The art and science of catching cold-water crappie, according to Brian Waldman
February 08, 2012
In the grand tradition of In-Fisherman, Brian Waldman of Coatesville, Indiana, is a proponent of multispecies angling.
On Nov. 17 and 18, 2011, we posted blogs that detailed the way he pursues cold-water largemouth bass with a small hair jig. Then on Jan. 1, we posted a blog that summarized how he caught largemouth bass throughout 2011.
As we worked together on those blogs, he periodically mentioned that his passion for crappie fishing often overwhelms his passion for bass fishing. Therefore, we eventually asked him if we could work together on a blog that described how he catches cold-water crappie.
What follows is a description of how he catches crappie in six central Indiana reservoirs during the fall and winter. These reservoirs range in size from 300 acres to 2,000 acres. Five of them are flatland impoundments, and one exhibits some hill-land features.
On many of his crappie outings, Waldman is accompanied by Lee Dilly of Avon, Indiana. Waldman describes Dilly as "my crappie mentor," and he credits Dilly with schooling him on how and where to fish for crappie.
He and Dilly call their method "crappie on the cast," which means that they cast and retrieve tiny jigs adorned with soft-plastic lures. Waldman says that they fish for cold-water crappie much the same way that he fishes with a hair jig for cold-water bass.
Waldman points out that his crappie fishing methods differ from his bass fishing methods in two ways. One of those ways revolves around the location of the crappie compared to the location of the bass. The other difference is centered upon his usage of electronic equipment when he is pursuing crappie. In essence, his crappie fishing is an offshore endeavor while his bass fishing is mostly aimed at shorelines, points and visible objects. Therefore, Waldman has to rely on his electronic units more when he crappie fishes than when he bass fishes.
Rods, reels, lines, and jigs
As for his tackle, Waldman contends that ultra-light and micro-light outfits aren't suitable for his crappie-on-the-cast system. He utilizes the same six-foot and seven-foot, medium-light-power, fast-action spinning rods that he uses for purusing bass with tiny hair jigs.
His rods are expensive, costing $200 and $245. They are custom-made by Matt Davis who crafts them out of St. Croix Avid blanks. Davis is the proprietor of Otterods of Fergus Fall, Minnesota.
Waldman relishes the lightness of these rods, as well as their sensitivity, which allows him to feel a goodly percentage of the crappie strikes. He says that the few strikes that he doesn't feel he sees by watching his line. Even though Waldman raves about the manifold virtues of his Otterrods, he readily admits that talented anglers who employ inexpensive rods can fare as well as he does with his expensive rods. But according to Waldman, anglers who use inexpensive rods need to be consummate line watchers, and the reason for that is their rods do not allow them to feel the majority of the crappie strikes.
During a typical crappie outing, Waldman will have two or three crappie rods at the ready. He notes that the rod length doesn't have a significant bearing on the number of crappie he catches. But he finds that it is easier for him to make long casts with his seven-foot rod. The reason why he employs several rods is that it allows him to quickly rotate through a variety of bait styles or jig sizes or types of line as he tries to figure out the best presentation. What's more, if his jig becomes snagged and his line breaks, he has another outfit ready to use. He states that his mentor, Dilly, usually works with four rods during each outing.
His rods are equipped with either a 2000- or 2500-size spinning reel. These two sizes of spinning reels work well with the various kinds of lines that he uses in cold-weather situations. Across the years, he has collected a half dozen different models of spinning reels, but most of the time he uses a Daiwa Capricorn or a Shimano Symetre.
His reels are spooled with a variety of lines: monofilament, copolymer, fluorocarbon and braided lines. All of them are six-pound-test or less in size. He opts for lines lighter than six-pound-test when the water becomes extremely cold and the crappie abide in deep-water. The size of the line that he uses also revolves around the weight of the jig that he employs.
On most outings, Waldman prefers to employ high-visibility lines.
He finds that monofilament and copolymer lines allow a jig that is affixed to a soft-plastic bait to move slowly through a group of suspended crappie, and at times crappie find this slow, almost weightless, presentation extremely alluring. Some of these lines, such as the blue-fluorescent ones, are also easy for line watchers to see.
