Fly rods aren’t only for catching trout. Fly-fishing offers a fun and highly effective way to put crappie in the boat.
by Jeff Samsel
Noah’s Minnow, created by Noah, the youngest brother from 3 Brothers Flies, offers a natural look to crappie.
Photo courtesy of 3brothersflies.com
You’ll draw a few questioning looks and maybe even a couple of vocalized doubts. The more important looks will come from the crappie, though, and those anglers’ doubtful questions will turn into intrigued inquiries once they see your long rod bent a few times.
Fly-fishing for crappie has never gained enormous popularity. That’s not due to any lack of effectiveness, though. In fact, a fly rod is an extremely good tool that allows you to show the crappie looks that would be difficult to achieve with conventional lures.
“One of the biggest benefits of wielding a fly rod for crappies is the ability to daintily present flies to wary fish in shallow water, especially in the spring months. A fly rod allows you to avoid the splash of a bigger bait and present flies to fish that would otherwise spook out of shallow flats,” said Conner Kranz, the oldest of three brothers who together make up 3 Brothers Flies in southeastern Minnesota. “Flies are great for precisely imitating the small bugs and minnows that crappies often key in on, making them a good choice for finessing finicky fish.”
Kranz also pointed out a very practical advantage of the long-rod approach. When the action heats up, you don’t have to spend time replacing torn plastics or rebaiting hooks.
“Most of all, big crappies are just downright fun on a light fly rod,” he said.
Flies, typically tied from fur and feathers, tend to be too light to cast on their own. A fly rod is designed to present featherweight offerings by casting a loop in a weighted line, with the fly attached to a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and the fly tied to the end of the leader. Most flies that work well for crappie are streamers, nymphs or wet flies.
Fly rods and fly lines are rated by “weight,” which is a measure of power, and the weight of the rod and weight of the line should match. A 2-weight fly rod is akin to an ultralight or even a micro-sized spinning outfit, while a 7- or 8-weight is best suited for big poppers or weighted streamers for stripers, pike or saltwater fish. An 8- to 9-foot 4- or 5-weight outfit is ideal for most crappie fishing applications.
That said, if you already own a 3-weight or a 6-weight, you can make it work just fine. If you’re buying fly gear specifically to fish for crappie, there’s no need to invest in really expensive stuff. Neither long nor super precise casts typically are needed, and unless a big largemouth grabs your crappie fly, you’re unlikely to ever test a reel’s drag.
Fly leaders are tapered, with a heavy butt section that allows the leader to stretch out and a smaller tippet section that is sized according to the fly selected to allow for natural fly movement and minimal line visibility. Leaders are sized with a number and an X, with the number referring to how many times bigger the butt section is than the tippet. The bigger the number next to the X, therefore, the smaller the tip section. A 7 ½-foot 5X leader with 5-pound-test at the tip section works nicely for most crappie fly patterns. For tiny shrimp or aquatic insect imitations you might add a foot or two of 3- or 4-pound tippet to the end of the leader.
Various streamers, which typically imitate minnows or craws, and nymphs that imitate aquatic insects or freshwater shrimp, work well for crappie. Jeff Samsel photo.
Most flies that work well for crappie fit into one of two basic categories. Many are streamers – elongated flies that generally are worked actively to imitate minnows, other baitfish or crawfish. Also effective are nymphs and wet flies that imitate stonefly or mayfly nymphs, mosquito and midge larvae or freshwater shrimp.
A streamer serves the same basic function as a spin-fisherman’s jig. The major advantage of the fly approach is that a typical streamer falls less decisively through the water column, which means you can work it slower and more subtly as you strip it through the strike zone.
“Crappies love minnows, and small Clouser Minnow-style baitfish patterns will catch plenty of fish on most days,” Kranz said.
“We fish two types of flies – flashy, attractor flies and more natural, imitative patterns. The Pink Punch, a bold attractor pattern, is one of our top producers, especially in rivers. The Noah’s Minnow, a more subtle, realistic pattern, is another great fly, particularly for fish in clear, shallow water.”
The Pink Punch and Noah’s Minnow are both 3 Brothers patterns that were developed by Noah, the youngest of the brothers. Popular and widely available patterns that work well for imitating minnows include No. 6 or 8 Woolly Buggers, various flashy Bugger variations, Muddler Minnows, Olive Matukas and Clousers.
Little buggy nymphs and scud patterns (size 10 to 14) produce well on days when the crappie get extra fussy. Crappie eat a lot of little stuff in many rivers and lakes, and when they really get locked in on freshwater shrimp or some kind of larvae, you’ll catch fish that wouldn’t touch any type of jig or crankbait or even a live minnow by presenting flies that match whatever the crappie are eating.
Be sure to carry some split shot for those times when you need to get a fly a little deeper than it goes on its own, plus a few fairly buoyant strike indicators (fly-fisherman’s versions of bobbers) so you can slow a presentation way down and keep a fly suspended at the right depth and to help you detect subtle strikes.
“Subsurface presentations with a fly rod fall into two basic categories, depending on the type of food we’re hoping to imitate: bugs or minnows,” Kranz said.
When he is fishing with baitfish imitations, Kranz likes to keep the fly moving at a fairly rapid pace to mimic the normal darting action of a minnow. “A simple strip-pause cadence is often deadly for crappies chasing the small minnows they love so dearly. Just change up the speed and length of the strip and pause until you find what the fish are after.”
For flies that imitate bugs such as damselfly or mayfly nymphs, Kranz opts for a slower swimming presentation.
“A series of three quick, staccato strips followed by a pause of equal proportions is a particularly effective retrieve for nymph or larva patterns,” he said. “Slowly dragging the fly along weedbeds or structure with a slow, continuous strip is another good retrieve, especially for fish in deeper water.”
For streamers or nymphs, it’s important to mix things up and to mentally assess exactly what you were doing any time you catch a fish.
“Ultimately, let the fish dictate the speed and length of your strips and experiment a bit until you discover what the fish are hitting,” Kranz said.