Gerald Almy: Three tactics for spring crappies

Gerald Almy

Slipping silently up to flooded brush pile, we cast our jigs towards the cover, counted down three seconds and turned our spinning reel handles.

First one, then the other rod bowed deep as my friend and I connected on a double with fat crappies from southern Virginia’s Kerr Lake (also known as Buggs Island). Both fish topped the 1-pound mark and were quickly stashed in the livewell before we renewed our casting efforts. Three casts later another chunky crappie grabbed Mickey’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 spot on our itinerary. Three 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.

You can catch crappies in small ponds, natural lakes and big, deep-water impoundments. Slow-flowing rivers in the eastern part of the state can also hold good populations. Top waters in Virginia include Kerr, Gaston, Anna, Smith Mountain, Chickahominy, Occoquan, and Chesdin.

These fish are usually quite cooperative, but 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.

Deep water drift fishing

In late winter and 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. Probe depths of 6 to 18 feet, with small jigs or minnows 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. 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.

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, and flooded timber in depths of 2-6 feet.

In clean lakes with limited cover, casting with spin tackle and jigs is a great way to find roving schools. 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.

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. 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.

Crappies can be easy to catch at times. But if your first approach doesn’t produce, try one of these three variations. Chances are one of them will provide you with the main course for a delicious fish fry.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.