South Wind Slabs
Pike fishing clued me into crappies. Something nice clobbered a large, dead shiner retrieved like a suspending jerkbait, which turned out to be a crappie of more than two pounds. I caught two more over a foot long in quick succession, and then paused to sum the situation. The corner at the northeastern terminus of Spruce Run Reservoir received a steady, warm wind from the south during an early April evening with water temperature having climbed into the 50’s.
Big crappies turned out to be predictable over the years. With warm, southerly April winds, we counted on tasty fish fries after outings. The husky predators proved to be nothing to try and tease with little crappie jigs. They wanted big meals.
Slab crappies longer than 17 inches and more than three pounds inhabit some waters, including Spruce Run and Manasquan reservoirs, lakes Hopatcong and Mercer. They move in pods of similar-sized fish, and although not as many slabs congregate together as smaller, the numbers may be plenty. Since the sun sets in the southwest and is warmest in the afternoon, its rays warm water to the northeast best. That southerly wind accompanying a warm front stirs shallows into a sort of soup that makes feeding opportune for gamefish forage.
Large shiners live-lined weightless, besides a barrel swivel if you fish a leader, produce all the fish you want to catch, but shiners don’t serve as the only productive choice. A sixteenth-ounce jighead with a large wide-gap hook for a big plastic or synthetic bait works wonders. You can even take a paring knife and shave off some of the lead to retain hook size for slower descent and retrieve. With all the bulk of plastic or synthetic material displacing water, the presentation involves ability to retrieve at a modest pace, critical for crappies this time of year. A lengthy rod of six or 6 ½ feet allows further casts than shorter, and light or medium power, slow or fast action, suffices. Synthetics like 4-inch saltwater Gulp! Swimming Mullets, tube jigs, Keitechs, twister tail and paddle tail plastics of three or four inches all serve the purpose.
Cast to downwind coves or shorelines of lakes and reservoirs with turbulent shallows of just a couple or a few feet to eight feet deep or more. Turbulence activates, since crappies have lateral line sensory receptors by which they respond to commotion at the surface. Also, sunlight on the water goes through the chop dispersed at crazy, random angles. This means a lot of light and shadow play goes on underneath and forage fish lose inhibition, since they sort of blend in with this disturbance and respond with less wariness with so much noise generated above.
For comparison, imagine a perfectly calm surface with bright sun penetrating straight through. What forage fish will venture out to be seen in high definition? A sun-scoured aquatic environment is inactive compared to warming water in motion caused by a south wind, which gets the entire food chain accelerating into the new season. 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, creating an edge of discolored water to fish carefully.
Action picks up fast during spring and magic seems to strike by the wand of a rod, but you have to find the sweet spots. Lake Hopatcong is the best example of a lake with many coves. River Styx crappies come from main lake depths to shallows of four or five feet, responding to stirrings of the pre-spawn period in this huge cove the size of a small lake. Flooded timber shallows of Manasquan Reservoir find crappies suddenly present and turned on. Whole ranges of many lakes and reservoirs beckon with possibilities as the crappie population leaps from relatively inactive waiting, to feeding on baitfish among residual weeds to spur the growth of eggs for spawning by late April or so, but you’ll never find fish everywhere.
Ranges of residual vegetation may be full of possible spots, 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 Hopatcong’s River Styx is enough to ply for a very long day, break down the possibilities where many confront you. Fish docks or any submerged brush. Plenty of residual vegetation usually exists in combination with these targets, and structures with more than one kind of cover tend to hold more fish. Manasquan Reservoir has, instead of acres of vegetation, daunting fields of flooded timber. Get back in relative shallows downwind, especially where you find shallow edges of timber dropping into deep water. Search earnestly.
The journey may involve running the electric motor and covering water to find pods bunched in spots you discover while on the move. Casting plastics on wide-gap jigs is a fish-finding method, although some anglers prefer bobbers with shiners hooked near the dorsal fin underneath, dropping the rig over tight spots and allowing a short wait before trying other timber or stumps. It all depends on what you’re best suited to: when crappies feed, they will hit.
They won’t be as eager to give chase as bass or pike. Striking jerkbaits on occasion especially in warmer water, slabs this early in the season better respond to fairly slow retrieves, but sluggish might not be the description of the fish’s mood. Sometimes a crappie gets caught and no more hit. Did a pod move on and out of range? Fan cast the areas near the catch site. Crappies in a pod cooperate and may vacate the area of a hookup, yet like all individual creatures—they compete. When a lure or shiner is presented within the sensory range of a group of predators, all involved may be alerted to try and take it before another does. This tension within a pod increases the likelihood of getting a hit, and fish have a short memory after being disturbed.
Consider further fish competition. They may behave like fools for lures and bait, and when reluctant, may yet be provoked. Finesse the jig by subtle twitches to send a ripple of interest through a pod. Tube plastics have squid-like tentacles; twister tails undulate in the water, and paddle tails vibrate. Nevertheless, a regular retrieve does little to send a message to crappies’ senses, despite the fact that they’re aware of the lure. Forage fish pulsate by impulses of fright and flight, and that’s what you want to imitate. A plastic tube doesn’t really look like a minnow, but if you twitch it irregularly, giving it a life of quivering animation, you may impart just enough resemblance to forage and draw interest.
It’s a special time of year to get out and fish for big ones. This is when everything begins again, and if you’re like me, mood begins to take ground like roots digging in, warmth on the wind a harbinger of greater happiness. Lots of slabs on the line let you know there’s life in the world willing to respond to efforts.