by Greg McCain
Crappie fishermen generally have pre-conceived notions about where fish live.
One generally accepted thought is crappie spend most of the year in deep water. A second is that they always acclimate to some type of wood cover. Another is that crappie shy away from current.
Day in and day out, those ideas help experienced crappie fishermen locate fish. On the average day on the average fishery, the crappie will be 10-15 feet deep around wood structure in lake-like conditions.
Those characteristics apply to some elements of the crappie population, but not all live the deep-water, wood-oriented, still-water lifestyle. Others flourish in large numbers in non-traditional locations. To risk the obvious, crappie are where you find them.
Grass, Cypress and Current
South Carolina pro Matt Outlaw follows that idea on the Santee Cooper lakes near his home. Admittedly, he spends plenty of time trolling for crappie around deeper wood structure while fun fishing near home or while tournament fishing on various venues around the Southeast.
But Outlaw also seeks out fish in what others might view as unusual locations.
“I guess the main one would be around grass,” Outlaw said. “It’s not really a secret anymore around home although plenty of fishermen still zip right on past the grass looking for crappie in other locations.”
Outlaw suggested there’s something of a mental block to pursuing fish in a non-traditional way.
“I really don’t know why,” he said. “They just don’t seem to associate crappie with grass. With the exception of a few places, like the Florida lakes, that always seems to be the case.”
The result for Outlaw – and the few other fishermen who regularly target crappie around grass – is unpressured fish that can be caught in huge numbers and with little difficulty.
“It has become my favorite approach to catching big numbers of fish around home,” Outlaw said. “They find just about everything they need under that grass, food, shade, safety. You can count on them being there year-round, in hot weather and even in the winter.”
Outlaw looks for floating masses of grass, mainly hyacinth, duck weed, or gator grass on the Santee lakes. He said the grasses may vary in other locations, but the crappie-holding qualities of aquatic vegetation, are consistent from lake to lake.
He said any grass mat with at least three feet of water will hold crappie. He occasionally finds mats floating in deeper, open-water areas but generally focuses on mats in four to seven feet.
While Outlaw can count on the grass year-round on the Santee lakes, he doesn’t always encounter vegetation on lakes where tournaments are held. It’s a welcome bonus, however, when he finds grass on tournament waters, and he always checks the possibilities while pre-fishing.
“Mainly, I’m looking for some grass on the Florida lakes, and we find some grass on Ross Barnett (in Mississippi),” he said. “While you can’t always depend on the grass just because it’s there, it’s always a possibility because most people are not going to fish it. That may not be the case in Florida, but in other places, people tend to ignore the grass when crappie fishing.”
Outlaw and his father, veteran pro Whitey Outlaw, finished second in the American Crappie Trail event on Ross Barnett this year.
“We’ll probably always focus on trolling to catch most of our fish in tournaments,” Matthew Outlaw said. “The grass sometimes comes into play and provides us the possibility of at least a few fish.”
Perhaps the average fisherman ignores some of these non-traditional locations because they are thought to be difficult to fish. Outlaw admits that’s the case with the grass. While the approach has become second nature to him, he hears all kinds of excuses about why grass fishing can be more difficult than simply hovering over a brushpile.
“People tell me all the time, ‘You’re going to scare the fish’,” Outlaw said. “That’s just not the case if you don’t go in there and shred up the grass.”
When fishing for fun, Outlaw typically uses a flat-bottom boat that he runs up on top of large mats. He positions the boat beside smaller areas.
“Some of the best ones may be no bigger than the size of a boat,” Outlaw said. “Others may be up to an acre.”
A key, Outlaw noted, is being prepared for the possibilities.
“I always have a rake with me,” he said.
While some fishermen deploy a regular garden rake mounted on a long handle, that combination can be unwieldy and tiresome to use. Others use a three- or four-pronged potato rake to create holes, but Outlaw has adapted his own tool to open up fishable openings in the grass. He now uses an 11-foot length of metal conduit with a 90-degree bend at the very end that serves as his “rake.”
“You can make a hole plenty big enough to drop a jig through,” Outlaw said. “It doesn’t have to be very big. You might scare some fish off if you tried to make the hole too big. The metal conduit with the 90-degree bend works well for me.”
On larger mats, Outlaw makes a series of holes around the perimeter of his boat. A single hole is all that is needed at times on smaller mats.
“It’s just like any type of structure; the fish are not everywhere under a mat,” he said. “Most of the time they are concentrated in one area. I will fish each hole fairly quickly. If they are there, they will usually bite pretty quick.
“The same is true about small mats. There might be 50 fish wadded up on one end of a mat the size of a boat.”
Outlaw generally uses a 1/16th-oz. Rockport Rattler or ProBilt jig head paired with Crappie Magnet or Midsouth plastics. His color choice is almost always chartreuse. He drops the jig through the openings with a 10- or 11-foot B’n’M jig pole.
