The File for Brushpile Crappies
October 30, 2011
illustrations by Peter Kohlsaat
Crappies love brushpiles. Sometimes. Like every other habitat fish use worldwide, brushpiles are home when crappies are in residence. But home is really wherever crappies roam. Just finding a brushpile or placing your own in the lake doesn't mean brushpile crappies will always be there. Fish have their own agenda.
So learn the agenda first, then drop a brushpile or 12. Or 20. Because, like M&Ms, one brushpile just won't cut it. Water levels, water clarity, and other changing conditions can make or break a brushpile. Even a perfectly constructed brushpile dropped in the right area can't draw crappies if it's 5 feet shallower than the depth crappies prefer in fall.
Which raises myriad questions. What is a perfectly constructed brushpile? Where and at what depth should it be placed? How and when will crappies use it? Can a brushpile be constructed and placed to attract the lake's biggest crappies? We asked several long-time brushpile boys from the Midwest, Southeast, and Midsouth those very questions. This is their take on brushpiles and crappies during the cooling phase of mid to late autumn.
The Kansas File
Ned Kehde, a longtime In'‘Fisherman contributor loves to fish for crappies in his home state of Kansas. Kehde, a flatland-reservoir crappie expert, has long depended on brushpiles to draw crappies to the many featureless flats found in his home waters. He always carries a counter, clicking away hurriedly through a hot bite, so he can report how many crappies came into the boat. But sometimes the clicking isn't quite so frenetic, especially in fall.
"We have a situation that's different from other parts of the country," Kehde says. "Gizzard shad, the crappies' main forage, enter the creeks in late September or early October. The shad settle in the upper half to upper third of secondary feeder creeks, focusing on 8- to 12-foot depths. Because shad suspend and roam, and crappies follow, October is an extremely difficult time to fish."
One thing that can keep and hold a few of these nomadic, high-riding crappies for short periods, Kehde explains, is a well-placed brushpile. "The brushpiles we make are osage orange mixed with willow. I cut off four major branches of an osage orange or hedge tree. These have big plumes of green leaves, branches, and thorns. Osage has mean thorns and tough wood that lasts 30 years underwater. And I don't know why, but crappies are attracted to willows. We interlace 4 to 5 green willow branches with each segment of hedge and use bailing string to wrap them together, in a shape that looks like a small tree. The finished product is about 4 feet high and 4 feet across. We bundle it at the base to a big rock, take it out with several others in a couple boats, and drop them in a line that's at least 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. We try to place them several feet apart so there's a spot to fish between. By stringing more piles together, we feel we get more crappies to stop, especially when they're roaming around suspended, chasing shad. More of an opportunity — better odds — for them to make contact with a bigger area of brush.
"Height and thickness are fairly important," Kehde says. "These brushpiles are about 4 feet high with spaces created or cut out. Some anglers make the piles too thick. A little space is a good deal. It's nice to be able to penetrate it, because when crappies feed on insects, they go right to the bottom, and I like to leave space for my jig to get through the branches."
As Kehde says, crappies in Kansas reservoirs tend to be in secondary creek arms by October. Placement of a line of brushpiles is a critical. "Sometimes we want the string to run parallel to the contour, sometimes we want it perpendicular," he says. "Key depths are 8 to 12 feet at this time of year, and water fluctuations make some piles too deep or too shallow. Placing brushpiles at a variety of depths is critical, so you know at least some are at the right depth, no matter the water level.
"The secret is to have at least 40 good piles to hit in a day because you get only 5 or so fish off each good pile in October or November. Crappies are constantly moving and almost pelagic, but they do seem to stop on well-placed brushpiles for a while. So I don't fish each pile long. Five to ten minutes and I move on."
When shad counts are low because of a poor hatch in spring, Kehde's crappies switch to insect forage and tend to stay on brushpiles longer. "Brushpiles provide a terrific source of aquatic insects, but crappies go right to the center of the piles. You have to pitch jigs and finesse your way through the brush or get right on top and vertically fish down through the branches and sticks. I use 8-pound test, usually a 1/16-ounce or sometimes a 1/32-ounce jig tied with marabou or chenille or tipped with a plastic body. Nobody ever tips with bait here, except the Kentucky spider-rig fishermen. They do well when crappies are in open water, but not so well in brushpiles."
Kehde's first choice most days is a Bailey's Magnet, a solid tube. "It's a tough piece of plastic," he says. "It doesn't tear up in the brush. Another great bait is the Bait Rigs Grub Master in a tube, a grub, or one of the new micro spider grubs in the Grub Master kit. It has a slow, horizontal drop, great for crappies hanging high in the brush, when we pitch and swim jigs through the tops of the piles. But we mostly work jigs vertically in fall. The only way to penetrate the brush is vertically. When crappies hold in the interior or around the base of the piles, we want to be directly above them, finessing light marabou or chenille jigs."
