Streamers and wooly buggers are great shallow-water crappie options with a fly rod.
Fly Fishing for Crappies
by Mike Gnatkowski
It is common knowledge that crappies head to the shallows in the spring to feed and spawn. However, some anglers might be shocked at how shallow they will go.
Ken Riehl and I were fishing a shallow bayou off our favorite crappie lake when Ken announced, ”I’m snagged!”
I saw that as my cue to fire up the trolling motor to retrieve his jig. We were still a fair distance away from the log where his jig was hung when we seemed to glide to a halt.
“Are we stuck on bottom?” I questioned. Which we were.
I knew the area was shallow, but not THAT shallow. The bayou is one of the first places crappie show up in each spring. The bottom there is dark, south facing and starts to warm up first.
It took some doing to get unstuck. With one guy pushing with an oar and the other using the net we finally got unstuck, but we had stirred up the bottom and made enough commotion that we’d spooked every fish for 50 yards.
I got to thinking about fishing the skinny water. In only a couple feet of water it doesn’t take a jig very long to hit bottom. You can start reeling as soon as the jig hits the water, but it’s not the best presentation for targeting crappies in water that was only a degree or two above freezing a week or two before.
You could also use a float to suspend the jig, but plopping a bobber on the head of a spooky crappie in water less than a yardstick deep is not the best way to fill a fish basket.
I know fly fishermen use fly rods to target trout because it is the stealthiest way to present a lure to shallow, spooky fish – even in crystal clear water.
I thought, “Why wouldn’t the same presentation work for ultra shallow crappies?”
The next time Ken and I went I brought my fly rod. The water had cleared slightly and with the sun just right and with a good pair of polarized sunglasses you could make out last year’s weeds and the odd stick or log. I tied on a Squirrel Tail Nymph on that had sparkly chenille tied in just behind the bead head. I false cast a few times and dropped the nymph 30 feet from the boat. I could see the sparkly nymph slowly sinking when a white mouth materialized behind it, opened its mouth and sucked the fly in. I snapped the fly rod’s tip upward and the surprised speck shot five feet to one side and then the other and was splashing on the surface before I unceremoniously hoisted it over the side. Kenny acknowledged the catch with a glance over his shoulder.
I uncoiled the fly line I had wrapped around my feet and dropped the nymph in approximately the same spot. I watch it sinking again as another papermouth eased up and engulfed it. The third time it happened in about a two-minute span Kenny turned and said with a laugh, “Now you’re showing off!”
Crappies aren’t particular. They’ll eat minnows or aquatic insects. For that reason, flies are a great choice because they do such a great job of imitating both. Streamers are perfect for imitating minnows, which are a crappie favorite. Patterns don’t have to be too specific.
Wooly Buggers in white and gray are killers especially if you tie them with a little Krystal Flash in the tail and use sparkle chenille for the body. In dark colors, Wooly Buggers can imitate insects. A simple streamer tied on a long-shank, size 8 or 10 hook with a tinsel body and a marabou wing will catch crappies all day long.
Streamers are best fished with short twitches of the rod tip or mending the fly line in short abbreviated strips to simulate a swimming, darting minnow.
Nymphs imitate bugs. Crappies jump all over nymphs that feature an iridescent body of peacock herl like Zug Bugs or a Prince Nymph. Nymphs that have rubber legs, like stonefly imitations, are deadly on crappies, too.
Even on big water, like the Tennessee River, there are fly rod opportunities in deep water. Summertime mayfly hatches are common and crappies will congregate, even on rock bluff walls, waiting on mayflies to wiggle on the surface.
Beads can be added to any nymph pattern to get them deeper. Beads can be plastic or tungsten, which determines the rate of fall. They also add a subtle glint that helps crappies locate your fly.
I prefer 4- to 6-weight fly rods from 8-1/2- to 9-feet. Some anglers think that the lighter the rod the more bang for your buck, which is true. But a little more power is desirable when you’re trying to drive a bead-head nymph into a strong spring breeze or a 4-pound largemouth decides he likes your offering. Being able to quickly muscle a foot-long speck away from the rest of the school is not a bad idea either.
A floating double-tapered fly line matched to the weight of the fly rod you’re using will suffice for 95% of your spring fishing. As crappies move deeper you can go with a sinking tip line to continue to target crappies with a fly. Leaders between 7-1/2 and 9-feet that terminate at 4- to 6-pound test are fine. If the leader gets too short or too heavy from retying you can easily add a short two- or three-foot tippet with a blood knot and you’re back in business.
They say variety is the spice of life. I agree. I love the fact that I can switch from a spinning rod to a fly rod depending on conditions and still catch fish. I have to be honest though. I find myself using the long rod more and more when targeting crappies
Mike Gnatkowski has been an outdoor writer/photographer for more than 40 years. He has a degree in Biological Journalism/Outdoor Writing. His writing and images have been published in dozens of regional and national publications. He’s been a Great Lakes charter boat captain and river guide in another life and is an avid waterfowler and upland bird hunter. He fishes crappies every chance he gets from his home in Muskegon, MI. Learn more at gnatoudoors.com.