Waldman likes the way fluorocarbon lines transmit the strike when a crappie inhales a jig. He also finds that fluorocarbon lines allow a jig to sink faster, which can be a critical factor when he is probing deep-water lairs. For line watchers, however, fluorocarbon isn't advantageous.
As for braided lines, Waldman likes their bright colors, which facilitates line watching. Another attractive feature about braided lines, according to Waldman, is that they don't create a lot of loops, twists, kinks and other assorted woes that plague other types of lines on spinning outfits. He also relishes their thin diameter and low-stretch factor, which are an aid in deep-water situations. What's more, if there isn't too much slack between the rod tip and the lake's surface, braided line readily telegraphs most crappie strikes to Waldman's rod. He uses a J-knot to attach a six-foot leader that is made from six-pound-test fluorocarbon to his braided line. From Waldman's perspective, the leader helps him preserves his braided line. It also provides a little stretch to help pop a jig off of a stump when it becomes snagged. The leader also creates a tighter knot on the eye of the jig than can be accomplished with braided line, and the tighter knot enhances the retrieve and presentation of the jig. Waldman is quick to point out that he has caught untold numbers of crappie on a jig tied directly to a brightly colored braided line. In other words, brightly colored braided line doesn't make the crappie wary.
To his lines or leaders, Waldman uses a Palomar knot to attach the jig.
He typically utilizes a 1/16-ounce jig. If the wind is howling or if he is plying a deep lair, he will often use a 3/32-ounce jig.
Day in and day out, Waldman uses a 1/16-ounce jig that is poured around a No. 6 hook, and he widens the gap of the hook by using his thumbnail to bend the point of the hook slightly up. But when he comes across a significant concentration of big crappie, Waldman switches to a jig that sports either a No. 1 or No.2 hook. He and Dilly have found that the wider gaps of these bigger hooks do a better job of penetrating the flesh in the mouths of the big crappie than a No. 6 hook does.
Waldman's 3/32-ounce jigs are poured around No. 1, No.2 and No. 4 hooks.
The heads of jigs are never painted.
His jigs are usually adorned with 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch soft-plastic tube. At times and according to the disposition of the crappie, Waldman's jigs will be dressed with other soft-plastic baits, such as twister-tailed grubs, slider grubs and shad-shaped grubs.
In regard to the colors of his soft-plastic baits, Waldman prefers various chartreuse hues, such as blue and chartreuse, silver and chartreuse, and black and chartreuse. But when the water becomes extremely cold and clear in the dead of winter, he has found that traditional shad colors become quite effective.
On every outing, Waldman has several bottles of dyes at the ready. He uses the dyes to highlight or alter the colors of his soft-plastic baits. Chartreuse dye is the one he uses the most, but he occasionally uses some blue, red and orange dyes. He also does some double dipping, creating a green highlight by dipping a bait into blue dye and then into chartreuse dye.
Waldman's boat is bedecked with three electronic units: a Humminbird 798ci HD SI, a Lowrence LCX15-MT and an Eagle FishMark 320.
At the start of every cold-water outing, he usually spends a few minutes moving slowly away from the boat ramp into the open-water areas, and as the boat moves, Waldman keeps his eyes on his electronic units, looking for what he calls "an activity zone." During this short spell, he can often gather some important information. For instance, if he notices that there is a lot of fishlife milling about in 12 to 15 feet of water, he starts the day examining several of the reservoir's traditional crappie haunts that lie in 12 to 15 feet of water. He uses his GPS to help him quickly locate those hideouts, and his sonar units to examine them.
He notes that suspended crappie are easy to spot on his electronic units. The difficult ones to pinpoint are the crappie that are lying flush to the bottom or inside the confines of a brush pile or a series of submerged tree stumps.
When he spots a congregation of crappie, he marks the spot with a buoy marker. He refrains from passing over a group of crappie more than once with his boat. He has found that making more than one sashay over a school of crappie seems makes them wary, and at times it provokes them to take shelter inside a brush pile or around the root wads of a big tree stump.