The Santee-Cooper File
Pete Pritchard, longtime guide for crappies, stripers, cats, shellcrackers and, well, just about anything that swims in Santee-Cooper, demonstrated on In-Fisherman television one how he constructs and fishes brushpiles.
"Placement is the key for big crappies," Pritchard says. "The lake averages about 25 feet — so Santee-Cooper isn't all that deep. I try to place brushpiles in a zone that crappies use to travel back and forth from shallow to deep. If you can find a creek channel heading into a cove and place a pile right on the point of that, you've got it made. That's not to say other places won't work, but, in my experience, that's the place to be for truly big crappies."
Pritchard constructs his crappie condos out of hardwood. "We use major limbs of oak, cherry, or dogwood because hardwood lasts 4 or 5 years. Start with 16-inch concrete blocks, the ones with just two holes," he says. "Lay one on its side with holes parallel to the ground. Stick the butt of the brush right in the block and wire it so it stays. One in each hole. Then wire another block to that block and create a second tree. When you drop one of these brushpiles in the lake, it stands up like a tree. We try to make our trees at least 10 feet tall, sometimes 14 feet unless the water's only 8 or 9 feet deep — then we shorten it. It's good to have some open water above the brush so crappies can suspend where they're easy to catch. More importantly, don't make it easy for other anglers to find your brushpiles.
"Crappies like long skinny limbs. I like to get the top of the brush to spread out, so I prefer to use whole tops from trees the right size. If somebody's taking down a hardwood around here, I take a close look at the crown. I place piles no closer than 100 yards apart. Fungi grows and minnows feed there. A good brushpile produces both shelter and food.
"I have brushpiles on featureless flats that work pretty well, but they have to be situated in an area that crappies use. In Santee-Cooper, crappies go back to the same areas they use in spring as the water cools a little in October and November. I use the same brushpiles I use in March, April, and May, in water 10 to 22 feet deep. Actually, in a shallow reservoir like this, a brushpile in 13 to 16 feet of water is productive all year. But cool water can push the fish a little deeper than normal.
"In October, the biggest crappies generally inhabit 12- to 13-foot brushpiles in coves and backwater ponds, but they may move as shallow as 8 or 9 feet. With brushpiles at every conceivable depth, I might check those from 8 down to 20 feet every day in fall. It's good to have a lot of brushpiles to check, but spread them out. If you saturate one area with brush, you're just spreading the fish. In a really good cove, I might put out only 8 or 9 brushpiles. Any more than that and the fish scatter."
Pritchard uses small shiner minnows on Aberdeen hooks with a split shot. He and his clients present this rig with 8- to 10-foot fly-rods matched with small spinning reels. From a pontoon boat rigged with a trolling motor, he lines up, using permanent objects on shore to triangulate. Then he edges the boat right over the top of the pile, where everyone can reach out and dap jigs down through the branches. "Measure line by using the rod length and stripping line off in measured amounts," he advises. "Being exact about depth is critical. If you know how deep a crappie was when it bit, you can duplicate that depth the next time.
"Santee-Cooper doesn't drastically change overnight, but it fluctuates quite a bit from year to year. A change of 5 feet would be a drastic change from one year to the next, so placing brush ahead of time is easier. It's critical to have brush situated throughout the key depths crappies use, which, in fall, ranges from 8 to 20 feet. And I think this is crucial: Put brush where, no matter which way the wind blows, you have some that's protected."
The Tennessee File
Fishing guide and radio-show host Bobby Holmes has been guiding for crappies and bluegills since 1983 in Tennessee on shallow waters like Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot, and in deeper hill-land reservoirs like Percy Priest. When it comes to brushpiles, his degree in botany certainly can't hurt.
"I mostly use willow and river birch, which tend to create an 'infusion' earliest, meaning living things begin to invade or infest the wood quicker," Holmes says. "Peach or apple branches infuse quickly, too. Willow is best, but it's also the most delicate. With a willow brushpile, you tend to leave one third on the bank, one third in the boat and you might get one third in the water by the time you plant it. If you handle with care, you might get two thirds. I set two cinder blocks in the boat and lap, head to toe, two large willow limbs or whole saplings and wire them in place with electric fence wire.
"My brushpiles are 20 feet long, 4 feet wide, and average 4 feet tall. I use major limbs and tree trunks. Big brushpiles are easier for both crappies and anglers to find. As far as height goes, my rule of thumb is: In 20 feet of water, 6 feet wouldn't be too tall. In 6 feet of water, a height of 3 feet would be plenty. No sense letting everyone know where your pile is by having it show above the water. If it rises above the surface, give it a hair cut.
"Willow lasts 2 to 3 years and has holes you can get a jig through," he says. "With river birch, you have to cut strips through the middle of the pile so you can get your jig down through. Apple or peach tree trimmings can sweeten a brushpile. Find out when the local orchard owners prune. They're usually anxious to get rid of the brush.
