This may be the modern era of fishing, but our image of the crappie fisherman has changed little over the years. We still see him as a simple man sculling a johnboat with one hand, a cane pole in his other. A bucket of minnows rests at his feet. It is an image of a sport that seemingly has been bypassed by sophistication.
To many, crappie fishing will always be the humble sport of the masses. But that image does not ring true with a relatively new legion of crappie enthusiasts, those who have learned to combine the benefits of today's high-tech fishing tools with a scientific approach to locating and catching the species. It is an approach that had been missing in years past.
These are the fishermen who are ultra-serious about their sport. Guys who have practically transformed this unpretentious recreation into an art form and members of the new wave of anglers who are pioneering another level—advanced crappie fishing.
Not surprisingly, these anglers are among the most consistently successful of all fishermen, proving that crappie can be caught throughout the year and under a wide variety of weather and physical conditions. And they have developed skills and a philosophy that we all can learn from.
Catching Super-Deep Crappie
Marking deep-water lairs with a series of marker buoys helps pinpoint the channel swings and other deep structure that hold crappie by the hundreds.
Tommy Biffle has ventured where few crappie fishermen have ever gone before. In fact, he does it quite often. Biffle, a top tournament bass pro and crappie guide on Oklahoma's Fort Gibson and Tenkiller lakes, is a specialist at catching super-deep crappie, perhaps the last untapped resource of panfish.
"I really like fishing for those real deep crappie because not everybody can find them," says Biffle, who lives in Wagoner. "They go through life almost untouched.
"People don't realize how many deep-water crappie there are out there. We catch hundreds a day in the wintertime in those real deep places. Keeping the ice out of your guides is a bigger problem than catching crappie."
During the chilly months of December through February, a time when most crappie fishermen simply abandon the sport, Biffle is probing the edge of the old river channels in the Oklahoma reservoirs in search of crappie 35 to 45 feet deep. Using his electronic eyes, Biffle concentrates on standing timber or brush piles (particularly in the bends and turns) along the channel edge, where the fish seem to congregate during the coldest months of the year.
Many times, the crappie will be suspended in 60 to 70 feet of water, but hovering at a level of 25 to 40 feet. That situation puts the skills of the angler to a test, requiring almost pinpoint accuracy with lure presentation and constant surveillance of the chart-recorder or liquid crystal depth finder.
Using a brightly colored tube jig impaled on a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jig head on 4- to 6-pound test line, Biffle positions the lure by calculating its approximate rate of descent and counting as it falls. After locating the fish, Biffle claims that it is commonplace to limit out on that single school by returning the tube jig to the same level with each cast.
Most crappie enthusiasts find big fish like this only during the spawn, but with the right knowledge and tactics, summer and winter can yield more consistent action.
"This kind of fishing takes some real patience because it takes that light jig quite a while to get down there," Biffle adds. "With the vertical presentation, the crappie are more likely to hit it while it's falling or when it's being worked at their level. They will rarely go down to hit a bait.
"But these real deep crappie don't require the finesse that a lot of other fish do. We're talking about fish that have probably never seen a lure, other than during the spawn."
A Tight Line To Success
It seems like ages ago that Harold Morgan believed that crappie mysteriously disappeared after the spring spawn and would re-emerge in the fall. From June through late September, Morgan simply stowed away his light tackle and concentrated on other things. After all, summertime crappie fishing prospects promised little more than frustration. But then the Nashville angler made a discovery that changed his life as a crappie fisherman.
"One thing that people still don't understand is that you can catch crappie all year long," says Morgan, who has guided for crappie on Tennessee's Percy Priest Reservoir for the past 25 years. "Those fish don't leave the lake once the spring spawn is over.
"You can follow crappie throughout the other months of the year by concentrating on any drop-offs and ledges in a lake that offer a change of depth. These places are migratory routes as the fish go through their seasonal changes. It's actually quite easy to follow them."
Morgan made another discovery more than 17 years ago that enables him to consistently take advantage of the crappie he locates. Morgan is a devotee of the double-hook tight line technique, a specialized method that was born on Kentucky Lake and has bred success for an untold legion of crappie fishermen.
The tight line rig has been described as a poor man's depth finder because it allows the angler to maintain contact with the structure below. The rig consists of a 3-foot leader connected by a barrel swivel to the mainline and a pair of 2/0 hooks set 18 inches apart on separate 6-inch leaders. A 1-ounce bell-shaped sinker is tied about 18 inches below the bottom hook.
"The tight line rig is the most productive way I've found to catch fish," Morgan explains. "It is so effective for two reasons.
"First, that big sinker actually feels for you on the bottom, so you stay in the ballpark the entire time. Despite the sophisticated depth finders we have today, it's still a game of feeling the cover. And secondly, the tight line rig allows you to fish two different depths at the same time. By using two hooks at different levels at the same time, you're going to pinpoint the depth that the crappie are holding at during different times of the day."
Morgan uses both a small minnow and tiny plastic tube jig on the double-hook rig. An added advantage of the tight line rig is that the weight of the large sinker will usually free the hooks from brush or stumps.
With the exception of spring, when the crappie move shallow to spawn, the double-hook tight line rig is Harold Morgan's main weapon for following the seasonal pilgrimages of this vagabond species.
