Crappies rank high on the must-fish list among NAFC members, and fortunately, they’re common across much of the continent. But even on top waters, broad-shouldered slabs spanning 14 inches or longer and topping 11/2 pounds can be hard to come by, especially consistently.
And that’s when you know the lake.
Not so for Club member and crappie fanatic Todd Huckabee. A professional guide and successful competitor on a number of crappie circuits, the 31-year-old Oklahoma City native has figured out what it takes to catch the biggest crappies in a variety of systems, ranging from his home waters of Eufaula Lake, Oklahoma, to storied slab factories in Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Fact is, his techniques work wonders on a variety of impoundments nationwide.
As you might expect, the right lures and locations are key to Huckabee’s attack, and we’ll get to them in a minute. But the secret to his success starts with the right mindset, and that means thinking like a bass angler. In other words, rather than fishing the community brush piles and other crappie spots loaded with smaller fish, plan to target isolated cover and structure.
“If you’re after big crappies, don’t fish the small-fish spots,” he says in a soft, Sooner drawl. “You might catch a decent-size fish once in awhile, but it will be the exception rather than the rule. Big crappies don’t like to compete with schools of smaller fish, so they find other places to ambush prey.”
Often, he finds these high-percentage ambush points around timber far from the main-lake masses. “Look for woody cover as far away from the dam as you can get,” he explains. “Get way back in the feeder creeks; a lot of times you have to go farther in than you’d think.”
Back in the relative sanctuary of a creek arm, crappies have less competition from other predators in their pursuit of shad and other baitfish, Huckabee says.
“White bass, catfish and gar are common in the main channel, but other than a few largemouth bass, crappies don’t have as much competition in the backs of feeder creeks,” he says.
Slightly stained water—whether from inflowing sediments, algae or other factors—is a big plus. “There should be some color to the water,” he says. “It makes the crappies feel comfortable up in the shallow woody cover.”
When Huckabee finds a likely creek arm, he looks for timber. This includes trees that have fallen into the water, as well as standing pole timber and stumps in two to eight feet of water, and flooded brush piles. Stickups and downed trees are easy to spot, while submerged stumps and brush may take sonar or casting to locate.
“There’s no hard and fast rule in determining which type of wood will hold fish on a given day,” he notes. “Crappies move from one to the other following shad. That’s the real key, finding where the bait is.”
Time of day isn’t a huge factor. “It has more to do with the fishes’ mood,” says Huckabee. “Everybody talks about the fish wanting shade during the day. That may be true when the fish are resting, but hungry, active fish will be out in the sun, looking for shad. In fact, I’ve had some of my best fishing at midday.”
Pitching is his presentation of choice for busting bass-pattern slabs. Armed with one of the 10-foot Dippin’ Stiks he helped Quantum design, he pitches a 3/16-ounce jig tipped with plastic beyond likely looking wood and swims it past.
“I’m not casting,” he maintains. “With a 10-foot rod and 12 feet of 8-pound line out, I can cover a pretty good area with precision. I pitch the jig out, let it fall to the depth I want to fish, then swim it back to the boat.”
Experimenting with depth is critical. Though crappies will hold at different depths under different conditions, most fish in a school will typically suspend at the same depth at any given time. “If you catch one crappie at a certain depth, that’s where the rest will be,” he says.
Obviously, it pays to keep track of how long you let the jig sink, so you can count it down to the right level. Many anglers do this, but forget the other half of the depth equation. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is not watching how far they pitch their jigs past cover. It’s a key point, because the farther you pitch beyond a piece of wood, the deeper the jig will swim past it.
“For example, say crappies are on stumps that are visible above the water. If I get bit on a retrieve that I pitched three feet past a stump, then all my pitches should target that distance.
The reason ties back to depth control. If a jig lands three feet past a stump, it will swing down past the wood at a certain depth. You won’t achieve it again if, on the next cast, you pitch closer or farther.
“Crappies won’t swim down to take a jig, and they might ignore a bait that runs too shallow,” Huckabee says. “Either way, you’re not going to catch those fish.”
His jig combo of choice is a 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail body on a 3/16-ounce Crappie Pro jig head. “The Wooly Beavertail’s oversize tail and ribs produce vibration and water displacement that gets crappies’ attention, and the thick head makes for easy rigging,” he explains.
Top patterns include the Carolina Pumpkin Chartreuse and Pearl Silver Flake Chartreuse, but Black Pink is his undisputed favorite. In fact, Yum media relations master and longtime NAFC ally Jeff Samsel says that Huckabee is such a Beavertail fan, the company created the black-and-pink pattern at his request.
“The Black Pink Wooly Beavertail is one of the best-kept secrets in crappie fishing,” Huckabee adds. “It’s definitely my go-to bait.” When using a black-and-pink body, he favors a chartreuse jig head; other color schemes dictate a flame-red leadhead.
The swimming action he imparts is by and large a steady motion at a constant depth. The body’s fluttering tail and ribbed mid-section create enough commotion. “Pitch it around the laydowns, stickups, stumps and brush, looking for active fish just like you would for bass,” he advises.
Jigs are his weapon of choice, but there are times when crappies ignore leadheads. “When the fish are inactive and won’t bite a jig, I switch to casting small spinnerbaits and cranks, in hopes of triggering reaction strikes,” he says. “I cast around the cover and bump the lure into the wood, trying to attract any fish in the area.”
In spinnerbaits, he recommends the 3/16-ounce Booyah Pond Magic, in solid chartreuse Firefly or solid-black Craw. His crank boxes are well stocked with shallow-diving Fat Free Shallow, in Bomber’s Citruse and Fire Tiger patterns. When casting blades and cranks, he opts for a 7-foot, medium-heavy casting outfit spooled with 10-pound Silver Thread AN40.
Like the rest of Huckabee’s bass-pattern crappie program, tough-bite casting requires the gumption to stay on the hunt for the biggest slabs in the lake. If you can stay on course, while resisting the temptation of community brush, you’re on the road to catching crappies other anglers only dream about.