One of the hardest things Shenandoah Valley anglers face as winter starts to loosen its grip on the land is what species to go after. February through April is a prime time for many gamefish, from bass to bluegills, catfish to trout. One of my favorite quarries, though, for late winter and early spring outings is the crappie.
It's no wonder that crappies are among the country's most popular gamefish. Whether you find mostly the black species, the paler-hued, silvery whites, or a mixture of the two, 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 fight now, and the flesh is firm and delectable when broiled, deep-fried or lightly sautéed in lemon and butter.
You can catch crappies in small ponds, natural lakes and big, deep-water impoundments. Slow-flowing rivers may also hold good populations, such as the lower Potomac, Rappahannock and James. Top crappie lakes within a day's drive of the Valley include Anna, Kerr, Gaston, Chesdin, Smith Mountain, Brittle, Manassas and Occoquan.
For the next few weeks the best way to catch crappies will be drifting in deep water staging areas where the fish congregate before moving in tight to shore to spawn near docks, blow-downs and submerged brush piles. Work depths of 6-to-18 feet, with minnows hooked through the lips or back or jigs suspended 4-to-12 feet deep when water temperatures are in the 40's or low 50's. 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 white, yellow, chartreuse and shad colors.
Bridge pilings are good spots to try, as are drop-offs, channel edges and the juncture where creek arms meet the main river.
Try drifting if the wind is blowing at a light to moderate pace. 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 area, 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.
As the sun bakes the shallows, warming the water into the mid to upper 50's, crappies will move tight to shore to spawn. Now the real fun begins. The fish will be found around docks, beaver huts, log jams, flooded trees and brush piles in depths of two-to-six feet. Darker colored males move in first, but within days the paler, egg-laden females follow.
In clean lakes with limited cover, casting with spin tackle and jigs is a great way to find roving schools of fish. Use four-to-six pound line and l/16-to-1/8 ounce marabou jigs or lead heads with soft plastic dressings. Cast out, let the lure descend three-to-six 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.
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.
A final tactic calls for using the same rig but with a jig instead of a minnow. Skip the bobber and simply swim the jig in and around any brush or cover you can find with the fly rod or cane pole. Don't pump it. Simply move it slowly around the cover. When you feel a tap or sudden weight on the line, set the hook.
Not every piece of cover will have crappies holding next to it. But enough will that in a morning's effort you should at least have plenty of fish to fillet and prepare for a delicious dinner--the ultimate reward for a spring day spent searching for this intriguing black and white speckled quarry.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.