April 15, 2014
Missouri's Stockton Lake has water clear enough for anglers to resort to light line and light tackle to catch crappies, but the reservoir's abundant woody snags cause many to stick with the heavy stuff.
So I was surprised when I fished for the first time with Rick Flint and discovered he exclusively uses ultralight tackle and 2-pound Maxima monofilament for catching crappies from Stockton's standing timber. "The light line allows a jig to sink naturally. I can use a 1/32-ounce jig and it doesn't affect the way it falls," Flint says. "I get more bites on light line." Lighter line also allows his jigs to fall faster when he's fishing timber as deep as 35 feet.
The Missouri angler probes through timber without any qualms about the thin line attached to his 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig. "I stay back and pitch out and let the jig swing back through the timber," he says. "If I don't get a bite on the swing, I open the bail and let the jig drop. You have to constantly watch your line. If you're fishing in timber 10 feet deep and your line indicates that jig has stopped at 6 or 8 feet, then a crappie probably has it."
After applying his pitch-and-drift presentation to both sides of a tree, he moves closer to the target and positions his rod tip next to the trunk. He opens the bail and lets the jig free-fall down the trunk through the gnarly branches.
"The important thing is once you hook a fish, you have to keep it coming up," Flint says. "If you have the right rod, you can pull fairly hard with 2-pound-test before the line breaks. As long as the fish doesn't make a horizontal run into the branches, chances are good that it won't break your line."
He believes rod selection is critical to fishing light line in timber. He opts for a 61„2-foot G. Loomis ultralight model with a fast tip. "It acts like a flyrod," he says. "The rod plays the fish the same as a flyrod does."
Setting the drag properly on his Shimano Sienna 500 reel also is critical. "When you pull line out you don't want it at the breaking point, so back the drag off a bit. You also don't want it twisting the line, which occurs when the drag releases line while you're reeling."
"Downsizing line is one of the best strategies for catching light-biting crappies that are in a negative mood, whether it's from cold-front conditions, super-bright skies, rising water, or any challenging conditions," says Kent Driscoll, a tournament veteran from Georgia. "Sensitivity increases dramatically. You can feel when a crappie sucks in your bait, especially when the fish barely moves with the bait in its mouth."
The lightest line he uses is 4-pound test Vicious monofilament. He pairs it with 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigheads and a Southern Pro Stinger, Southern Pro 11„2-inch tube, or Lake Fork Tackle Baby Shad, for fishing on Grenada, Arkabutla, and Sardis lakes in Mississippi. "It's not uncommon to catch 13„4- to 21„2-pound crappies there," he says.
The right tackle combination helps you lead big crappies out of timber tangles. "You need to match the line with an ultra-sensitive lightweight rod," he says. "It doesn't do any good to put light line on a heavy-duty rod like a B'n'M BrushCutter or other super-stiff pole.
"Typically, I like to match light line with a B'n'M Buck's Best Ultralite Pole. It's a super-sensitive jig pole, the lightest on the market. It also features their "touch system," where a notch cut out of the foam handle 6 to 8 inches above the reel exposes the blank for increased feel."
To maximize sensitivity, he places his index finger on the touch system's exposed blank, then runs the line from the reel over his pinky and under his ring finger. "I don't see the tip move. I can feel the bite through my line or rod blank," he says.
When a heavyweight crappie bites, Driscoll avoids horsing it out of cover. "As long as you have your drag set lightly and can feed line and use a dip net, you're typically fine," he says. "I often let a fish strip 6 to 10 feet of line and play it out. Then I slowly bring the fish back to me."
During a Crappiemasters Ultimate Challenge two-day tournament at Lake Conway in Arkansas, where anglers were limited to single-pole fishing with artificial lures, Travis and Charles Bunting encountered difficult fishing as a cold front moved in and made crappies finicky. With no fish in the livewell halfway through the first day, they scaled down to 4-pound fluorocarbon and lighter poles to probe the root systems of cypress trees.
