are known by a number of aliases; calico bass, strawberry bass,
speckled perch, sac-a-lait, and papermouth are just a few. I am
not aware of any studies on the matter, but I wouldn't be surprised
to find out that crappie are the single most sought after fish in
the Buckeye state. Every spring as the sun melts away the gray doldrums
of winter thousands of enthusiastic anglers head to lakes and ponds
in search of silver treasure. 2003 was a banner year on many lakes,
a couple of my favorites giving up more crappie over twelve inches
in that single season than most folks recall seeing in the four
preceding years combined. With some luck, the prolific calico will
ensure that the future is equally generous.
white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) is, by nearly an order of magnitude,
the more common of the two crappie species. The black crappie (Pomoxis
nigromaculatus) demands a habitat where the water is clear and where
there is an abundance of submerged aquatic plants and a sandy or
muck bottom. The aggressive white crappie is more tolerant of silt
and clay, and flourishes in the stained and turbid water. An easy
way to tell a black from a white crappie is to count the number
of spines in the dorsal fin. White crappie usually exhibit 5 or
6 hard spines, black crappie will have 7 or 8. Fortunately for us,
both species are active minnow feeders with similar spawning habits.
And even more fortunately, both species love a well presented fly
and are an ideal target for the long-rodder. As a bonus, the prolific
crappie is absolutely wonderful on the table and makes no demands
that the angler feel guilt about keeping a stringer. Eat what you
want, they'll make more!
spawn in spring when water temperatures are between 60 and 65 degrees.
Male crappies gather in shallow areas of dense weeds or brush and
fan nests two or three feet apart. Females come to the shallow nests
to deposit the eggs and may spawn several times in a season, ultimately
laying as many as 300,000 eggs per adult. Spawning can be a noisy
affair, it is easy to hear and see crappie splashing along wooded
shorelines. Don't be fooled into chasing them, though. While en
flagrante the crappie won't eat. Instead the pre and post spawn
adults will gather along the first break out from the nesting area;
that is where and when they are at their most vulnerable to a well
be successful in the pursuit of the calico we must first understand
a little about its personality. Crappies don't "school"
in the typical sense of the word, but they do roam in loose groups.
While a crappie may be found on a lake's bottom, or even rising
to a dry fly, the species is noted for its habit of suspending -
hovering a few feet over structure. They are notorious for refusing
to move more than a few inches up or down to chase artificial or
natural bait. Crappies eat plankton, insects, small crustaceans
and especially fish such as minnows and immature rough fish. A quick
examination of an adult member of the species will show large eyes
set high on the head, all of which suggests they see well and are
sight feeders. Crappies also hear well and can be easily spooked
by noisy boat handling or careless wading. That said, a bit of careful
deduction coupled with a dash of observation and a dose of stealth
will combine to provide success more often than not.
don't make many special requirements of a fly fisher's tackle. As
the moniker implies, the crappie has a thin and delicate mouth prone
to allowing a hook to tear free. For this reason sharp, light wire
hooks are best. The crappie's flat body provides enough surface
area to make them difficult to move when hooked, but this fish is
certainly not built for speed or endurance. I like using moderate-action
four to six weight rods, depending on wind levels and the depth
which needs to be fished. When crappies are in close and shallow,
a floating forward taper line will get a fly where it needs to be.
A slow sinking line can be an invaluable tool when the sac-a-lait
plays its favorite card and suspends six to ten feet deep, though.
Under these conditions I switch to a uniform sinking taper line
like the Scientific Anglers Wet Cell II. A uniform sinking line
has a tip which is more heavily weighted than the body, so it keeps
a straight connection from the rod to the fly. This is important
for a light biting species like crappie. Also, the sinking line
should not be of a fast sinking design; two to four inches per second
is plenty fast enough. Success is often dependent on our ability
to make a slow presentation to a suspended target.
permitting and soon after equinox (March 20 in 2004 - one of two
days every year when there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve
hours of darkness) crappies will begin to swim into shallow water
where they feed on stirring insect life and small forage fishes.
The north shores of lakes and ponds are the first to warm and so
are the first to provide quality angling. Specs will seek out areas
rich in woody structure such as submerged standing timber, beaver
houses and deliberately placed brush piles where they can suspend
in three to six feet of water over a bottom six to twelve feet deep.
It is important to keep at least ten feet away from your targeted
cover - twice that much if the water is clear - as these fish can
be easily spooked. Ideally you will find this cover just off a spawning
flat where the old creek channel of a lake cove climbs to the shallows.
early season pre-spawn fish with a floating line and an eight to
ten foot leader terminating with a three foot tippet of four or
six pound test fluorocarbon. A marabou or rabbit strip minnow imitation
such as a zonker is a good choice and I like any color so long as
it's white. Start with a size six fly about an inch and a half long
and go down in size if the fish seem reluctant. Cast beyond the
target structure and give the fly plenty of time to sink to depth.
Retrieve the fly very, very slowly using a hand-twist retrieve.
Retrieve speed shouldn't be any faster than two to four inches per
late April the surface temperatures will be reaching into the low
60s and the crappies move into the shallow water to spawn. Again
the north side of the lake is where this activity will start. You
can chase the spawn around a lake for two to three weeks on the
larger waters by starting on the north shore and fishing right around
to the cooler south bank. Look for thick, complex cover with easy
access to deeper holding areas to find the largest groups and the
biggest fish. Once the spawn starts in earnest I like the same rig
discussed above, but I add a small popping cork or float about three
feet above the fly. I also shorten the overall leader to seven feet
or so, keeping the three foot tippet of four to six pound test fluorocarbon.
Cast to the first break adjacent to where the crappies are spawning
and allow the fly to sink. Work the fly with short twitches that
cause the float to kick up a bit of water, allowing sufficient pauses
to keep from pulling the fly up to the surface. Takes will be at
their most aggressive at this time of the season, but a slow and
steady retrieve still wins the race.
season crappie feed extensively on shiners and small shad. While
spawning structure is a key feature for which to look, areas offering
both spawning habitat and thick baitfish populations are ideal.
If you find schools of shiners or shad in deep water (six to twelve
feet) adjacent to wooded flats and bank cover, you have made it
to speckle-side Mecca. Shiners and shad both will follow plankton
blooms, so a northeast cove bank is the best place to be after the
wind has blown from the west for a few days. Constant wind direction
stacks plankton against the shore and the shiners come to feed.
The wind action also pushes warm surface waters to the same locale,
precipitating aggressive feeding by staging crappies between their
egg-laying sessions. Knowing the habits of baitfish in local lakes
will help you find trophy crappies.
the spawn winds down, or if inclement weather pushes the papermouth
off the flats, I look for fish in deeper water. These fish aren't
easy to catch; the key is to keep moving. I like to slowly drift
along a promising break in my canoe, casting a streamer on a sinking
line in front of the drift. If necessary I use a length of chain
on a rope to slow the drift down to where I can just keep ahead
of the boat's progress using a slow hand-twist retrieve. I use a
uniform sinking line which keeps a very direct connection between
my fly and my rod tip. Crappies under these conditions are very
light biters and strike detection becomes critical. I use a two
or three foot length of fluorocarbon as a leader and make a long
cast downwind, allowing the fly to sink to depth. Because you are
drifting with the wind you are casting with the wind - a pleasant
change of pace for most of us! Count down your presentation so you
know exactly what depth you are fishing and return to that depth
when you catch a fish. Crappies never travel alone and where there
is one there are often several hundred close friends.