When I was a youngster learning to fish crappies, my uncles taught me that versatility brings success. If jigs worked, we stuck with them. But if they didn’t, it was time for another come-on. Sometimes spinners did the trick. Other times, it was jigging spoons around timber. If that didn’t work, we’d cast crankbaits.
And so, I was corrupted into crappie fishing lipless rattlebaits, spoons and spinners, and learned they can nail slabs more often than the minnows and jigs most anglers lean on, especially in winter.
Cold-water crappies haunt deeper water where light penetration is minimal. As a result, they depend more on hearing and the lateral line to pinpoint prey, so raucous lures that rattle, vibrate, shimmy and shake stimulate those senses and catch more fish. I’ve been fortunate to have dialed in some of the top brash baits and the best ways to fish them when the water’s icy.
Lipless crankbaits like Cordell’s Spot Minnow and Bill Lewis Lures’ Rat-L-Trap are seldom used by slab hunters, but they’re proven killers. Their rattle, head-down posture and convulsive shimmy make them great winter crappie
locators. The narrow body has little resistance to wind or water, so you can cast long distances and retrieve rapidly, combing broad areas to find active biters. A steady retrieve with occasional pauses optimizes the lure’s acoustical attraction and allows fast coverage of large areas. Each time you yank the lure upward, it wiggles rapidly, and the long-distance sound transmission attracts nearby crappies like a bell announcing lunchtime at a school cafeteria.
The problem is that winter crappies rarely strike fast-moving lures. Slow your presentation way down by fishing the lures as jigs or by Carolina rigging them (see sidebar).
Smaller rattlebaits—1 to 21/2 inches long, 1/10- to 1/2-ounce—usually work best because they’re the size of the baitfish crappies usually eat. However, don’t be afraid to go big. Slabs will hit bass-sized models 1 ounce and bigger.
For peak action, always attach rattlebaits with a loop knot or small split ring, never with a snap swivel or heavy leader.
Use a sensitive rod to detect changes in vibration that signal a strike or indicate the plug is fouled. Rods also should be stiff enough to activate the lure with the least amount of rod movement. A 6-foot, fast-action, lightweight graphite spinning stick works best.
Like rattlebaits, jigging spoons hardly get a second glance from most crappie nuts. Nevertheless, they’re great for catching deep winter slabs and often produce when more conventional baits fail. Top models include Cotton Cordell’s Little Mickey and the Hopkins Shorty.
Because crappies instinctively attack dying baitfish such as winter-stressed shad, these injured-prey mimics are hard to resist. Stick to smaller spoons, 1/8 to 1/4 ounce.
Position the boat over target structure, then lower the lure to the bottom. Reel up the slack, sweep the rodtip upward one to three feet and then slowly drop the tip, letting the lure freefall. Maneuver the boat along the structure, jigging the spoon this way until you’ve covered the prime real estate.
Most strikes come as the spoon falls—they feel like faint taps or heaviness. Braids or other low-stretch line on a stiff, fast-action rod works best—a limber rod decreases sensitivity and makes strike detection and hooksetting more difficult in the depths.
If you are fishing deep water and have a hard time setting hooks, remove the factory treble hook and replace it with a single hook to provide better penetration. Use sharp, thin-wire bronze hooks that straighten easily when snagged.
Crappie spinners come in three basic types—safety-pin, horse-head and in-line—all of which are deadly on cold-blooded slabs.
My favorite is the safety-pin spinner, such as the venerable Johnson Beetle Spin. These miniature spinnerbaits are excellent for finding scattered fish in unfamiliar cover.
Fancast the bait, placing each cast just a few feet from the last, until you’ve covered everything in a semicircle in front of you. As you retrieve, work the lure over, through and beside woody cover.
When fishing horse-head spinners like the Blakemore Road Runner, use a varied retrieve—fast, slow, smooth or jerky. Let the lure occasionally fall to bottom and then rip it upward. These shenanigans usually are more than crappies can resist, and the flash of the little spinner whirling just ahead of the tail entices strikes from even the most persnickety winter fish.
For in-lines like the Mepps Aglia, Panther Martin Spinner, Worden’s Rooster Tail and Luhr Jensen Shyster, concentrate on open-water structure— bridge pilings, riprap, docks, points, humps and cover edges. Work the bait beside thickets, fish attractors, weed-beds and other hideouts, avoiding the tangles within.
In-lines are also great for trolling. Cast the lure 50 to 75 feet behind the boat, engage your reel and drift slowly with a breeze, or use your electric motor to keep you moving ahead at a crawl, just fast enough to keep the spinner blade turning.
Adjust your letback to place your spinners at or just slightly above the crappies’ level. Few tactics work better on slabs suspended over inundated creek and river channels.
When it comes to selecting crappie presentations, many anglers are like the smokers in old Tareyton cigarette ads: They’d rather fight than switch. For these loyalists, it must be jigs or minnows or nothing.
If you’re like me, however, you’ll enjoy the exciting change of pace rattlebaits, spoons and spinners add to the crappie buffet. But chances are you’ll appreciate the fish these aggressive presentations unlock this winter much more!