Don’t wait on prespawn crappie

Tight-lining for crappie (left) allows the angler to subtly push baits toward suspended fish, while long-lining relies on a reaction bite as baits flutter past. (Picture by Phillip Gentry)

Panfish anglers are a unique breed.

Most of them profess undying love for their particular species of crappie, bluegill or shellcrackers, but they rarely spend much time fishing for them except during the spawning season.

Crappie anglers who understand the seasonal movements of these fish know that the prespawn — and even earlier — can be the best time to catch both the biggest fish and the best numbers across the Carolinas.

Guide Roland Addy of Edgefield, S.C.’s Carolina Crappie, probably puts it best when he talks about the “preseason” of crappie fishing.

“Murray, Greenwood and Clarks Hill are my primary lakes, but I see the same pattern on a lot of the typically deep, clear-water lakes,” said Addy (864-980-3672). “The lake authority will pull water levels down in the late fall, at the same time water and air temperatures drop. Once the levels stabilize, crappie will go into what eventually becomes their prespawn pattern. They’ll range further from structure and become more open-water oriented.”

Weather and rainfall plays a big part in these seasonal, winter movements, buby mid-January and into February, Addy said the open-water pattern is in high gear.

When it comes to locating these crappie, which typically suspend in the water column between 10 and 20 feet deep over much deeper water, Addy’s first go-to locations are the mouths of creeks, particularly where they intersect the main-river channel or a more substantial tributary of the main lake.

“You’ll often see baitfish on your sonar before you’ll see crappie,” Addy said. “The crappie are moving along with the baitfish, shadowing them and at times feeding on them, but it’s all a very slow process.”

Crappie are not really chasing baitfish, he said, as if they ever really chase baitfish the same way striped bass, black bass and white perch do. Feeding is a matter of opportunity and timing that dictates the presentation and tactics Addy will use to catch crappie.

Like a lot of crappie anglers, Addy has embraced recent sonar enhancements that allow him to scan not just below the boat but also to the gunwales, stern and even the bow. He uses that technology as a tool to hone his presentation to precisely where the fish are, but he admits it’s not a magic wand.

“I can dial fish up on my Garmin LiveScope and watch them looking at my bait,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s all they do, look. It’s frustrating when they won’t bite, but at least it lets me know I’m in the right place once those fish become active.”

You can expect to find crappie suspended in open water around baitfish, but not necessarily chasing baitfish. (Picture by Phillip Gentry)

Addy’s three main tactics for winter crappie are long-line trolling (which he also refers to as pulling), tight-line trolling (aka pushing) and single-pole fishing.

Using all the sonar at his disposal, Addy first wants to target the depth and orientation of the crappie he marks. For long-lining, he wants to match his trolling speed to the depth of the fish using variables of jig weights, the line he has out and boat speed.

“Most times, long-lining is a reaction bite,” he said. “Crappie are not going to chase a bait in the winter, but if several baits skim past just a few inches above the fish’s head, they often grab it.”

Addy’s preferred baits for long-lining are curlytail jigs and Sliders, baits that impart movement to get that reaction. He rarely uses jigs heavier than 1/16-ounce, preferring to add split-shot above the bait rather than using a larger jig. At times, he will double up and troll two 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigs on the same line.

Virtual sonar allows single pole-jigging for open water crappie in real time, while the angler watches the bait on the sonar screen. (Picture by Phillip Gentry)

Tight-lining is the more-subtle approach during winter. Baits, either jigs or live minnows, are placed at precise depths and pushed into the path of suspended crappie at speeds not more than .5 mph.

“Using Livescope while tight-lining, I’ll ease up to the fish using 12- to 14-foot rods and place the baits a foot or so above the fish,” Addy said. “You can target specific fish you see on the screen or catch random fish that will also be suspended at the same depth.”

Single-pole fishing for winter crappie is more dependent on sonar to locate and target specific fish. Addy said fish are not really oriented to structure and are sitting still, suspended up in the water column, even though general structure like a river or creek channel or the end of a long point may be directly below.

“I’ll set my range to scan 40 to 50 feet out in front of the boat and watch for crappie,” he said. “I can close the distance and pitch a jig or lower a minnow rig straight to the fish. If I don’t see a lot of fish suspended, I might go look at the closest deep brush pile and usually find fish hanging off to one side or the other.”

At the end of the day, Addy urged anglers to be versatile and change techniques and presentations until you find what the crappie want on that day. ■

What is LiveScope?

Anglers in general and crappie anglers in particular are always on the lookout for that one thing — that one bait, rod, tactic or piece of gear — that will help them catch fish better than anyone else. According to crappie pro Kent Driscoll of Cordova, Tenn., the latest, “one thing” is the new Garmin Panoptix LiveScope sonar system.

Garmin’s LiveScope has some features that enable crappie fishrermen to see and cast to individual fish. (Picture by Phillip Gentry)

“This thing is a game-changer,” Driscoll said. “The tournaments I’ve been fishing are all being won by boats equipped with these units. Single-pole anglers are winning tournaments with them.”

Panoptix’s all-seeing sonar is unlike anything ever seen on the water. It gives anglers the ability to see all around the boat in real time and in three dimensions. Whether idling around graphing or fishing, Panoptix transducers are available in Forward and Down configurations with mounting styles to suit your fishing needs.

“I’ve been a big fan of Humminbird’s Side Scan sonar for years, and it’s still hard to beat for scouting new areas and finding structure that holds crappie, but once you have located something you want to check out — a brush pile or a stump field or just open water — there’s nothing like this,” he said.

According to the Garmin website, it’s easy to adjust the transducer mode to fit the angler’s desired fishing techniques. LiveScope Forward allows you to see remarkably clear images of structure and swimming fish around your boat, and the LiveScope Down allows you to see directly below your boat. The view automatically updates on the compatible Garmin chart plotter.

Driscoll said he’s been using the Garmin 1042 XSV 10-inch unit and admits he still has much to learn, but so far has been pretty amazed.

“This thing helps me determine so many details about what’s out in front of the boat. I can tell if it’s a crappie, bass, catfish or other fish like baitfish or something I don’t want to see, like gar,” he said.

About Phillip Gentry 823 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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