"Add 5 or 6 nice brushpiles to a flat with no cover and, presto, you have crappies there. Around here, brushpiles should be in 12 feet of water in October and November. You need some idea about the fluctuations of the reservoir, and you need to know where the water level will be in fall. So if you drop them in spring, place them deeper. Around here I drop brush in 16 feet of water in spring, knowing that most years the water will drop four feet by October."
Holmes rarely places brushpiles in the same pattern twice. "Place a distinct pattern in each area you use, so when you make contact with one brushpile, bingo — you know how it's laid out. Hexagon, straight line, circle — doesn't matter, just know your own pattern so you know how to follow it. I like to space my brushpiles at least 40 to 50 feet apart. That way, if someone comes by and gets a fix on you with GPS, he gets only one fixed point. You're the only one who knows the pattern. Make the other ones hard to find. Use a notebook. Triangulate and make notes on your topo map, or just use GPS. Or put buoy makers on each pile, back away and take photos with a Polaroid camera, then staple them into your log book.
"No matter what type of water I fish in western Tennessee during fall, I want brushpiles on big flats next to river channels, on steep rough banks or long-tapering points, or on outside bends in the main river channel or main creek channel. In cut stumps, you only have to add brush in the backs of the creeks where natural cover has silted over. In lowland reservoirs like Ross Barnett or highland reservoirs like Percy Priest, find cover and you find fish. Where water is clear (water clarity has as much to do with it as anything), placement should be deeper. I want brush at 15 to 20 feet minimum on Percy Priest in October. The best action could be in 30 to 40 feet. In shallower, cloudier lowland reservoirs, brush should be 4 to 12 feet deep.
"If the water is discolored or we have cloud cover, I reach all around the brushpile with a 12-foot jigging pole. With a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig fished vertically on 4- to 6-pound line, I touch-lift and finesse that jig all around the brushpile. I use B&M poles and little Mitchell Spider Mite reels.
"For vertically fishing in deep water, I don't use a long pole. I don't tip with bait, either; I use dyed kip tails (calf tails), which have a lustrous effect in the water, or I tip with plastic tubes. Lacking wind and if the water's clear, I pitch jigs because the crappies get spooky. I use little fibergaurd jigs, and I trim the fibers. I use an 8-foot Classic, a spinning rod especially designed by B&M for vertical fishing. Best way to figure out depth is to use rod length for the first 8 feet, so you can always strip line off the reel in 2- or 3-foot lengths to figure out precisely how deep you're fishing. You want to know exactly where you are in terms of depth around a brushpile because biting crappies tend to be at the same level most of the time.
"I go over the top of the brushpile first and read it, so I know what depth to start. If I don't have to penetrate it, I don't. When crappies suspend over the brush, I note their depth and measure my line accordingly."
Holmes says to scatter brushpiles in slightly different depths so you're covered when water levels fluctuate. And place brushpiles so you always have a place to fish out of the wind. "Make sure a few are protected from the west, some from the north, and so on, so no matter which direction the wind blows, you'll have protected brushpiles," he says. Not that crappies won't be out there when the wind blows, but it's difficult to maintain position and vertically finesse jigs through brush in wind and waves.
"Dropping brushpiles teaches you more about a lake or reservoir than you otherwise could learn," he concludes. "While using good electronics in the search for existing brush or new drop sites, you're going to find old roadbeds, ditches with fence rows, stumps, channels, and other key elements that aren't on the map. Diligence never hurts."
Brushpile Placement For Big Crappies
Tennessee crappie guru Bobby Holmes has some definite ideas about bigger crappies relating to brushpiles. "For general fishing, brushpiles are like shotgun pellets," Holmes says. "The mo' brushpiles the mo' better. Bu, to attract giant crappies, scarce piles are better. The biggest fish concentrate better in brushpiles where cover is scarce.
"First, giant crappies in clear water use brush at least 12 feet deep in fall. And in clear water, big crappies tend to suspend over the brush more of the time. So if I place a brushpile in 12 feet of water, I want at least 8 feet of open water above for them to hover in.
"In clear water on deeper flats, situate brush in 12 to 20 feet on a flat with no other form of structure, cover, or sharp contours around it — no other attraction to draw crappies. With fewer options to choose from, the biggest fish will take command of the best cover available.
"In hill-land reservoirs, place brush in 12 to 30 feet of water on the outside bend of any creek or river channel in the general vicinity of the confluence, where the creek channel meets the river. Place one on top of the break, another about midway down, and another flat on the bottom at the base of the break on steeper outside bends. You don't want a lot of brushpiles. If you're looking for the biggest slabs in the lake come October-November, too many piles spreads them too thin.
"In lowland reservoirs, place brushpiles in 4 to 8 feet of water on shallow flats near small creeks or lateral ditches. The biggest crappies cruise these areas and, again, less is more. Situate no more than three brushpiles at least 50 feet apart across the flat. Another thing about big crappies in lowland reservoirs: In a silted-in bay, where contours are no longer sharp, the biggest crappies get right in that old creek bed, if they can find it. That's the place to drop brush for fall slabs."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota, and has been offering advice to In-Fisherman readers for more than two decades.