Easing silently up to flooded brush pile, we cast our jigs almost in unison, counted down three seconds, and turned our spinning reel handles.
First one, then the other rod bowed deep as my guide, Steve McAdams, and I connected on a double with fat Kentucky Lake crappies. Both fish topped the one-pound mark and were quickly stashed in the livewell before we renewed our casting efforts. Three casts later another chunky crappie grabbed Steve’s jig, then a fourth fish nailed mine.
When action grew slow at that brush pile, we revved up the outboard and shot down the finger arm of the lake to the next hotspot the guide had on our itinerary. Five crappies fell for the jigs there and we were well on our way to racking up the fixings for a delicious fish fry, with plenty of filets left over for the freezer.
If there’s anything more enticing for a spring angling foray than chasing spawning crappies, I don’t know what it is. It’s true, late winter and spring is a great period for many gamefish, including bass, walleyes, bluegills, catfish, trout and all the members of the pike family. But it’s hard to beat the fun and consistent action crappies can provide. They are particularly great fish for family outings since there are usually none of those long “dead” stretches with no action that youngsters find hard to take.
Whether you find mostly the speckled black species, the paler-hued whites, or both, they are intriguing to seek out as waters first start to warm up after the long, cold winter. The fish are full of spunk and the flesh is firm and delectable when broiled, deep-fried or lightly fried in lemon, garlic, and butter.
Where to fish? Take your pick. You can catch crappies in small ponds, natural lakes and big, deep-water impoundments like sprawling Kentucky Lake where Steve and I were fishing. Slow-flowing rivers can also hold good populations. Check with local fishing reports, game wardens, and your state fishery department for the best bets close to your home.
While the speckled black and white fish are usually very cooperative, sometimes they can prove a bit finicky. For those situations, it’s always wise to have a repertoire of several strategies you can use if your first approach doesn’t “pan” out. Here are three methods for catching crappies that have worked for me on Kentucky Lake and other outings from Texas to Montana, New York to Florida. Give them a try and I think one or two should help you strike pay dirt virtually any day on the water.
Deep Water Drift Fishing
In early spring, one of the top ways to catch crappies is drifting in deep water staging areas where the fish congregate before moving in tight to shore to spawn near docks, blowdowns, and submerged brush piles. Probe depths of 6 to 18 feet, with small jigs or minnows, hooked through the lips or the back when water temperatures are in the upper 40’s to low 50’s.
You can use a variety of rigs and tackle, but the tight-lining system with a bell sinker on the bottom and two jigs or minnows on droppers works especially well. Jigs can be marabou or soft plastic grub types in yellow, white, chartreuse, orange, and shad colors.
Concrete bridge pilings are good spots to try, as are sharp drop-offs, channel edges and the juncture where creek arms meet the main river.
If the wind is blowing lightly, try drift fishing to present a moving bait to the quarry. If it’s calm or too strong, use the electric motor to ease slowly along over likely areas. Once you hook a fish, keep probing that spot, since crappies will usually be tightly schooled at this time of year. You can try anchoring where you catch one, but sometimes it’s more productive to simply re-drift through the area repeatedly. Dropping out a marker buoy makes it easy to home in on the hot spot.
Casting the Shallows
When the sun warms the shallows into the mid to upper 50’s, crappies will head tight to shore to spawn. This is one of the most exciting times of year for crappie aficionados. The fish will be found around brush, docks, beaver huts, log jams, flooded timber and shallow bridge pilings in depths of 2-6 feet. The darker colored males are the first to move in, but within days the paler, egg-laden females follow them.
In clean lakes with limited cover, casting with spin tackle and jigs is a great way to find roving schools of fish. Use 4-8 pound line and 1/16 to 1/8 ounce marabou jigs or lead heads with a soft plastic dressing. Cast out, let the lure descend 3 to 6 feet, and then slowly reel back. Pause now and then to let the jig suddenly drop deeper. Often fish will nail the lure at this point as it flutters down like a wounded baitfish. If snags are prevalent, use jigs rigged weedless. That’s the technique we used to nail those jumbo crappies on the spring outing described earlier on Kentucky Lake.
The Long Rod Approach
Another option for catching shallow water crappies is to use a bobber or float and minnow rig, fished with a cane pole or fly rod. Use the long rod to flip the offering into pockets of open water amid the flooded brush and next to dock pilings. You can either use a small reel or simply tie the line to the end of the pole.
As a variation, you can use the same long fly rod or cane pole but attach a jig instead of a minnow. Skip the bobber and simply swim the jig in and around any brush or flooded trees you can find with the fly rod or cane pole. Don’t pump it. Simply move it slowly around the cover. This makes the jig look like a minnow gently finning its pectoral fins. When you feel a tap or sudden weight, simply tighten up. That will drive the hook home.
Crappies can be easy at times. But if your first approach doesn’t produce, try one of these three variations. Chances are good one of them will provide you with the main course for a delicious fish fry. And if you’re looking for a great destination for a spring angling adventure, don’t overlook Kentucky Lake. It’s within an easy day’s driving distance for millions of anglers in the Midwest and East.
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