"It allowed us to get smaller baits down faster and gave us better feel," Travis says. The father-and-son team finished fifth by dipping 11„2-inch Southern Pro tubes on 1/32-ounce jigheads into the roots to trick inactive crappies into biting. They matched their line with 12-foot B'n'M Buck's Best Ultralite poles.
When they got a bite, they carefully worked crappies out of the woodcover. "We had to 'sling' fish to get them away from the timber," Travis says. The light line prevented them from swinging fish into the boat, so they used a net to scoop crappies led into open water.
Probing deep timber
When crappies suspend in pole timber 25 to 45 feet deep in winter on Bull Shoals Lake, Frank Saksa uses 3-pound-test Maxima Fluorocarbon to deliver 1/16-ounce jigs to them. He favors 3-pound test for its small diameter, allowing jigs to fall quickly to the timber. Yet it also has strength to pull fish from deep cover. He also can get a faster drop on light jigs since fluorocarbon sinks faster than monofilament.
Saksa uses his electronics to pinpoint the tops of the pole timber, well below the surface. The potential for snagging is greater since the cover is out of sight. "You lose a few jigs until you determine your drop rate, where the trees are, and where you're going to contact the fish," he says.
The Arkansas angler uses a 6½-foot medium-light rod with a soft tip. He favors a longer rod for better casting distance when he finds crappies suspended less than 25 feet deep in the water column. He switches to vertical jigging in the timber when the fish are more than 30 feet deep.
For the deepest fish, he locates timber on sonar and positions his boat over the top of the cover so he can jig slightly above the wood or alongside a tree. Using a weedless jighead or slider head prevents snagging when he searches through the trees. "Once I get my count-down established and I find fish, I go to a plain jighead," he says.
Since some of his clients have trouble feeling a bite with jigs, Saksa sets them up with a light-line slipbobber rig with a minnow. The slipbobber allows them to drop minnows as deep as 25 to 30 feet and keep their bait at the same depth as the suspending crappies. The small diameter of 3-pound test and the low visibility of fluorocarbon make the line nearly invisible in the clear waters of Bull Shoals.
This lake contains crappies in the 2-pound class, along with walleyes and stripers that may also bite jigs, so he sets the hook with a snap of the wrist rather than jerking the rod hard to avoid breaking the skinny line. The light, long rod absorbs some of the shock of the hook-set, and he adjusts the drag so line slips off the reel on the wrist-snap.
If the bite seems to be off in heavy woodcover, go to light line and tackle to trigger more strikes. Then use a light touch to steer the crappies out of the wood.
Sunshine State crappie fans have no shortage of choices when it comes to slab-producing fishing holes. The short list of hotspots includes the St. Johns River, Harris Chain, lakes Harney, Kississimmee, Monroe, Rodman, Talquin, Toho, and Orange, but you could spend a lifetime exploring all the options. Contacts: Guide Steve Niemoeller (St. Johns), 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com
; Guide Mike Baker (Orange Lake) 352/625-1180, thecrappiefisherman.com
; Florida FWC, myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecast/crappie
The Land of Lincoln is also home to stellar crappie fishing, with lakes such as Kinkaid, Rend, and Shelbyville routinely ranking high among the country's finest fisheries. But what finally pushed it onto our list were two straight 17-inch-plus entries in the Master Angler Awards Program. In fact, the state topped Region 1 and national entries in 2011 and 2012 with 17½- and 17-inch giants. The largest of those fish was from Crystal Lake, the other from a farm pond. Contacts: Guide Clint Taylor (Rend Lake), 618/731-0323, crappieextreme.com
; Guide Steve Welch (Shelbyville), 217/762-7257, lakeshelbyvilleguide.com
Our selection of the Hawkeye State might surprise a few anglers, but In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards don't lie. Already in 2013, the state broke the 17-inch barrier with a gravel pit slab landed by Austin Hronich of West Des Moines, and since 2010 it has produced at least one award winner topping 16 inches each season, and twice has seen multiple 16-inchers recognized. Almost invariably, these fish are credited to a 'farm pond ' or 'pit, ' highlighting the potential of the state's small waters. However, a number of natural and manmade lakes offer excellent opportunities, as do oxbows and backwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Contacts:
