Its hard to believe that a guy who makes his living catching crappies would choose tubes, grubs and jigs over minnows. But Brad Roberts, who guides clients on one of the nations most famous crappie lakes, makes a pretty good case in favor of artificial baits.
The reason? In one word: colors. Minnows come in one flavor; tubes, grubs and a host of other artificial crappie lures come in a rainbow of colors and combinations. Thumb through any mail-order catalog and youll see a dozen brands, each with its own variation of a single shade. And when you throw in tri-colored tubes, bi-colored tubes and colored flakes added to the plastic, its no wonder so many dedicated crappie anglers agree with Roberts. The choices are virtually limitless.
But with so many options available, it can get downright confusing. Crappie are notoriously finicky, gobbling up anything that remotely resembles food one day and then turning up their noses at even the most tantalizing offering the next. Those wild mood swings can make or break a day on the water, but if you can unlock the right color combination, youll fill up a cooler faster than you can heat a skillet of oil.
Sometimes, it just doesnt seem to matter what you throw. Ive had plenty of days when my clients were throwing two distinctly different colors and they both caught plenty of fish, says Roberts, who guides on Oklahomas Lake Eufaula. On the other hand, there have been plenty of times when a subtle change in shade or color combinations made all the difference in the world. You cant discount color selection when it comes to crappie fishing.
Sometimes color selection is ridiculously easy; other times it takes several hours of trial and error.
The First Steps
Although Roberts can rattle off dozens of shades and color combinations that he uses to catch crappie, he follows a few basic rules when it comes to selecting a lure when he makes the first cast of the day. Its far from an exact science, he admits, and just when he thinks hes got the fish figured out, theyll do the exact opposite of what he expects them to.
One thing you cant always count on is that the fish will want the same color that you caught them on yesterday. I learned long ago that you cant predict what these fish will do, no matter how good you think you are, he says.
Most crappie anglersand bass anglersfollow a few basic rules for selecting colors based on the intensity of the sun. The old adage Bright days, bright lures, dark days, dark lures just doesnt hold true for Roberts. In fact, he does just the opposite, using blacks, browns and other subdued hues in clear water or when the sun is bright. The veteran guide can only speculate why that is, but he suggests that darker lures look more like some sort of bug that the fish cant resist.
One rule that he does adhere to is that flashy colors such as chartreuse, yellow and orange tend to catch more fish in stained water. However, Roberts will often use some sort of bi-colored lure such as a black and chartreuse or blue and white, essentially anything that offers a glaring contrast on a single lure. He also likes baits that have glitter in them. That metal flake in the body of the lure gives off a little extra flash and sometimes thats what it takes to tempt fickle crappie.
Sunlight and water clarity are two important factors in the color equation. On sunny days, shaded water under docks may require a different color than is used on the rest of the lake.
If the water is muddy, Ill switch to solid dark colors. Blacks and dark browns stand out in the muddiest water, he says.
Roberts boat is loaded with boxes and bags of crappie tubes and grubs, but he separates each into groups based on their color range. One box holds light lures such as yellow, white, chartreuse and orange, a second holds medium-colored lures such as pink, green and red, and a third box is reserved for the darkest colorsblack, brown and dark green, among others. Usually, he only has to try a lure from one of those three boxes to catch fish.
A lot of times, the basic shade is what triggers crappie to strike. They either want bright lures, dark lures or medium ones. Once I start catching fish on one of the three basic shades, then Ill experiment and try various combinations until I hit the exact color for the day, he says.
Try and Try Again
Lake Anna, Virginia, guide Wayne Olsen is quick to point out that bass anglershe also guides for largemouthshave to spend some time deciphering the feeding activity of their quarry, as well. Crappie anglers not only have to hunt for the fish, they have to figure out exactly what is going to make them strike. That boils down to spending time casting various lures to a variety of locations before you figure out what works best.
The guys who spider-rig can try eight or ten different color combinations at one time. Theyll put a different bait or color on each rod they have out. I just dont fish that way. I usually use one rod at a time, so it takes me a little longer to hit on the best color for a particular day, he explains.
When hes guiding two anglers, hell rig each one with a different color.
If Roberts is convinced his clients have put their lures in front of crappie but havent had the first bite, or even if they have caught fish on a particular color, hell give each color choice only a matter of 20 minutes before he switches colors. When he does change, he often wont make a drastic change, particularly if the initial color choice produced a few bites.
Ill make a slight change, say from a white to a pink and white, if I caught a few fish. There have been many cases where a very small change made a huge difference, he says.
Cant Go Wrong Colors
Something about the color chartreuse makes it the first choice of many expert crappie anglers.
Confused? Dont worry; youre not alone. The dizzying array of possibilities can indeed leave even the best anglers unsure of where to start. Thats why its always a good idea to begin with the lures that you have the most confidence in. For Olsen, that color is chartreuse.
Even though it resembles nothing in nature and theres no reasonable explanation why so many different types of fish are attracted to that gaudy mix of green and yellow, experience has taught the veteran guide that chartreuse is a good all-purpose color. In fact, he sums up his favorite soft plastic crappie color in a single phrase: If it aint chartreuse, it aint no use. Olsen uses solid chartreuse tubes and grubs in clear water, stained water and even muddy water.
I find that I fish chartreuse and another color, cream with silver flakes, more than any other and I know that nine times out of ten, Im going to catch crappie on either of those two colors in a variety of water and weather conditions, he says.
He admits that he catches more fish on those colors simply because he uses them more than anything else. Olsen does have other colors he uses including black and chartreuse and solid white, but he rarely digs deep into his crappie box to find other hues. Roberts also has a few go-to colors and combinations. He likes black and chartreuse tubes, and he also uses solid pink, white and red regularly.
If you believe a specific color or combination of colors will catch crappie, then youll probably fish harder and pay more attention to what you are doing. There really is no science to selecting the right color for a specific day or a certain set of conditions. Lots of colors will catch fish when others wont. You just have to keep trying until you hit the right one, he explains.
Don't be afraid to switch to another color, even if one has paid off earlier in the day. Revisiting the school with a different shade can tempt the more finicky fish. (Photo by Walt Tegtmeier)
Once you do start catching fish, there are still no guarantees that the pattern will hold up throughout the day. Olsen recalls numerous days where he caught good numbers of crappie on his stand-by colors, only to have the fish shut off. When that happens, he changes to another hue, or hell leave and look for other fish and then come back to that spot in an hour.
Sometimes, the fish either get spooked or they just change their moods and theyll stop taking the lure youve been catching them on. Ive found that if I leave them and come back later, I can start catching them again on the colors that I caught them on earlier in the day, he says.
Roberts agrees and says that hell keep five or six rods rigged with different colors and hell try each one as the conditions or the fish change. For instance, if hes catching crappie around a dock, hell switch to a different color if he moves to the shaded side of the wooden structure. That can make a huge difference. He also switches colors if he stops catching crappie from a particular brush pile or tree.
Still confused? Thats okay. So are scores of other crappie anglers, good ones, and they still manage to sort through the vast array of tube and jig colors and catch plenty of fish. Take lots of colors and keep an open mind. Use every one of them and whittle your selection down to a few favorites. Put them in front of a crappie and theres a good chance hell eat it. And if that fails, tip your lure with a minnow.