A Norman Rockwell portrait of crappie fishing would probably depict a scene on a still-water lake or reservoir. But a growing segment of anglers has discovered that to find abundant slabs, you have to go with the flow.
Contrary to popular wisdom, crappies are attracted to current and sometimes relate to the most turbulent waters. The flow provides oxygen, concentrates baitfish in places they can be easily ambushed, and in the right structural conditions, offers a range of depths that lets crappies quickly adjust to barometric pressure and other weather changes.
“There’s nothing like catching crappies in rivers or other moving water,” says Bill Dance, NAFC Fishing Advisory Council member, angling legend and a crappie fanatic who regularly fishes the Mississippi River near his Memphis home. “There is nothing static about it.”
Gimme A Break
The key to catching crappies in moving water involves targeting current breaks. As the name implies, a current break interrupts the flow and allows a calm eddy pocket to form behind it. The most common eddies in which you’ll find slabs include bridge pilings, wing dams, river barges, points, riffles and shoals, rock piles, trees, brush, submerged vegetation, stumps and docks.
“Any time the current strikes something, it changes two things: direction and speed,” Dance explains. “Crappies seek shelter from the faster water but maintain a position where they can feed easily.”
These calm areas provide refuge from the heaviest flow as well as offer crappies a prime feeding station—slabs position themselves so they can dart out into the flow and assault a minnow.
To take advantage of this predictable positioning, you must cast upstream and allow the bait to drift along the edge or into the eddy. “Crappies will always face into the current,” says Dance. “Knowing this, you can put a lure right in front of the fish’s face.”
The intersection of a ditch or creek entering a river channel also creates eddy pockets. Foam, leaves and other debris often collect in these calm sanctuaries, providing a visual clue to their locations.
Timing And Tactics
Although crappies are attracted to flowing water throughout most of the year, they tend to congregate most in those areas during the pre- and postspawn, as well as during summer. Winter is the worst time to fish current because crappies, like bass, avoid fast-water areas during the coldest months.
Warm-water discharges from power plants can provide the hottest action on cold early-spring days, as prespawn crappies pile up around small peninsulas of land, rocks or fallen trees that interrupt the tepid flow. A good example is a warm-water tributary that feeds the famed crappie waters of Weiss Lake in Alabama. In late February and March, it is the site of furious fishing for anglers using slip floats and bright-colored jigs, according to crappie expert and longtime NAFC confidant Sam Heaton.
The most common tactic for catching crappies in moving water involves fishing vertically with a live minnow or small, hollow-bodied plastic tube. Other productive lures include tiny plastic grubs teamed with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce leadhead, flashy marabou jigs, small spinnerbaits such as the 1/8-ounce Beetle Spin, and crankbaits like Rebel’s Teeny Wee-Crawfish and Crick-hopper. Of course, specific situations call for specialized techniques.
Bridge piling crappies: Throughout the year, bridge pilings attract schools of river and creek crappies. The fish will usually be positioned close to the pilings at various depths (depending on the season and weather conditions).
Renowned Tennessee crappie guide Steve McCadams anchors his boat downstream from the pilings and then casts upstream, maneuvering the jig’s fall to swing as close to the piling as possible. He counts the lure down before beginning his retrieve. With each subsequent cast, he lets the jig drop about a foot deeper before retrieving it. Once he gets a strike, McCadams concentrates on duplicating that retrieve to put the bait at the same depth each time.
“Most of the time, the key is to bump the piling as much as possible on each retrieve,” McCadams says. “You will catch a lot more crappies that way than you will just swimming a jig past the piling.”
Shoot the docks: Boat docks provide some of the most reliable crappie fishing in a running-water situation. The fish stack up around the pilings and far beneath the overhead platform, where they can be difficult to reach.
“In a river, the fish will be well back under the docks for a couple of reasons,” Heaton says. “On bright, sunny days, it is because of the shade. Other times, they will be eating algae off of the brush under the dock as well as the pier pilings. Shooting the dock is the only way to get a jig back to them.”
Heaton’s dock-shooting technique involves using a light spinning or spin-cast outfit with 6-pound line to propel a jig into the darkest portions of the dock without casting. After opening the bail, he creates a deep bend in the rod by using his free hand to pull the lure backward, and then he releases it in rhythm with the flex of the rod. The slingshot action sends the jig into spots that conventional casting cannot.
