Story & photos by Jeff Samsel
If you have slabs in mind, don’t offer a dainty snack. Serve up a meal that warrants pulling up to the table.
Having had no takers on my crappie jig, I picked up a baitcaster, which was spooled 14-pound mono and rigged with a prototype ¼-ounce Randy’s Swim’n Runner. The lake contained some chunky largemouths, and the same bait had produced a 7-pounder for me on a different lake the previous day.
I don’t recall whether it was my first or second cast with the Swim’n Runner, which has a 3 ½-inch swimbait body, but almost as quickly as I began fishing with that rod, my bait got slammed and I began fighting what I assumed to be a decent largemouth. To my surprise and delight, the fish that that taken my offering turned out to be a 2 ½-pound black crappie, and it had completely engulfed the swimbait and head.
Any time the author put down his “bass rod” and tried a more traditional crappie bait on this particular day, the crappie quit biting. They wanted a big shad-imitating offering and nothing else.
A few casts later, when same lure yielded a similarly impressive crappie, TJ Stalling and I began wondering whether we had stumbled onto something. Stallings had brought along the swimbait-rigged Road Runners, which at that point were still in the trial stage, primarily for playing with bass. We weren’t about to mention that to the crappie, though, and in truth we had both seen plenty of situations where big crappie clearly favored notably larger offerings than most fishermen would be willing to throw.
Stallings had a matching bait rigged on a baitcaster, so he picked up his as well, and it wasn’t long before he was hooked into a slab of his own. And that was just beginning. We caught big crappie all morning, all by slow rolling the Randy’s Swim’n Runners just off the bottom. Every time we tested more traditional crappie lures, whether cast or fished vertically, we stopped catching fish. The crappie seemingly were keyed on large forage, and mini morsels just didn’t look very interesting.
Several years ago, when tournament fishermen began getting serious about crankbait trolling strategies, select anglers began to see that crappie would take substantially larger baits than most anglers had ever realized. During ensuing years, that understanding has become much more widespread, but the application has largely remained limited to a seasonal crankbait bite. In truth baits of various sorts that are notably larger than most anglers would expect work extremely well for crappie. In the right situation, oversized lures will produce more fish and better quality, but if you never get bold enough to break them out, you’ll never know what you are missing!
Topping the list of factors that suggest upsizing crappie offerings is a need to match plentiful large forage. Any times when a certain size and sort of food item abounds, the predators that favor that food can get locked in on that alone. It’s a built-in caution. If the crappie have big schools of 3 1/2-inch shad to pick from, going after anything else is somewhat risky. It’s much like trout fishermen needing to “match the hatch.” Trout will attack host of things that suggest any sort of food most of the time, but if something very specific is hatching all over the river, it’s hard to get those fish to swipe at anything except a fly that matches the size, shape and color of what is hatching.
During the fall, when shad congregate in in creek and river arms of many lakes, the crappie often become highly shad oriented. If the crappie can handle the size of the shad that prevail (if you consider a crappie’s mouth size, it can handle much larger forage that most anglers believe), most fish favor the larger meal over what they get from minnows and assorted small invertebrates.
Oversized baits also come into play for places like Grenada, Kentucky Lake or Santee Cooper that produce big numbers of extra-large crappie or for lakes that contain a nice mix of sizes at times when you are more interested in catching big fish than big numbers.
Finally, extra-large baits can provide an advantage when dirty water and/or dark skies lessen visibility, making traditional crappie lures harder for the crappie to see. The larger baits offer just enough visibility to trigger reaction strikes.
Advantages of Bigness
An obvious advantage of using larger than normal crappie baits, as already eluded to, is that they tend to produce larger fish. While small lures can attract big fish and vice versa, upping the size of your offering often will result in less strikes but a better grade of fish caught.
A very practical advantage of upsizing is that larger jigs and many other types of bigger baits have larger hooks than their popular counterparts. From a practical standpoint, that means that fish generally get hooked farther back in the mouth, which translates into far more crappie staying hooked and being landed. Crappie expert Todd Huckabee believes the term “papermouth” would be far less widely used if crappie fishermen used larger hooks and hooked more fish in the roof of the mouth instead of barely getting a lip.
Speaking of practical advantages, bigger baits tend to be easier to cast, control and feel at the end of the line. You also can often use heavier line and tackle, which provides advantages for landing fish, especially when heavy cover is involved.
It’s probably worth noting that “big” is a relative term that does not mean the same thing to a Minnesota angler who fishes clear-water lakes as it does to a Mississippi angler who does most of his fishing in heavily stained waters that support strong populations of jumbo crappie. To a degree, therefore, it’s important to consider big baits as a concept and simply to be willing to try baits that are noticeably larger than whatever offerings you would normally use in the waters you fish.
That said, jigs that weigh more than 1/8 ounce and any bait that’s more than an inch and a half or so would be at least border or large in most places. Make those minimums ¼-ounce and 2 inches and you’re safely in the big range. A few specific styles of jumbo baits that absolutely warrant experimentation in the sizes listed above are the crankbaits, other soft-plastics such as tubes and grubs, hair/feather jigs, jigging spoons and live shiners or other minnows.
If you do any bass or walleye fishing, you most likely already own some baits that are very well suited for the upsizing task. If not, do a little shopping before your next crappie outing, and you’re apt to be rewarded in a big way.