by Jonathan Phillips with John E. Phillips
No matter whether you’re fishing a river or a lake, the amount of current and muddy water present can make your fishing for crappie challenging. Most river systems have some current running all the time, but on rivers with hydroelectric plants on the upper and lower ends that form lakes, you never know when the current or how much current will run – especially in the summer months with the higher need for hydroelectric power. A lake that’s controlled by two hydroelectric plants, can come up or drop 2 feet overnight. Then the place you’ve caught crappie the day before may become high and dry.
I’ve found that crappie on a river system are much more structure-oriented than lake crappie. If you locate structure on a river and mark it as a waypoint, that structure – perhaps a brush top or a logjam – may move when the water rises. I’ve even seen sandbars move within a week’s time. However, river systems are building new underwater structure constantly.
The best advice I have on how to fish current, whether in a river or a lake, is to be aware of this underwater structure shifting. The terrain on the bottom and on the shoreline drastically can change in a short time too in a strong current. When a strong current runs for several days or weeks, you may have to spend more time with your electronics, searching for places to catch crappie, and less time actually fishing for crappie. Of course, as a tournament crappie fisherman, I’m not nearly as interested in catching numbers of crappie as I am in catching big crappie.
I’ve learned that prespawn crappie and postspawn crappie usually will hold in deeper water, on a current break. When crappie are deep, I’ll fish a 3/4-ounce weight on the end of my line, particularly in the winter and the summer and in a stiff current, to put the bait in front of the fish’s face and keep the bait there. But my rule of thumb is I’ll fish the lightest jig possible – a 1/8-ounce – in a place where the current won’t affect the vertical fall of my jig or blow my jig away from the structure. However, if I have to use a heavier weight to get down to the crappie in current, I don’t hesitate to do that.
If heavy rain falls for several days or several weeks, you’ll have strong current and muddy water coming through the rivers or lakes you’re fishing. Although most crappie fishermen don’t like to fish muddy water and a strong current, I’ve learned that crappie aren’t as spooky in muddy water. I’ve discovered that big crappie are often caught in muddy water, so I’ve learned to love fishing in muddy water.
My wife Alicia and I won a tournament on Alabama’s Logan Martin Lake when the water was so muddy that you just about could step out of your boat and walk across the mud. The lake was 12 feet higher than one week earlier and was running over the tops of people’s boathouses. We caught 2 pound+ crappie all day in a strong current in that muddy water.
We’ve learned to fish with bulkier-looking baits, bigger tube bodies, brighter-colored tubes and Ziptailz in strong current when the water’s muddy. I tip my jig with a minnow then too. These lure characteristics allow the crappie to find a bait easier.
Floods and Fast Current
Not many people want to crappie fish under those conditions. In high water and fast current, I search for places away from the main river to fish in the back waters and creeks where the current may not be as strong as in the main river.
Under those conditions, I do everything I can to let the crappie know where the bait is. I’ll be fishing a Roadrunner jig head that throws off a flash and makes more racket than a jig head without a spinner on it. I’ll use scent on my lures to enable the crappie to smell the bait. Through the years, I’ve caught most of my bigger crappie in a raging current in nasty water – so nasty that most people don’t want to put their boats in it.
The Toughest Times to Catch Crappie
For me, the toughest time to catch a crappie is during the transitions. For instance, when crappie are moving from: deep to shallow water to spawn and then back to the deep after the spawn; deep water in the summertime to the shallow water in the fall; and the shallow water back to the deep water as winter arrives. Crappie will be scattered then. You still can catch them, but you’ll have to use various tactics and cover more water to take them.
Crappie fishing can be tough in the middle or the late summer too when the water clears up, and you can see 6-8 feet down in the water. The hydroelectric plants are running almost 24 hours a day, pushing current through the lakes and rivers. Under these conditions, the crappie will be holding tight to the brush, and I want to get my bait to the bottom and in that brush.
Vertical jigging will be the best way to accomplish that task. To also fish that brush, if you prefer to minnow fish, use a drop shot rig by tying your weight to the end of the line, come up about 12 inches from the lead, tie a loop knot on the main line and either use a No. 2 or a No. 1 Tru-Turn hook. Next attach a minnow to the hook.
I’ll look for crappie in 18-20 foot deep water in thick brush when the water’s clear, the weather’s hot, and the sun’s bright. Remember, crappie have to eat every day. Generally they prefer to feed behind current breaks, eddy holes or off the main river, if the current’s running strong. However, you can identify and catch crappie every day of the year in clear water, stained water or muddy water, and whether current’s not running at all, is running slowly, is running fast or is flowing briskly like a runaway train. You just have to adapt your tactics, and the size and color of your baits, as well as how and when you present your baits to the crappie.
Editor’s Note: Jonathan Phillips from Wetumpka, Alabama, primarily crappie fishes the Alabama River and Lake Jordan on the Coosa River. However, he also fishes all over the nation wherever a Crappie Master Tournament is held. Contact Jonathan and Alicia Phillips on facebook or, 334-391-9735.
Author John E Phillips’ Kindle ebooks include many on crappie fishing. Check’em out.