Long-poling: For most river fishing, Dance relies on a 12-foot medium-heavy fiberglass pole with a small underspin reel filled with 6- to 8-pound test monofilament. He uses a 1/16-ounce jig and a slip float that enables him to fish specific depths with unmatched precision.
“I can impart action to the jig by lifting my rodtip and gently jigging the bait without ever moving the float,” he says. “Or I can drag the float a few inches and the jig will follow, swinging or swimming under it. This is highly productive when crappies are inactive.” Sam Aversa, a longtime guide on Florida’s St. Johns River, catches enormous stringers of crappies by using a 15-foot fiberglass telescoping pole to fish small holes in vegetation and lily pads that are impossible to hit with a standard cast.
Gerald Conlee, who set the Mississippi black crappie record with a 4-pound, 4-ounce specimen in 1991, also prefers to long-pole crappies in current. Conlee primarily fishes the Coldwater River using a 12-foot B&M Poles fiberglass rod with a 1/8-ounce black or black-and-chartreuse jig.
“I usually fish blowdowns or brush,” he explains. “I find an eddy with this type of cover and try to keep my boat a pole’s length away to avoid spooking fish. I drop my jig straight down in the cover, jig it up and down and then move on.”
Tapping tailwaters: From January through early March, Alabama crappie nut Danny Lyles targets heavy current below the Lake Jordan and Mitchell dams. He catches slabs around large rocks buffetted by tremendous current 250 to 400 yards downstream. Lyles scores by drifting a Road Runner jig with a plastic grub trailer into the calm pockets behind the boulders.
Guide Homer Humphreys developed a cylinder-shaped weight for Bass Pro Shops ideal for these situations called Homer’s Carolina-Rigging Weight. “I tie one or two different-colored jigs 12 inches above the weight and 12 inches apart—or sometimes a tube and a jig tipped with a shiner,” he says. “I pitch that rig up on the edge of the rocks in four or five feet of water and start walking it down the rock.”
Backwaters And Reservoirs
Floodwaters produced by spring rains often create current within the backwaters and oxbows of a river system—moving countless crappies into inundated fields of timber, brush and grass. This super-shallow fishing opportunity is ideal for taking advantage of crappies actively feeding in freshly submerged cover.
Man-made current from power generation and the natural flow created by strong winds can influence crappies just as much as the constant surge of a river or creek.
“Don’t overlook current in a reservoir,” Dance emphasizes. “There will be current much of the time on reservoirs that were built for electrical power—and crappies usually become more active when they’re pulling water, just like bass do. Even current created by a hydroelectric facility far downstream will make the crappies position themselves so that they face into the flow.”
Whether the current is subtle or roaring, crappies have ways of taking advantage of moving water. With the proper approach, serious crappie fishermen can enjoy the benefits, too.
Anchoring For Current Crappies
Proper anchoring and boat positioning are crucial yet overlooked steps when fishing for crappies in current.
When you locate a hot current break, anchor downstream from the target area, dropping anchor as far from the fish as possible to avoid spooking them. Use an extra-long rope, then let out rope until you’re a long cast from the fish. Cast upstream and let your baits naturally drift past the eddy.
Crappie guide Homer Humphreys employs a neat anchoring trick for exploiting panfish holding in eddies created by rock jetties in Louisiana’s Red River. He tosses a light mushroom-type anchor above the jetty and lets out enough rope to allow his boat to settle into a calm-water pocket 15 feet or deeper. Humphreys and his clients routinely catch crappies under and around the boat without needing to fight the current with a trolling motor.
Dragging an anchor to slow the drift has long been a favorite tactic of river and stream anglers. Georgia stream specialist Don Pfitzer drags a large log chain along the bottom, but he encases the chain in a rubber bicycle-tire inner tube to reduce noise.
Some reservoir crappie anglers have also discovered the benefits of using a drift sock to slow their drifts. It’s perfect for fishing shallow grass flats. You can also use them in conjunction with a river anchor to keep your boat from swaying in current.
“People would catch more fish if they would anchor more often,” says Florida crappie guide Sam Aversa. “It is a big reason why our fathers and grandfathers caught so many fish, but we seem to have gotten away from it.”