The Electronic Advantage
Bow-mounted electronics and electric motors help an angler make precise presentations to overlooked fish.
Mississippi's Columbus Lake, an impoundment of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, is emerging as one of the country's finest crappie factories with the potential to rival such famed waters as Kentucky and Weiss lakes. Its crappie population, which averages about three-quarters of a pound, is sizeable and 3-pounders are becoming almost commonplace.
Columbus Lake is home to Joe Wilson, who makes his living as a guide on its stained waters. Wilson is a different breed from most of those who ply these waters (and other reservoirs) in search of schools of crappie.
"Most of the crappie fishermen on this lake are shallow-water fishermen, but more and more people are learning to fish deep out of necessity," Wilson claims. "I grew up bass fishing and I quickly learned how well deep-water drop-offs hold bass. When I became interested in crappie fishing, I discovered that just about all fish enjoy this type of structure.
"More people would catch crappie year-round if they would learn this kind of fishing. I firmly believe that crappie are primarily deep-water creatures. If you're going to be successful, you have no choice but to learn to fish deep water."
For Wilson and others, learning to read electronic depth-finding equipment is the first step toward becoming a competent deep-water angler. The modern day advancements in marine electronics have unlocked secrets about the deep lairs where crappie ride out the winter and summer. Liquid crystal display units are so sophisticated these days that some will not only paint a vivid underwater portrait of the structure below the boat, but will even distinguish fish with a separate color. Not only will these units pinpoint fish, but also you can actually watch your lure as it approaches the suspended crappie.
The advantage of such tools is not lost on Wilson. He deciphers his depth finder the way most people read a road map. First, Wilson uses the sonar to help him outline a drop-off with brightly colored marker buoys. With his gaze fixed on the black-and-white pixels, he fishes directly over the wooden structure or school of crappie using an 8-foot graphite pole built specifically for this type of fishing (by B'n'M Poles of nearby West Point, Miss.).
"The depth finder is my eyes under water and that 8-foot pole allows me to fish within the cone angle of the depth finder," Wilson explains. "It is shorter than the pole that most crappie fishermen use. But a longer pole would put your bait outside of the cone angle, which defeats the purpose of using the depth finder for pinpoint fishing."
To fully exploit the advantages of what he calls pinpoint fishing, Wilson uses a unique rig that is similar in purpose to the tight line set-up so popular on Kentucky and Barkley lakes. It allows him to fish two different depths as well as maintain some contact with the structure.
Using 8-pound test line, Wilson ties a colorful jig about 18 inches above a 1/0 hook (which is used for a live minnow). Instead of using a large sinker to anchor the rig, he uses a bullet-shaped weight (similar to that used by bass fishermen), which is separated from the hook by a small red plastic bead.
And with the sonar readings as his guide, Wilson is able to fish the bait in places where crappie often go unnoticed.
Trolling with multiple rods, rigged with multiple jig weights and colors, is the fastest way to find fish, especially in unfamiliar waters.
Trolling A Path To Crappie
Mike Howard's career as a tournament crappie fisherman has lead him to water as diverse as the shallow, weedy lakes of Florida to the deep-water river and creek channels of Kentucky Lake. Typically with tournaments, the competitors have a limited amount of time to locate fish, which is similar to the plight faced by most weekend anglers as well. Howard's answer is trolling, a technique that helped him and partner David Stancil win a past U.S. Crappie Association Classic.
"The key to finding crappie throughout the year is to try to relate some type of structure to the proper depth during that time of the year," the Oxford, Ala., angler says. "The main way we locate crappie on any lake is through trolling. Trolling is simply a way of increasing your odds of both finding and then catching crappie."
Howard's boat is a crappie-fishing machine rigged for serious business. Using electronics that include a liquid crystal depth finder, temperature unit and trolling-speed gauge as their guides, Howard and Stancil man 14 graphite rods that stretch out from every direction. Using rods of various lengths, the pair can thoroughly cover a wide path through the water, while using different weights of lures to probe different depths. And they troll with 14 different colors or color combinations of plastic tube jigs. Their comprehensive system uses a trolling speed of between 1.2 and 1.5 mph, which they have found to be the best all-around pace for locating crappie. From experience, the pair has found that such speeds will make a tube jig on a 1/32-ounce jig head run 8 to 10 feet deep; a 1/16-ounce jig will be 12 to 15 feet deep; and a 1/8-ounce jig dives 16 to 20 feet.
"The idea behind trolling is that you put the odds in your favor much more than casting or vertically fishing," Howard says. "Not only can you cover a lot more water, but you have a much better chance of determining the exact depth of the fish on that particular day. And with using so many different colors, you have a much better chance of determining the most productive color for that day.
"We use everything available to us to increase our odds. That includes our electronics, which we use in several ways. The temperature gauge gives us an indication of the depth the crappie are likely to be holding at in that particular time of the year. The trolling-speed gauge keeps us working at the proper speed. And we use the graph (depth finder) to both work structure and mark schools of crappie."
More and more crappie devotees are discovering new clues for solving the often-mysterious panfish. A new breed of fisherman is tracking their whereabouts in the months before and after the spawn. These crappie connoisseurs have proven that the best fishing of the year can take place when other anglers have hung up their gear.