Iowa Department of Natural Resources, iowadnr.gov; Guide Kevan Paul (Clear Lake, Storm Lake, Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji), 641/529-2359, paulsfishingguide.com
Don't let the world-class bass fishing fool you, the Lone Star State is a stellar destination for oversize crappies as well. Phenomenal Lake Fork is a prime example. Numbers of slabs topping 2 pounds are possible in a variety of seasons and settings, from the early summer brushpile bite to the late-season deep-water blitz near the dam. Other top options include Cedar Creek, Choke Canyon, the Concho River, Falcon, Lake O' the Pines, O.H. Ivie, Richland Chambers, and the border waters of Toledo Bend — just to name a few. Contacts: Guide Ivan Martin (Lake Fork), 918/260-7743; Guide Terri Moon (Lake Fork), 903/383-7773; Texas Parks and Wildlife, 800/792-1112, tpwd.state.tx.us
Home to the unrivaled 'Arc of Slabs, ' which includes the hallowed waters of Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada, and Sardis, the Magnolia State could easily argue for top honors on the list. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet do anglers have a better shot at catching big white crappies, including giants topping 3 pounds. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange notes the fishing is good year-round, but peak fishing starts in mid- to late March for prespawn giants. Contacts: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
Upper Red Lake's fishery may be a shadow of its former self, but other big waters including Mille Lacs and Rainy lakes, along with the St. Louis and Mississippi rivers, to name a few, more than take up the slack. Plus, countless smaller natural lakes across the state offer solid chances for 1½- to 2-pound-plus fish for anglers willing to tap systems with healthy numbers of older year classes, and avoid the crowds when possible. Need proof? Troy Smutka's Lake Waconia 16½-incher (pictured) was the second-largest crappie entry among all 2012 Master Angler entries. Contacts: Guide Dick 'The Griz ' Grzywinski, 651/771-6231, fishwiththegriz.com
; Guide Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375, jeffsundin.com
In-Fisherman friend and crappie guru Todd Huckabee's home lake — Eufaula — is among the best on the planet for slabs topping 2 and even 3 pounds. But the lake's shallow, muddy, fertile waters are only part of the reason the Sooner State claimed a spot on our list. Fort Gibson is another, given its ability to kick out 2-pound-plus white crappies, especially when riding a year-class boom. Grand, Kaw, and Oologah are standouts, too. Contacts: (Eufaula) Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528; Larry's Bait and Tackle (Fort Gibson), 918/478-3225; Guide Rocky Thomas, Jr. (Grand, Oologah) 918/837-0490, thomasguideservice.com
As a bonus to readers and in hopes of preventing a border battle over the fabled 'Crappie Capital ' of Kentucky Lake, I lumped these two states together for this entry. Both are worthy of top 10 status in their own rights, but together the options are nothing short of phenomenal. Besides Kentucky Lake, which is primed to produce big catches of quality-sized fish, including slabs topping 2 pounds, Tennessee offers the stump-laden fishery of legendary Reelfoot Lake, plus Pickwick, Chickamauga, Douglas, and numerous other gems. Kentucky's assets include Cumberland and Green River Lake. Did I mention that the states also share Barkley? Crappie fans could do far worse than plan a trip tag-teaming these two states' fine fisheries. Contacts: (Kentucky Lake) Guide Randy Kuhens, 270/703-6133, kicknbass.net; Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
Like Kentucky and Tennessee, these two states share one of the world's top crappie lakes. In this case, it's Kerr Lake, also affectionately known as Buggs Island. This border treasure offers amazing numbers of fish to 1¾ pounds, along with an honest shot at 2- and 3-pound trophies. Other Virginia standouts include Anna and Briery Creek, while North Carolina highlights include Falls of Neuse, High Rock, and Jordan, among other fine waters. Contacts: (Kerr Lake) Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381; Guide Jerry Neely (High Rock), 704/678-1043.