If his electronic units fail to pinpoint any crappie abiding around those traditional lairs in 12 to 15 feet of water, it usually means that the crappie are shallower or extremely tight to the bottom or brush pile or stump or root wads. If they are shallower, he finds that his electronic units aren't effective. To find these crappie, Waldman does it by fishing for them and catching them. Of course, if he can't catch them in shallow water or tight to the bottom or inside some kind of cover, he searches for them in deeper terrains with his electronic units.
Waldman says the most difficult days to pinpoint the whereabouts of the crappie occur when central Indiana is being whacked by a severe cold front. Then the crappie become so tight to the bottom and ensconced inside a brush pile or a maze of root wads that they are virtually impossible to see even on the world's finest electronic equipment.
When Waldman pinpoints the whereabouts of an aggregation of cold-water crappie, he never uses a bright or large buoy marker. Instead he employs what he calls "stealth buoys." They are the size of a bar of soap. They are either black of brown. He makes them out of pieces of closed-cell foam. He does this to keep other anglers from easily recording the exact location of that crappie lair on their GPS units.
When Waldman is surveying the underwater terrain with his electronic units and he discovers a new lair, such as a stump or brush pile, that isn't entertaining any crappie on that particular outing, he always records its whereabouts on his GPS unit. Then on a future outing, he might examine that location, and occasionally he will discover that it is entertaining a significant number of wintertime crappie. He says that his GPS unit has made his cold-water crappie fishing easier and more fruitful.
Moreover, he has found that a high-definition color sonar unit has made the task of finding wintertime crappie a much easier chore than it was 10 years ago. He says these state-of-the-art units provide anglers with a clearer definition or interpretation of what is transpiring in the crappie's environment.
Once Waldman identifies a spot that he wants to fish and drops a buoy, he positions the boat a long cast away from the crappie. His definition of a long cast is 90 feet. During the execution of his first long casts and retrieves, he can determine how aggressive the crappie are. If the crappie are aggressive, they engulf Waldman's jig as it drops vertically from the surface to point that he begins his horizontal swimming-style retrieve.
As the aggressive bite wanes, he positions his boat so that he can make casts and presentations at variety of angles. Ultimately Waldman moves the boat closer and closer to the lair and his casts become shorter and shorter. He also positions his boat so that he can dissect the lair from different angles.
His shortest presentation is a vertical one. He employs it when he has tangled with all or most of the aggressive crappie with his cast-and-retrieve motif. The vertical presentation allows him to maneuver his jig inside a brush pile or among the root wads of a stump. The vertical presentation is also the one that he has to employ on those outings when a cold front batters the area and the crappie become nestled inside a brush pile or tightly situated within the root wads of a stump.
Waldman's favorite casting distance ranges from 35 feet to 50 feet. In his eyes, casts of these distances allow him to control his line, the depth of the lure and the movement of his jig more easily and seductively than longer casts do.
When it is windy, Waldman positions the boat downwind from the lair. He says it is easier to control the boat with the trolling motor by facing into the wind. But if a wind-blown lair entertains a significant quantity of crappie, Waldman occasionally anchors upwind from the lair, which alleviates him from the onerous task of constantly maneuvering the boat with the trolling motor.
The wind also interferes with his ability to work around the lair and present a jig to the crappie from a variety of angles.
The wind often necessitates the usage of a 3/32-ounce jig, which affects the speed and depth of Waldman's presentation. A 1/16-ounce jig falls slower and needs to be retrieved slower than a 3/32-ounce jig in order to maintain the correct depth.
As explained earlier, Waldman uses different kinds of lines to modify the presentations of his jigs, opting for monofilament and braided lines to slowdown the speed the jig falls and using fluorocarbon when he needs a faster motif.
The style and size of the soft-plastic bait that adorns his jigs also affects the speed and depth of his presentations.
For instance, to create the proper action when he uses a bulky twister-tailed grub, Waldman has to retrieve it faster than the other three baits, and this quicker-paced retrieve also creates a shallower presentation.
When he wants a deeper presentation that is enhanced with some vibration, Waldman opts for a slider-style grub. He finds that its thinner body style allows it be retrieved deeper and more slowly than he can achieve with a twister-tailed grub.