“The key, though, is using bigger line,” he said. “The grass is not a place to use four-pound line. You want to pull them out of there to avoid spooking the rest of the fish.”
Outlaw also targets cypress trees year-round. While the areas under and around cypress are obvious spawning areas, Outlaw said the fish will remain shallow given the right conditions. He targets the fish with the same one-pole approach that he uses in the grass.
“People in general don’t think about shallow-water crappie,” he said. “They will hold shallow just about all year long, and the grass and around cypress trees are places people should always look.
Another unusual approach is targeting crappie in current. Some crappie, like those that live on the main portions of the Alabama River, become conditioned to the moving water. They do try to minimize the effects of the current by holding behind wood and rock current breaks.
“We don’t get that much current on the Santee lakes, but the crappie will orient to moving water on the upper end of the lakes, especially when the water is low in the winter,” Outlaw said. “In this case, you’re talking about dropping jigs down around laydowns and stumps but usually not all that deep, maybe up to about 10 feet but usually shallower.”
Finding fish shallow is a common denominator that links Outlaw with other fishermen on various bodies of water.
Grass is not always in the equation, but crappie can be found in skinny water at times other than the spawn, even in the hottest weather.
Shallow Open Water
Of course, shallow is relative to the fishery. Northwest Alabama guide Brad Whitehead normally focuses on water at least 15 deep when he fishes Pickwick Lake and finds fish out to about 30 feet deep. He finds crappie grouped at those depths at just about any time and in any season. That’s why he was amazed late this summer when he graphed a school of fish in about eight feet of water.
“Anyone that fishes Pickwick doesn’t think about crappie being in eight feet of water,” Whitehead said. “I saw them on my side imagining and thought, ‘there’s no way those are crappie’.”
Afraid of spooking the fish with his trolling motor, Whitehead (Brad Whitehead Fishing, 256-483-0834) positioned his boat to drift over the one isolated stump that held the fish. Aided by a slight wind, he drifted several times, dropping B’n’M Double Minnow Rigs (www.bnmpoles.com) with shiners and catching 28 crappie.
“I have never experienced anything like that in shallow water, especially on Pickwick,” Whitehead said.
Hot, Shallow Crappie
The fish live even shallower on other fisheries. Crappie Masters (www.crappiemasters.net) president and owner Mike Vallentine regularly targets shallow fish close to his Missouri home and also on the road when he travels to tournaments.
“On my home waters, Truman Lake in Missouri, even in the heat of summer with 85 or 90 degree water temperatures, we look for shallow stumps in one to four feet of water,” he said. “Those crappie will be there. That’s very common and it’s very common all over the country.”
On the road, Vallentine only fishes the Alabama River about once a year. However, he has learned that plenty of crappie hold shallow on the stumps and standing timber on the river just about year-round.
“There are plenty of crappie to be caught out on the main river and in some of the deeper creeks,” Vallentine said. “But there is a portion of the crappie population on the Alabama River that seems to live shallow just about year-round. Through experience, that’s something that I have come to expect. You can catch fish in two or three feet of water when the water temperature is approaching 90 degrees in a hot Alabama summer.”
Vallentine eases through the wood structure and dissects areas with a one-pole approach.
“I’m not here that often,” he said, “but I’ve never failed to find at least some fish up shallow. They seem to find everything they need to live – food, shade, plenty of oxygen – in the hotter shallow water.
“For crappie fishing, people generally think deep first, but shallow fish on the Alabama River and other places are always a possibility if wood structure is present. Most people just don’t know it and tend to ignore the possibilities.”
Ignoring obvious structure, even if it is an unusual, can be a mistake as well.
Alabama pro Gerald Overstreet, who catches the majority of his crappie in heavy current on the main portions of the Alabama River, was fishing the Tombigbee River in calmer conditions several years. Enjoying a day of casting and retrieving a jig under a cork to laydowns and stumps along the bank, Overstreet (Overstreet Guide Service, 251-589-3225) was catching the occasional fish along the way.
Forced to maneuver around an old partially sunk barge tied up to the bank, Overstreet flipped a cast near the structure and immediately watched his float disappear. He soon discovered the mother lode of crappie was positioned not around the wood where they were supposed to be but rather under the old barge.
“There was no brush or wood around,” Overstreet said. “They were relating to the barge.
“The fish were just under the edge of the barge but would come out and take the jig.”
These fishing experiences illustrate that crappie are where you find them. While that statement may be overstating the obvious, even seasoned fishermen stubbornly adhere to pre-conceived ideas about where the fish should be. Crappie are creatures of habit and are generally found in the same places. The fish, however, will hold in non-traditional areas that stray from the ordinary.
That day arrives when crappie are difficult to locate. It may be time to try an unusual approach, shallow vs. deep, grass vs. wood, or current vs. still water. The results may prove surprisingly but more importantly rewarding as well.