Oh Crappie

Are You Missing The Perfect Target?

John Felsher October 18, 2011

While largemouth bass usually make headlines, crappie actually attract a larger and perhaps faster-growing following. Tasty and widespread, crappie occur in most suitable waters throughout the United States, plus parts of Canada and Mexico. Anglers can catch them in great numbers using a variety of methods including live and artificial bait techniques.

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Photo: John N. Felsher

Two species occur throughout North America. In Florida, black crappie thrive in most waters north of the Florida Keys. Although not native to Florida, white crappie occasionally show up in a few Panhandle streams. Since it’s such a prolific species, daily limits remain generous and when probing Florida waters anglers may harvest up to 25 crappie per day unless otherwise regulated. In addition to providing great table fare, crappie fishing is a perfect way to spend a relaxing day on the water with family and friends.

…Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler and guide in Silver Springs set a state line-class record with a 3-pounder he pulled from Orange Lake.

“Crappie fishing is something that almost anyone can do from youths to elders,” said Darrel Van Vactor, president of Crappie USA, which conducts professional tournaments all over the country. “Families can enjoy endless hours catching crappie. It’s relaxing and the fish spawn in huge numbers, so most lakes in their range have an abundance.” Vactor added.

Lake Talquin, an 8,800-acre lake west of Tallahassee near Quincy, remains one of the top crappie producers in Florida. Named after the two nearby cities, Lake Talquin is impounded by a dam across the Ochlockonee River and contains some of the deepest freshwater in Florida, dropping to more than 40 feet in places. Many stumps dot the upper end of the lake and anglers can score a whole mess of crappie in the stained waters.

Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in the state and another great venue to test your luck with crappie. Because there’s so much promising territory it can be a bit difficult to find them. You’ll need to utilize a fish finder to locate large schools of shad and most anglers target the southeast, west and northern portions of the lake within a mile from the shoreline.

Many other state waters hold numerous 2 pound-plus fish including the Orange/Lochloosa system east of Micanopy. Cross Creek connects the 12,708-acre Orange Lake with the 8,348-acre Lake Lochloosa. Weedy and relatively shallow, the Orange-Lochloosa system averages about six feet deep, but some holes drop to 14 feet. In December 2005, Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler and guide (thecrappiefisherman.com) in Silver Springs set a state line-class record with a 3-pounder he pulled from Orange Lake. Baker also regularly fishes Crescent Lake on the Flagler-Putnam County line. The lake measures 13 miles long by two miles wide and averages about 10 feet deep. Several creeks feed the system, which connects to the St. Johns River through Dunn’s Creek.

“Crescent Lake has an awesome fishery,” Baker advised. “It’s a well-balanced lake with awesome forage. The fish are full of shad and it is very common to catch crappie in the 2 to 3 pound range.” Baker noted.

The St. Johns River also holds excellent numbers of crappie. The longest river in Florida, the St. Johns rises from springs in southern Florida and flows northward for over 300 miles to enter the Atlantic Ocean in Jacksonville. Along that route, it connects with numerous lakes. Some better crappie lakes along the St. Johns include Lake George, Lake Woodruff, Lake Monroe and Lake Harney. The second largest freshwater lake in Florida, Lake George sprawls over 46,000 acres northwest of Deland.

West of Orlando, the Harris Chain can also produce excellent catches. Anchored by the 15,500-acre Lake Harris, the nine lakes in the chain span about 76,000 acres. Another large group of lakes, the Kissimmee Chain south of Orlando sprawls across 100,000 acres. Some other great Florida crappie waters include Lake Marion, a 2,990-acre lake east of Haines City and the 7,800-acre Lake Weohyakapka near Lake Wales. Lake Weir, a 5,685-acre lake in Marion County, Lake Arbuckle, a 3,800-acre lake east of Frostproof, Lake Istokpoga, a 28,000-acre lake near Sebring, Lake Trafford, a 1,500-acre lake southeast of Fort Myers and Lake Seminole, a 37,500-acre impoundment straddling the Georgia-Florida line on the Apalachicola River near Chattahoochee can all produce good catches.

When fishing for these tasty panfish, most recreational crappie anglers simply dangle a live minnow under a float and drop it next to a tree, log or other cover. This method works, but since crappie often prefer deeper water, many professionals troll for them. Slow-trolling, also called tight lining or spider rigging, involves hanging several rods from holders off the bow. The rods make a fan-shaped pattern and by easing the boat forward with an electric trolling motor anglers can effectively fish baits at different depths simultaneously.

“Spider rigging is a slow, vertical presentation,” said Don Collins, a professional crappie angler from Largo, FL. “When I’m searching for fish, I look for rises, ledges, creek channels or any variations in the bottom contour. We use different color combinations until we determine what the fish want.”

Another form of trolling, long-lining involves pulling several baits 10 to 40 yards behind the boat. Many anglers use tube jigs or spinner jigs sweetened with live minnows. Like with spider rigging, anglers using multiple rods cut huge swaths through the water and can test many bait combinations.

“I like to pull double rigs with two jigheads,” Baker advised. “One weighs 1/48 ounce and the other weighs 1/32 ounce. I try to pick colors that mimic the natural baitfish in the area. I may go through 50 different color combinations before I catch a fish, but once I find out what they want, I can usually catch a bunch.”

For those who prefer casting artificials, spinnerbaits can attract big crappie. Anglers can use small beetle spinners, jig spinners or in-lines to entice crappie. In addition, bass anglers sometimes catch monster crappie with conventional safety-pin spinnerbaits. With wire guards deflecting branches, rocks or other hard objects, safety-pin spinnerbaits can slip through tight cover that might hold big fish. Retrieve them slowly, pausing occasionally to let the bait fall a few feet. The swirling blade mimics wounded shad and can at times be irresistible to trophy crappie. With a bigger bait, anglers might not get as many bites, but they’ll usually catch bigger fish.

In really deep water, try vertically jigging a 1/8 to 1/2 ounce chrome spoon. The highly reflective spoon fluttering down resembles a dying shad or shiner. Let your spoon flutter all the way to the bottom. Most often, fish hit on the fall. After the spoon hits bottom, bounce it a foot or two to keep it in the strike zone.

However, even in deep water, fish don’t always stay near the bottom. Although usually found near brush piles, humps or other cover, crappie sometimes suspend in open water. They look skyward to spot prey silhouetted against the bright surface rather than pick baits off the dark bottom. Frequently, suspended crappie follow schooling shad, waiting for the proper time to pick off targets of opportunity. When fishing a spoon in open water it will be in your best interest to experiment with different depths. Crank the reel handle two or three times to lift the spoon a few feet off the bottom and dangle it there a while. Keep moving slowly up the water column, pausing every few feet to determine the right depth.

Abundant and fairly easy to catch, crappie can provide outstanding action throughout the state all year long. They also provide the main ingredient for a great fish fry. For great light tackle action there’s no better target than the scrappy crappie.

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