Waldman says that tubes and shad-shaped grubs are what he uses for his deepest and slowest presentations.
In essence, Waldman says the joy of angling "is trying to figure out which combination of jig weight, body style and color will score the best on any given day. Once you get the small details figured out, numbers of crappie can come flying into the boat in very short order. Years of experience, trial and error have allowed me to develop a modus operandi to quickly sort through the various combinations in a hurry."
Waldman rarely lingers at a lair. The length of the time that he probes a lair depends on what he sees on his electronic units and the number of bites he garners. For instance, if his sonar reveals that a particular lair contains a large school of fish, he might linger there for 20 minutes or so, casting and retrieving various jigs in order to figure how to inveigle them. In addition, when he quickly catches several aggressive crappie on his first few casts, it is usually an indication that he needs to spend some time picking this particular location apart. But at a spot that is graced with a big stump or brush pile but no fishlife can be seen on his electronic units, he will spend 10 minutes or less. Waldman says: "One rule we generally follow is that if we're not catching them as fast as we think we should be catching them, they're probably biting better somewhere else. So, we keep moving until we find that magic spot that's holding a bevy of aggressive fish." He also noted that after he fishes the first few spots of the day, he has an idea of the activity level of the crappie, which also tells him how long he should linger at a lair.
Description of the reservoirs and the location of the cold-water behavior of the crappie
At the flatland reservoirs that Waldman fishes, the main creek channel is well- defined, but many of the secondary creek channels have become filled with silt.
These reservoirs are inhabited by black crappie and white crappie. The white crappie are the dominant species — especially in the shallow and stained reservoirs that are embellished with substantial areas of flooded wood. In central Indiana, the black crappie prefer the deeper, clay-bank and rocky-bank reservoirs, but even in those reservoirs their numbers don't surpass the numbers of the white crappie.
The black crappie normally dwell around main-lake areas that are graced with a hard bottom made of clay, gravel and rock. Waldman finds most of them on points and submerged roadbeds.
The white crappie, on the other hand, tend to be attracted by what Waldman calls cover. His interpretation of cover includes submerged tree stumps, fallen trees, logs, manmade brush piles, PVC-pipe habitats, boat docks, and mazes made from pallets. Waldman spends most of his time on cold-water outings probing submerged tree stumps in deep water.
Stumps are the most common forms of cover. Strict regulations prevent anglers from creating man-made brush piles and other mazes constructed of PVC piles and pallets in public waterways. Those regulations, however, are violated occasionally. Therefore, a few of the reservoirs have been sprinkled with some man-made habitats.
Some of the reservoirs are flood-control lakes. Therefore, every fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins to drop them to their winter-pool levels, which provokes the crappie to move almost constantly. That incessant movement makes locating the crappie a challenging endeavor on every outing for Waldman.
At the other reservoirs that are graced with stable water levels, the movement of the crappie tends to be gradual. Therefore, fruitful areas can remain productive as long as water temperatures and food sources stay relatively constant.
Early in the fall, when the water temperatures are in the 60s, Waldman finds the crappie situated around cover, such as stumps, on main-lake points and secondary points that lie immediately inside some of the coves. These point-oriented crappie generally abide in depths of 12 feet or less. Then as the water temperature drops into the upper 50s, the crappie invade shallower environs.
Once the water temperature cools into the lower 50s and upper 40s, the crappie reverse their course and move deeper and reside along creek channel edges in 12 to 18 feet of water.
As Old Man Winter performs his seasonal duties, causing the water temperatures to plunge into the low 40s and upper 30s, many of the crappie hightail it to submerged creek channel edges 20 feet of water in the main bodies of the reservoirs. Along or adjacent to these channel edges, the crappie tend to be attracted to spots that are embellished with stumps, brush piles and other objects.
The last time Waldman was afloat was on Jan. 10. Bob Sturm of Lizton, Indiana, who accompanied Waldman on this outing, wrote this description of the outing in his log: "Got to the lake at 11:30 a.m. Much of the lake was covered with a thin sheet of ice. Had to run the boat at half speed. Arrived at the first spot at 12:45 p.m. Water temperature was 39.5 degrees. The first crappie was a 14-incher. The second was a 13 ½-incher. Ended the day with over 100 fish caught and released including 10 whites, two largemouth bass, and a couple of nice bluegills. All of the fish were in 21 to 22 feet of water. They were caught on 1/16-ounce jigs that were dressed with either a tube or a Panfish Assassin that were attached to four-pound-test line."
