Story & photos by Ron Presley
When the temperatures drop and the cold wind blows in the northern part of the U.S. and Canada, many crappie anglers’ thoughts drift south to warmer climes. Some do more than think about it, they head south. To Floridians the anglers and the many others who travel with them are known as snowbirds, the name affectionately given to travelers from the north that make their home in Florida from November through March. That time frame overlaps with the crappie spawn in Florida that generally runs December through April.
Pushing eight poles at a time requires constant vigilance of what’s going on in front of you.
These people are often retirees with a second home in Florida. Some of them bring their home with them as RV’s, campers, or boats travelling the Intracoastal Waterway to their winter home. Some locals see them as part-time residents that drive like maniacs and wear Speedos on the beaches, but bait shop owners and fish camp operators know some of these winter visitors as serious crappie anglers.
The crappie fishing during this period can be outstanding, the visitors from the north waste no time in joining the locals on area lake and rivers during months related to the crappie spawn. Unlike in northern regions of the U.S. where the spawn is limited to a few weeks in the spring, the Florida black crappie spawning cycle covers several months according to Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) scientists.
Female black crappie are not usually on the nest for more than a day or two, but hitting it just right can result in an outstanding bite. Nothing replaces time on the water for being in the right place at the right time, but it is known that most of the spawning activity takes place the weeks preceding the full and new moons. Targeting these periods can increase angler’s luck.
Finding aggregations of spawning crappie is the first step to a successful outing. How to find them varies between anglers, but one thing for sure, according to researchers, crappie practice spawning-site fidelity. In other words, crappies use the same spawning area each year if the habitat has not changed drastically. So, remember when and where you caught them last year and that is going to be a good place to start looking. Most anglers use their electronics to mark those hot spots from the past so they can return to the exact same location.
The pre-spawn movement is usually right off the edge of the emergent grass line, but sometimes cold weather or the moon phase will move them back into deep open water where they are not even thinking about spawning.
Even during the spawn, prospecting is an important part of the equation. FWC wildlife scientist Jim Sweatman lumps location into two categories during the spawning season, in the grass or not. “If we have the right spawning temperature (60- to 68-degrees F) during the spawning months, and especially if it is the week before the full or new moon, I go looking for them in the grass.” These fish can be in either spawn or pre-spawn mode. “If we get a cold front and I can’t catch them in the grass then I go looking for them just off the grass line near known spawning areas and then work my way out into the deepest areas of the lake.”
Anglers can tell if the fish are spawning because they emit a musty odor (the same way bluegill and shellcracker do) and they are usually knocking around the bulrush, pads and grass where they are spawning. Keep an eye out for movement in the cover, detect the smell, and you have located crappie. If they are running eggs and milt they are into the spawn, if not they are still pre-spawn and likely to be around for a few more days.
Lily Pads, Bulrush, and Grass
Sweatman points out that some of the fish will stay in the cover if it is not too cold and just feed without dropping eggs and milt on each moon phase. Whether they are spawning or not, the Bass Pro Shops Pro Fishing Team of Don and Toni Collins like to one-pole, or jig fish when the crappie have moved in close.
“Usually what we do,” says Don, “is look for the cattails and the weedlines. When you find those, the bottom is usually firm. In January when the fish start moving into the bank, that water is about 55 degrees. The males start going in to fan the beds out for the spawn. As soon as it hits about 60 or 61 degrees, the hens will follow to lay the eggs.”
Collins explains that after the hens go in the males come back out and stay outside the area until the eggs are laid. Then the males go back in and stay up to 30 days on those beds with the hatchlings.
To select which cover (usually lily pads for the Collins team) to fish the Collins duo looks at the structure of the pads. “I don’t want very large areas of pads. I like smaller groups of pads. I start out in water that is 5- to 6- feet deep that rises to maybe 2 or 3 feet as far back as I can reach my ten foot Wally Marshal rod.” Side imaging is used to determine the depth and bottom contour as they ride along the shoreline.
Toni and Don move the boat right up to and in the pads. Toni generally fishes on the right side of the front of the boat while Don fishes and controls the trolling motor on the other side. With both fishing out the front, they capitalize on groups of crappie when found. In fact, they recommend dropping right back into the same spot where the last fish was caught. “They are not gonna’ leave,” says Don. “They are gonna’ stay right there in that area. Even the boat doesn’t tend to scare them. Once you find them you can go back each day for two or three weeks and probably find fish again.”
