By Vic Attardo
It’s about the weather isn’t it?
It’s always about the weather.
The weather dictates where crappie are found, how they’re reacting and even how we’re going to fish.
And the weather not only changes by the day but sometimes by the hour. In the morning you’ll be catching crappie with one technique but in the afternoon, when something in the sky, or on the barometer dial, or any of so many possible natural factors get turned around, you have to alter your presentation entirely.
Some crappie anglers only look at the seasons to determine their style of fishing, but the really good crappie fisherman is always looking at weather conditions to clue him, or her, on how to catch fish.
So it was on a pleasant early-fall morning on Lake Champlain when weatherly transformations were just beginning.
Indeed fall does come early to this crappie factory between New York, Vermont and the Canadian border. And with the new season comes sweeping and swift conversions. Mornings start out sunny, cool and calm but by the afternoon the day turns cloudy, cold and windy. Or it may just reverse.
This September morn, fishing with guide Jamie Vladyka, of Fishhounds Outdoors, it seemed more like the start of a New England summer sizzler than a fall day, but that didn’t last. As we hoisted up a bunch of crappie from open-water structure, the sky grew dark and the wind picked up. It wasn’t going to rain, not here anyway, but the weather was changing.
Vladyka quickly found that with the wind we could no longer remain on target over his deep structure. We were at anchor but the fresh breeze began blowing the stern around and it was impossible to stay on station.
Of course, a two-anchor system for this condition was theoretically possible but Vladyka hesitated to drop another anchor for fear that if we dragged, the iron weight just might pull the crib-like structure off its foundation and so ruin a perfectly great fishing location.
Instead he had another idea.
He wanted to go around the immense bay on the southern end of Lake Champlain and look for stick-ups to tie onto.
Champlain’s bays are always receiving exposed trees and giant limbs that ground themselves in the marly bottom yet keep some wood above the water line. Down its main channel or off the surrounding shorelines, these deadfalls drift around until they find some footing which makes them semi-permanent fixtures — semi-permanent until some strong storm uproots them or, as most often happens, a hard winter helps create a thick ice covering and the surface wood is broken up by the ice’s intense pressure.
Actually it doesn’t take long for these semi-perms to attract good numbers of crappie. Depending on the surrounding structure – immediate access to shallow or deeper water – the wood can attract quality fish in a matter of a few weeks.
The wise angler plots these places out. As he motors around the lake, he creates way-points on his sonar. You might think you can go out on any day and easily find, by eagle sight, the stick-ups that constitute exposed wood. Of course if it’ a long horizontal tree or trunk with lots of different points reaching for the sky, you could locate find it simply by looking around, but generally it is not so easy. The light can be wrong, the waves a little too high, the exposed wood wet and broken up. Besides it may take time motoring around re-finding these structures – a waste of gas and effort.
That’s why Vladyka punched the buttons on his Lowrance, plotted his course and headed straight for a group of naked branches that I couldn’t see until we were within ten yards.
With the dark clouds that had swollen in the sky, the even darker sticks – a forked union of some fallen tree – melded with the gray surroundings. Looking closely at the limbs, about three feet were still above water but the tips had been sawed off. As we came within a rod’s reach of the wood I spied on the sonar an immense underwater puzzle of heavy limbs and roots. It stretched along the bottom for more than 20 horizontal feet but came up to the surface only at this one point. If anything could be called the tip of the iceberg these exposed branches could.
My mind thought through the situation quickly but with no hard solution. First the bay was rolling. We weren’t being plagued by three footers but when parallel to the breeze, the waves slapped against the sides of the hull. Then too, down below was a real tangled mess. If we dropped an anchor into that furniture we’d have a very hard time retrieving it – if it ever came up without raising the tree.
Then again, I didn’t have the idea that Vladyka had apparently thought about when he watched the day’s weather report and made a decision of what to pack in the boat’s lockers.
Rummaging around beneath some rods he extracted a hank of rope and a large metal clip. I can’t say what exactly this type of clip was called and it really doesn’t matter because I’ve seen similar gambits performed with large alligator clips, with clothes-pin looking clips or other fastening contraptions. This clip was part spring and jaws. Vladyka wrapped the blue rope to a cleat next to the center console, tied the short rope to the circle at the back of the clip, then floating closely to the exposed wood, squeezed the clip opening its pointed jaws plunging its sharp ends into the wood and allowing the boat to ride on the rope.
It took two or three tries to get it right but eventually Vladyka had us secure to the stick-up. Though the breeze was blowing, we did not slide on the rope because we were fastened by the center of the boat as opposed to a stern or bow. We pretty much stayed in place. I found it discomforting that the wood moved about an inch and initially suspected that the torque on the tree was pulling it along the bottom, but the movement I saw proved only to be the branches which bent a little under the pressure. Otherwise we were there.
Indeed we were there.
The sonar showed a school of fish suspended throughout the embedded tree. They started about four feet down and went to the bottom of the 23-foot structure. It was a big tree down below – and a lot of fish.
We were already rigged with Jason Mitchell Elite Series spinning rods and Okuma Advenger reels adorned with white, eighth-ounce jigs with marabou tails. For the vertical fishing that was about to take place, you couldn’t ask for better close-haul tackle – with light rod tips and cork handles for perfect feel.
Understand that when clipped onto a tree or brush, the last thing you’re going to do is cast – a horizontal cast. There are snags from top to bottom on this structure and you can’t go about throwing a jig that will swing. Instead this is a straight-down vertical presentation with a 99-percent tight line.
What you will be doing is bouncing the jig off various hang-outs as you make your way through the wood. The trick is to stay in connect with your jig and pull up hard at the first breath of a bite. This is the not the place where you should let a crappie run, so start pulling up on the rod the second before you feel the weight of the fish.
On this breezy Champlain afternoon Vladyka kept us clipped onto the crappie in this and two other exposed locations. It wasn’t always easy maneuvering around these structures, and in one location he didn’t use the clip but tied off directly with a short rope. But the trick amounted to the same thing and a breezy, early fall day continued to be productive.