The hook goes right on the clip. This rig drops straight into brushpiles, submerged trees, and dense tangles of logs. And it pulls crappies straight out again, not allowing them to wrap the line on the way up.
The other extreme is in open water devoid of cover, where a tiny diver planer like the Big Jon Diver Disk gets tiny lures and rigs down and out, off to the side of the boat at a controlled depth, on lines as light as four-pound test. These little tools are much easier to use and much more effective than most folks think possible at first glance.
In most other situations, after finding shallow concentrations of panfish in or out of cover, pitching mini cranks, jigging with bait or plastics, fly-fishing, or bobber fishing might prove more efficient. When panfish scatter along weedlines or flats, or suspend in open water or (egad!) both, it's time to rig up and drift or troll.
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