Brandon Jennings caught a pile of big crappie at Washington Lake. (Photo courtesy Brandon Jennings)
Catch Crappie When the Going Gets Tough
by Kenneth L. Kieser
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
Crappie are usually structure-oriented fish, that is no secret. So how do you fish lakes with limited structure, especially after the most epic temperature drop in decades?
Chances are you will eventually fish this type of lake in a tournament or just by chance. Your graph will look like a ghost town with a mostly clean picture over mud and sand. Maybe some scattered brush or junk, but not enough to get excited about.
Lake Washington is a 5,000-acre Mississippi River oxbow near Chatham, Mississippi. This unique lake disconnected from the main channel about 1300 A.D. and today most of the shoreline is bordered by cypress trees. The main channel is shaped like a bowl that happens to be filled with monster crappie.
Naturally, the week I fished Lake Washington for the “2021 Big Crappie Camp” was just after the unseasonably cold weather had passed and water temperatures were slowly rising, meaning slow bites. Several top crappie guides attended, finding less than impressive conditions, yet this is when the best crappie anglers improvise and catch fish.
“I first had to find the crappie, not being from around here,” said Greg Robinson, owner of Greg’s Guide Service in Arkansas. Crappie were staged for the spawn and suspended in four-foot depths when the cold front and ice storm hit. The females moved out to deeper water and the males stayed shallow.”
Robinson positioned eight B&M Buck’s 16-foot Jigging poles on a spider rig with plastic jigs tipped with minnows. His graph showed the crappie scattered throughout the four-foot depth in a small channel between the cypress trees.
“The crappie bite wasn’t aggressive enough for casting early, so pushing tipped jigs seemed to work best,” Robinson said. “Later when the shallow water warmed up, we cast jigs on smaller rods with some success. The crappie in Lake Washington don’t relate to structure like most lakes throughout the country, so we had to improvise.”
Several boats were anchored back in the trees. Occasionally they would pull in a crappie, but not often. Other boats were anchored over the channel trying to catch suspended females that were not cooperating. Graphs showed the fish were there, but the bite was tough. Watching the spider-rigged rods became a challenge because bites were quick and far apart.
Nine big crappie were caught by Robinson pushing tipped jigs while other anglers were completely skunked, victims of the poor weather patterns. Robinson managed to improvise and find some fish, none overly aggressive. The graph showed fish moving up to take a closer look at the tipped jigs and then moving away. Some of the hits were quick and short, just enough to tip the rods.
Later in the day shallow water warmed enough to make the crappie more active and casting jigs productive. Nine more were caught, well over a pound.
“I had a report the crappie moved shallow,” said Brad Chappell, owner of Brad Chappell Guide Service. “I have fished Lake Washington 12 years and knew the north end would warm up first, being a shallow, muddy lake side that faces to the south. A week before the lake was frozen over, the first time I could remember that happening. We fished the lake after the ice went out and the bite gradually improved as the water temperatures warmed. Crappie wanted the lures hanging over them and did not want to move far.”
Chappell used three-inch Slab Slayers on 3/0 hooks tipped with a minnow. The crappie bit lightly, so they changed to a lighter weight bait, ¼ ounce and caught 28 keepers.
“Speed, too, was a factor,” Chappell said. “I went one mile per hour and caught more crappie. Sometimes when you turn to the left and you get bit on the right side of the boat, fish are reacting to a faster moving lure. That means you should fish faster. Never be afraid to experiment. Wind, water temperature, boat traffic and any noise in the boats can affect the crappie bite, especially on a shallow lake like Washington. You sometimes pickup more fish by moving away from the crowd.”
Mark Hamberlin, of DD-214 Guide Service, a free guide service for disabled veterans, took another approach for the suspended females by trolling off spider rigs on his pontoon with his six-year-old daughter Stacy.
Hamberlin trolled with eight long rods while dragging Pico Lure’s Squarebill crankbaits that are about two inches long with a variety of colors to see what the crappie wanted to hit. When a crappie bit, Stacy took over and reeled in each fish, saving her daddy the exhaustion of fighting these aggressive scrappers.
