Story & Photos by Jeff Samsel
One of the best ways to slow presentations for winter-chilled crappie is to alter size or shape of your offering.
Crappie are cold-blooded critters. We all know that, and we learned what that means when we were young. Still, as water temperatures plummet this time of year, it would serve most of us well to pause and consider that simple bit of biology and what it means to us as crappie fishermen.
Falling water temperatures and corresponding falling fish body temperatures result in lower metabolism rates in the crappie, and the icier the water gets the further metabolism rates fall. In practical terms, that means the fish can’t move as quickly and they have less of a need for meals, neither of which makes them inclined to do much chasing of would-be food sources.
As significantly, virtually everything an adult crappie ever eats is likewise cold blooded and affected similarly. Therefore, lures that dart about quickly or wiggle wildly simply don’t look natural to a crappie this time of year, and that sort of movement can be a red flag that says, “stay away.”
Much has been written about slowing retrieves and trolling speeds and moderating jigging actions for vertical presentations, and those are indeed critical aspects. Less widely discussed but just as important is the natural behavior of whatever you have tied to the end of your line. An offering with a tempered fall makes a slower presentation far easier to execute and more natural. No matter how infrequently you lift vertically jigged bait, the action still appears fast if the bait drops decisively when you lower the rod. Similarly, hard-sinking offerings are tough to retrieve or troll slowly because they tend to drag on the bottom. We’ll consider a variety of ways to slow crappie baits.
When Bigger is Better
One commonly voiced idea during the winter is that dainty offerings are necessary to coax fussy fish into biting. Often that’s not the case, though. In fact, when fish get winter-chilled and fall out of chasing mode, a larger meal gives them more “bang for their buck” and keeps them from having to burn calories in quest of meals as frequently. When crappie become tough customers during the winter, it’s not necessarily because they are extra fussy. They just don’t have the energy required to chase quick offerings.
When you increase the size of a bait without increasing the size of the jighead or the amount of weight, the result generally is a fall rate tempered by added water resistance and/or buoyancy. The most common application for crappie fishing involves the size of tube, grub or swimbait body you string onto a jighead. However hair jigs with bigger, bushier skirts create the same effect, as does a larger minnow trolled or retrieved on a split shot rig with no increase in the size of the shot.
An easy way to beef up the profile of a jig or a spoon, add scent, and temper the fall rate is to tip the lure with a minnow, half a minnow or even a minnow head. Ice fishermen commonly add nothing more than a minnow head to make a spoon a bit less decisive in its movements while at the same time adding a scent and flavor.
It seems oversimplified, but still is important to note: Whether you’re talking about spoons, soft-plastic bodies or jigs skirts, material density has a major impact on how a lure behaves and specifically in how quickly it falls through the water column. With metal baits like spoons, it’s generally pretty obvious. You know that a lead spoon will fall more rapidly than a light metal spoon of the same size.
Plastic and hair types aren’t always as easy to gauge, but differences in things like salt content in a plastic formula make a significant difference in how quickly similar-looking lures fall through the water. In many cases, the only way to know which baits will deliver a slower fall rate is to test a couple of them side by side, basically letting them race to the bottom, with both rigged the same way.
Various factors other than the sheer amount of material and the density of that material impact the sink rate and can temper the quickness of how quickly an offering rises or falls through the water column.
Shaping is one important consideration. More appendages, especially broad flat-sided or cupped appendages, equate to added water resistance, as do body rings and other contours that add surface area. Bushy skirts on hair jigs have a similar effect.
The design of some baits, including most tubes and some hair jigs, also causes them to trap a bit of air, which has the combined effect of adding buoyancy and bulk – both slowing factors. The air normally creeps out and bubble to the top after a bait has been submerged for a while, but it slows the initial fall.
Spinning blades also moderate the speed of bait because of added water resistance. A simple way to slow overall bait movement for any presentation that involves a jighead is to replace a regular head with a Road Runner head of the same size. Whether you’re slow trolling live minnows on plain heads or vertical jigging tubes, Road Runners slow fall rates just a bit while at the same time adding flash.
Finally, as you consider baits that fall slowly though the water, keep in mind that some of the same appendages that slow a bait’s movement also make it dance more in place, and sometimes too much wiggling, jiggling and tail dancing truly can be too much for a winter-slowed crappie.