The jigging starts on the outside pads, fishing from two feet deep and working it all the way down to the bottom. “I just fish the first pad, and then go to the next one. I pull my jig all the way up to the tip of the rod with my left hand holding the line. Place the tip on the top of the water where I want it to go and let it down. Raising and lowering the jig by hand will keep you from lots of tangles and get you precisely where you want to fish.”
Once the fish are located, keep fishing the pads in the same depth range. Generally, when they are spawning they will be in groups. “You may go in there and catch eight or ten in one area and all of a sudden there are no fish. Turn around and go back where you came from. A lot of people just keep going, keep looking. Actually, the fish haven’t moved, they haven’t quit, you just gotta’ get back into them.”
The only thing he expects to move them significantly is a dramatic change in the temperature. In that case, they may move out of the lily pads, out to a ledge where they had been holding before moving in. This is when you need to start in and fish out until you find them again.
Color selection is important. Toni says a good rule of thumb is light colors on a sunny day and dark colors on overcast days. She likes anything with chartreuse and Don does too. “I like chartreuse and something,” says Don. “I use the Pro-Series chartreuse Road Runner head with different colors of plastic. I like my Lake Fork lures with the garlic scent. That little bit of scent will help attract fish to. I think the attraction of the Road Runner is the noise and the flash it’s making.”
When the crappies are in the cover, it is an up close and personal way to catch them. “You are moving the lure with your hand, just pulling and releasing the line so the jig moves up and down. Once the fish hits it, you will feel the thump and you set the hook. That’s why you hear us crappie anglers say, ‘We live for the thump.'”
Crappie in the open water can be approached with different techniques. The Collins duo choose spider rigging a double bait combination of jig and minnow in this scenario. “I prefer a double rig when pushing. I will rig an 1/8 oz Pro Series Roadrunner on the bottom with a #2 TruTurn Hook about 18 inches above that.” He adds a 1/2 oz weight to keep the rig down. He fills the Driftmaster Rod Holders with Wally Marshal rods and reels spooled with 10-pound hi-vis Mr. Crappie line.
Perceptive anglers will push through different depths until they find the magic one where fish are holding. Once a big female crappie is caught at a certain depth anglers can follow that depth contour and expect to catch more.
Collins points out two things he considers crucial to successful spider rigging. “One thing is speed. Anytime you are pushing, speed is very, very important. Best speed can vary, so make a note of trolling speed when you get a hookup.” It is also a good idea to create a waypoint for each catch to see if a definite pattern develops on the sonar screen. If you don’t have electronics throw out a marker buoy.
The next critical thing for the Collins team is something to slow you down in the wind, a chain, drift sock or something to drag. “I use a 40 pound chain. I drag it with a 25-foot rope when the wind is real bad. Putting that chain out allows me to fish the speed I want. If the wind is blowing 10- to -15 miles per hour, it’s no problem. I control the boat its not controlling me.”
Collins believes color and flash can make a difference in open water just as it does when the fish are shallow. His go-to bait for pushing is the chartreuse Pro Series Roadrunner with a gold willow leaf blade, pinned with a Lake Fork Baby Shad.
On a personal note, Collins says, “If we catch a crappie with big full bags of roe, we turn ours loose. I know some people keep em’, but we don’t.” According to Florida researchers, each female crappie drops from 20,000 to 80,000 eggs during the spawn. Returning the roe laden fish can only be good for the fishery.
An angler’s best choice for a snowbird Crappie Now, according to Don and Toni is Crescent Lake (Crescent City, FL). “Crescent is the best Crappie fishing lake in January,” says Don. “You can push or pull or jig fish on this lake in January and fill a cooler with beautiful black crappie in the 2 pound plus range.” Toni chimed in quickly, indicating that Crescent was her favorite too.
Don and Toni Collins are Crappie Masters 2010 Angler Team of the Year. Sponsors include Bass Pro Shops, TTI Blakemore, Lake Fork Trophy Lures, Driftmaster Rod Holders, Flying Fisherman, Engels Cooler, and Wally Marshall/Mr. Crappie Rods & Reels.