by Vic Attardo
Crappie can tolerate a little salt, not just when you’re cooking them, but in the water they call home.
At first glance the docks extending out from shore didn’t appear to be an unusual location for crappie. Any crappie angler worth his salt would toss a jig towards the gnarly pillars.
But if you spent an hour or two around these algae covered pilings, you’d have noticed the water level rise and fall — a shadowy line first covered and then exposed as time marched on.
If, for some reason, you tried tasting the water in the vicinity, you would realize that salt was part of its composition. The flows would increase and decrease periodically throughout the day. Around each piling the water might appear to stand still and then the flow would pick up steam, moving circles around the structure.
Welcome to tidal water. While brackish with only small amounts of salinity, crappie still live and thrive there.
The first time I was directed to fish a similar dock where the water rose and fell with the tides, I was surprised by the very existence of our acclaimed species. I thought crappie to be an entirely fresh-water dweller.
But crappie hanging out in the lee of the current’s flow, on the “downside” of a pilling, were as feisty and fat as the best crappie I’d caught in Reelfoot or Champlain or the Kentucky River impoundments. They latched onto a jig and soft plastic — hanging beneath a slip bobber — with gusto. With the added test of maneuvering them away from the obtrusive pillar they were as challenging to extract from these surroundings as from the most tentacled stump. It was this tenacity and tact that hooked me on pursuing crappie in tidal waters.
That and the fact that like so many brackish and salt water fish their cooking quality was so much the better. Yes, there are crappie in salt-flavored waters and they are every bit as exciting and perplexing as their completely fresh water counterparts.
What is brackish?
Of all the habitats occupied by crappie, perhaps the least understood by anglers is the brackish, tidal water locations. Crappie are certainly structure-loving fish, but the structure they are found in varies somewhat from entirely freshwater crappie.
It would be a mistake to hunt for these fish in the wide open spaces of brackish habitat. I’ve never located them in main salt water channels or in large salt water bays. Instead they are found up rivers with a salt and fresh water composition. I encounter them in winding creeks with tidal and fresh water flows and in boat channels and backwater developments where boaters have access to more open brackish areas. Then too they can be found thriving around industrial piers — in a pier’s contorted maize — not that far in distance from an open water salt location but a world apart in actual biological habitat.
Though I have searched and searched in academic papers I’ve never found any mention of the amount, or proportion, of salt to fresh water crappie can handle. Among the dedicated cadre of brackish water crappie anglers in my region we like to call this proportion, “Half and Half,” which is about as unscientific as you can get. This leaves questions about the contents of such recognized brackish crappie habitat as the upper Chesapeake Bay, the St. John’s River in Florida entirely up for grabs. The fact that an angler can be catching redfish or bluefish within a half mile of a hot crappie location just poses more questions.
A key difference between entirely fresh and brackish crappie is their feeding habits, particularly their timing. While fresh water crappie might bite throughout the day, or depending on location, have a preference for low light periods, brackish crappie definitely dance to a different tune.
The best tidal fishing changes with the tide, no matter what time of day. In my experience it is best from the last two hours of high tide into the first two hours of low. That is “the crown” as I call it. This is when the current is at its peak. The water moves swiftly creating mini-eddies and rushes around vertical structure. At these times a crappie’s menu is pushed by the strong current and becomes more vulnerable.
However, structure plays a key role in determining if “the crown” is the best time to fish at any one pinpoint location.
For example, in the peak of the high tide or incoming tide and the onset of the low or outgoing tide, the flow may be too fast for even a hefty crappie to endure. I’ve seen this occur on the outer most area of a dock or bridge riprap when crappie actual retreat back from the heavy flows and find a less powerful current away from the structure’s outward rungs. At such times middle of a dock or some nook and cranny of a riprap point offers a key ambush point for a hungry crappie, and consequentially of angler chasing them. Still the period of peak flow will motivate crappie into feeding at these times.
On the other hand, periods of slack tide, representing little flow, are universally the worst time to fish for tidal crappie. This is when we sit down in the boat and get out the sandwiches.
Winds play an enormous part in the feeding habitats of crappie. Primarily, wind is a water mover or a water stacker. Depending on its direction and strength, wind can extract water from a channel or it can flood water into a holding area. The effects of either might just push crappie around the crappie or move them entirely out.
Unfortunately, unlike the tide clock, there is no universality when it comes to wind strength or direction and the availability and mood of crappie in all locations. The effects of wind and water movement can even vary within a moderately reasonable distance. For instance in a large river inlet on the Chesapeake Bay we know to stay out of one area when the wind comes in from the north; at the same time with the wind blowing in the same northerly direction we can hop across the main channel and up into another river inlet where the crappie fishing can be as hot as Hades. The only way to know this is from experience, or a good guide.
Fall is usually the best time to locate crappie in the more confined tidal creeks. In the summer, fish are scattered in different locations and are rarely schooled. In some brackish locations catching largemouth bass and catching crappie in summer go hand in hand. But in water with regular tidal influence the crappie re-congregate in the fall and make their move up rivers and creeks.
I know that is where I intend to spend the better part of my autumn chasing crappie.
Legend has it that Vic Attardo caught his first crappie when he was one-year old as his parents gave him a magnetic fishing pole and magnetic fish in his bassinet. He wrote about the experience on his high chair with spaghetti sauce. Since then he has fished with and written about the greatest crappie fishermen of the era including Bill Dance, Whitey Outlaw, Dan Dannenmueller, Jamie Vladyka and many others.