South Winds Pack Early Season Slabs
You don’t need a heavy jighead, no more than an eighth ounce, and lead can be shaved to less than a sixteenth ounce while retaining a large hook for a big plastic or synthetic bait. Wide hook gaps are important to ensure hook sets. The additional width between hook shaft and point means more grab relative to the plastic body of the lure. Bulkier plastics, synthetic baits and live shiners may best interest larger crappies with mouths plenty voluminous to accommodate wide gap hooks and especially by using a lengthy rod, they cast further. The typical tiny crappie jig is not the conclusive choice, not for slabs. Synthetics like four-inch saltwater Gulp! Swimming Mullets, tube jigs, twister tail and paddle tail plastics just as lengthy all serve the purpose of slowing a jig’s descent through the water column.
Why is this important? Two reasons. The longer the lure is in view to fish yet moving slow in relatively cold water, the more time the crappie has to react. And secondly, on retrieve you can keep the bait swimming above bottom where crappies likely suspend. So have a pen knife handy to reduce lead weight.
I got interested in large shiners for crappies while fishing for northern pike. For pike, I like to set bobbers using a couple of rods while nearby live lining a large shiner with my favorite St. Croix. Most of the pike take the live-lined shiner presented on a size 6 plain shank hook through both lips, used with a barrel swivel to tie the leader and add little weight. I cover range bobber fishing can’t accomplish. One blustery, warm afternoon with wind blowing up from the south, I got into a bunch of big crappies on these large, live-lined shiners, a very convincing experience. They took the bait whole, and the fairly small size 6 hook was sufficient for hookset, otherwise allowing the shiners maximum liveliness. Don’t set the hook instantly when fishing shiners, but don’t wait more than five or six seconds, either. Avoid gut hooking.
While fishing lakes and reservoirs, not only the warmth rising from the south matters. Finding downwind coves or shorelines means the shallows are turbulent with water warmer than any coves less exposed to the sun, which positions on a more southerly axis this time of year. Turbulence itself provokes fish into further activity.
Crappies have lateral line sensory receptors which make them aware of commotion at the surface. Sunlight on the water goes through the chop and gets dispersed at crazy, random angles. This means a light show goes on underneath, and forage fish lose inhibition, since they sort of blend in with this disturbance, or are at least a little less likely to be spotted, or sensed by predator’s lateral line receptors, since so much noise is generated above. For comparison, imagine a perfectly calm surface with brilliant sun penetrating straight through. What forage fish will venture out in that, made visible in high definition? The sun-scoured aquatic environment is simply inactive compared to warming water in motion caused by south wind, which gets the entire food chain accelerating—at least for the afternoon and evening—into spring activity.
In some situations, waves crash against a muddy shoreline and discolor water, which gets pulled out and away from the bank for several yards or more. The edge of discolored water should always be fished carefully. Even if water is only two feet deep or so, crappies may be feeding especially on invertebrates such as aquatic worms. A worm-imitating paddletail like the four-inch Keitech Swimbait is a big offering that may trump the interest slabs have in smaller.
The Quantum Leap
A lake, reservoir or pond can be understood as quantities in relationship, and things can equate to action so fast in early spring the situation can seem to have the quality of magic. Lake Hopatcong is probably one of the best examples in the nation of a lake with many coves. It’s a very small lake compared to some, only 2680 acres, but perhaps the best of any to score high at pattern-seeing on the Rorschach test would fail to draw an analogy to anything else by the lake’s outline. No amoeba could ever roll out into so many shapes and diversions. River Styx is a huge cove, productive for perch and pickerel ice fishing all winter, but sort of suffers a lag after ice-out until water temperature spikes, and suddenly crappies leap from outside the weedline up into shallows of four or five feet, initiating the first stirrings of the pre-spawn period. Likewise, flooded timber shallows of Manasquan Reservoir would light up a computer screen, if any could scan acres just for crappies suddenly present and turned on. Whole ranges of many lakes and reservoirs come into play as entire populations of crappies take the leap from relatively inactive waiting, to critically needed feeding on baitfish among residual weeds to spur the growth of eggs for spawning by late April or so.
Ranges—untold acres—of residual vegetation may be full of spots to consider, although some reservoirs, like Spruce Run, have little weeds, submerged brush, docks or timber yet produce very large crappies. Since the acreage of a cove like River Styx is enough to be a small lake in itself, break the possibilities into manageable units. Fish docks or any submerged brush. Plenty of vegetation—sometimes too much even this early, perhaps—exists in combination with these structures. Manasquan Reservoir has, instead of megatons of vegetation, a daunting array of flooded timber. Get back in the relative shallows downwind, especially where you find shallow edges of timber in relation to deep water.
A lot of what the game is all about involves dropping the electric motor and covering water to find pods bunched in spots you discover while on the move. Casting bulky plastics on wide gap jigs is a fish-finding method, although some anglers prefer a bobber arrangement with shiners hooked near the dorsal fin, dropping the rig into tight spots and allowing a short wait before trying another configuration of stumps or patch of brush, getting in a rhythm, a work flow that produces. Ultimately, personal preference combined with a desire to experiment may win the day.
Taking it Slow but Ready to Game
Remember crappies are not as eager to give chase as bass or pike. They will on occasion strike jerkbaits, but this early in the season the fairly slow retrieves of bulky baits or shiners work better. Sometimes a crappie gets caught and no more come aboard. Was it an individual straggler, or did the pod move on and out of range? A good idea is to fan cast the areas near the catch site. Crappies in a pod cooperate by staying together, yet like all individual creatures, they game one against another. When a lure or shiner is presented within the sensory range of more than one predator, the likelihood is that all involved will be alerted to discriminate if they can give chase before any other does. This tension of interest within a pod as a whole increases the likelihood of getting a hit.
That’s something to consider further, this competitive nature. An evolutionary biologist might say any individual of a species behaves in ways that advance the species as a whole, but fish can seem like utter fools for lures and bait, and when reluctant, may yet be provoked into striking. Impart a little finesse to shoot a ripple of interest through a pod. Observe that tube plastics have squid-like tentacles, twister tails undulate in the water and paddle tails vibrate in a way similar to the muscles at the base of caudal fins. Put possibilities to advantage. Don’t simply retrieve these lures in a straight, steady line at the same speed. The likes of an all too regular retrieve does little to send a message to crappie’s senses, because forage fish aren’t zombies; they pulsate by impulses of fright and flight, and at the heart of these responses is life beyond the facts at the surface of things to which they react.
True enough, a plastic tube hardly looks like a minnow, but if you twitch it subtly, irregularly, giving it life, the action is something like evading forage. All you need to do is once strike a nerve in a big crappie and it will take. Quivering animation may get every crappie in sense range interested if they have any inclination to feed.