Waldman's logs reveal that he catches and releases between 50 and 100 crappie on many of his four-hour outings. When Dilly or another angler joins him, they normally fish for five to six hours, and on a good day, they can catch and release 150 crappie, and on a stellar day, they can tangle with more than 200 crappie. Waldman releases all of the crappie that he catches, but occasionally one of his partners will harvest a few of them.
A sidebar featuring some questions and answers about the way Waldman presents a jig to cold-water crappie.
If your first cast is 90 feet, how close is your boat to the stump or brush pile that is entertaining a substantial concentration of crappie?
"The first casts are right at the 90-foot range. They are aimed to reach or be slightly past the submerged stump or brush pile. At this point, I am allowing the crappie to settle down after I unsettled them by driving the boat directly over them. After several 90-foot casts, I move closer to the crappie and their lair. So, the boat is about 90 feet away from the lair when I make the first cast."
How far past the brush pile or stump do you cast?
"As noted above, the first casts are aimed to hit or be slightly past the lair. As I move in closer toward to the lair, I start casting the jig 20 to 30 feet beyond it. The purpose for this is to determine if there is an aggregation of crappie that is not directly associated with the stump or brush pile. Another purpose is to determine if there is a smaller piece of secondary cover I might not have seen on the sonar. But most casts are aimed toward the heart of the brush pile or stumps. Before I leave a fruitful spot, I usually make several random and scattered casts in hopes of finding some rogue crappie or cover that might be close by."
Once the jig hits the water, do you count as it drops towards the stump or brush pile?
"Yes, I am always counting. It is what I call paying attention to 'the bite on the drop.' If I get a strike on the drop, I keep presenting the jig at that count or depth until that bite peters out. This serves two purposes. One, you don't get too close to cover and risk spooking the school by hanging up or fighting a fish right from the heart of the aggregation. The second is that you can sometimes attract aggressive crappie off the main cover. If I can't attract them away from the cover and provoke them to strike, I slowly start counting down further and further until the jig contacts the actual cover. From there I can keep dropping it more and more and even penetrating into the heart of the cover. Around many of the stumps I fish, I will let the bait go all the way to the bottom, which I can't do inside a brush pile with the crappie-on-the-cast motif."
When do you begin you to retrieve your jig, and how do you retrieve it when it reaches the correct depth?
"By counting as the jig drops from the surface towards the crappie lair, I can often determine the best depth at which to start retrieving the jig with the reel. The style of the retrieves vary. For instance, I like to start with a straight and smooth swimming retrieve, while Lee Dilly likes to interject slight twitches all through his retrieve. The best tactic is to periodically employ several different retrieves until one of them clearly becomes the most effective one at enticing the crappie."
How far past a brush pile or stumps do you retrieve a jig?
"Initially I might retrieve a jig 20 to 30 feet past a lair, hoping to allure some crappie that might be loosely relating to the cover. However, as I start catching fish and get quickly dialed in to the specific spots and depths, the length of the retrieve gets shorter and shorter. The reason for that is that I don't want to waste time. This is similar to a bass angler who might work a topwater bait past a visible bush for 10 feet, and then once the bait is outside the strike zone, the bass angler quickly reels in the bait and executes another cast. Same principal applies to my crappie fishing. I am always trying to be as efficient as possible.
In the spirit of a devoted multispecies angler, Waldman says his crappie pursuits have helped him become a better bass fishing and visa versa. Readers can see what he means by examining some of the details about his bass-fishing outing on Feb. 3. His description of that outing can be seen at: http://www.bigindianabass.com/big_indiana_bass/2012/02/open-water-bassin-in-february.html
(I am indebted to Casey Kidder of Topeka, Kansas, for copy editing this blog. His editing skills parallel his deftness at alluring bass with a finesse outfit.)