The square-billed crankbaits run about four feet deep. Lake Washington, like most oxbow lakes is shallow and long where extended stretches of 6-foot depths are common. The crappie was either suspended or congregating on the bottom, just hanging around or searching for forage and occasionally swimming up to take baits, making a lure running at four feet ideal.
We caught several crappie well over a pound during the first trolling run on eight different Squarebill colors and that is unusual. Crappie generally are picky about the colors they attack.
Stacy took the rod on a hit that turned out to be quite a battle. She eventually won the fight with a 2-½ pound crappie, not uncommon in this region but likely her largest crappie—so far—and bigger than I have caught in 64 years of Midwestern fishing.
Guiding can be a tough job, especially when lake temperatures take a bad drop. Chappell has learned that you can always try something new in these southern lakes.
“We drove to Eagle Lake, about an hour away from Lake Washington during the freeze,” Chappell said. “When we got there eight boats were loading up and leaving. One of the fishermen claimed the crappie were not biting, no one had caught a fish.”
Chappell knew where some brushpiles were submerged and checked them first. He was shocked to find what looked like over 100 crappie on and around the brushpiles. They tried several different tactics and did not get a bite.
“I decided to try open water and find suspended crappie,” Chappell said. “I found what I thought was a big ball of shad on my graph, but it seemed like they were bigger than shad. We dropped tipped jigs and immediately got a bite. We ended the day with 20 keepers.”
Lack of recognizable structure and poor weather conditions never stops professional crappie guides or top tournament anglers, but sometimes you will succeed by using old proven methods.
“When crappie transition and water temperatures reach the 50’s, conditions will change and so will the bite,” said Brandon Jennings of Bayou Crappie Adventures. “One key in finding productive spawning areas is locating early males transitioning into shallow areas. Once you locate males, females will stage not far from the bedding area on mid depth flats waiting for temps to reach above the mid-fifty-degree mark.”
“Males are more predictable and easier to target during the entire process,” Jennings continued. “I fished with “Fishing Rod” Rodney Hayes recently on a trip to Lake Washington. We located females earlier but cold weather changed conditions and the crappie vanished. Fishing was tough so we fished the swamps of Lake Washington to target males on shallow trees using B&M poles and hand-tied hair jigs with great success.”
Catch Your Trophy Crappie: It’s no secret that 2 1/2-pound crappie are common in many of the Mississippi lakes. Three-pound crappie are always possible and you might catch larger. In fact, the next state record could come from this unique lake. Many predict that a five-pound black crappie will eventually be caught in Lake Washington, or maybe larger, breaking the current Mississippi black crappie record of 4 pounds, 4 ounces. The white crappie 1957 world record from Mississippi of 5 pounds, three ounces may be broken here too.
A tournament angler said he recently fished a crappie tournament in a Mississippi lake where over 20-crappie weighing three-pounds were checked in. The same result is always possible in Lake Washington and catching a three-pounder happens frequently.
“Chances are good to catch a three pounder in all the lakes down here,” Chappell said. “I boated 19 on Lake Washington six-years ago that weighed three pounds or more. But there are a lot of crappie over 2-pounds here too, and that is a good fish.”
Southern anglers know this and spend a lot of time on the water chasing trophy slabs on a variety of lakes.
“Grenada Lake’s claim to fame is home of the three-pound crappie,” Howell said. “It’s almost 100% open water fishing with some standing timber on the upper end of the lake. We fish four lakes where catching big crappie is possible; Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada. Enid is the lake I live on. It holds the world record white crappie at 5lb 4oz. I like to use bigger baits for bigger fish.”
Fishing is big business and area shops love when the crappie is on.
“We constantly are buying and stocking minnows when our crappie bite turns on,” said Mike Jones, owner and operator of “Big Mama’s Bait ’N Thangs” tackle shop in Chatham. “I will sell between 15,000 to 20,000 per week to tournament or recreational anglers.”
(Kenneth L. Kieser has been the Outdoor columnist for the Independence/Blue Springs (Missouri) Examiner since 1987. He has been a freelance writer for more than a dozen hunting and fishing magazines; hundreds of credits in various outdoor magazines with a laundry list of awards to his credit.)