“Is a minnow always necessary?”

One of the crappie fishermen in line at Tommy’s Trading Post on the upper end of Barnett Reservoir asked the question, probably tired of shelling out $10 a day for enough minnows to last the morning.

Good question, and worth investigating.

Rabbit Rogers, one of the best perch jerkers around, rarely uses one, but knows if there is a time for them it is now, during the pre-spawn period.

“I don’t like to use them, and I won’t unless I’m in a tournament and that’s all they want,” said Rogers, multi-time points champion on the Magnolia Crappie Club circuit. “We do a lot of our events in the winter and that includes the pre-spawn when fish want to eat even though they’re lethargic because of cold weather. In a tournament, this time of year, I usually have a minnow bucket just in case.

“Everyday fishing? Never. I like the challenge of catching fish on a jig, and part of that is figuring out what jig (color, shape, size...) they want. Besides, why get your hands wet when it’s cold? Never understood that.”

Tommy Grafton of Vicksburg is just the opposite, never going to a lake without a loaded minnow bucket in the boat. To save costs, he built a live tank at his home to keep his minnows alive trip to trip. The only question he has to ask each day is what size minnow the fish will want.

“Nine times out of 10, I get the smallest minnows I can find,” Grafton said, “and it’s not because they are the cheapest either. I almost always fish with a jig and minnow combination, no matter how many poles I have out. I drift fish, or troll if you want to call it that.”

One reason he likes the small minnows is that he targets black crappie a lot at Eagle Lake, and it is the popular belief around that oxbow’s fishing community that black crappie like a small jig tipped by a small minnow.

“No doubt about that,” said David Thornton, who lives at Eagle Lake. “I do believe that black crappie just want it small. I’ve learned that when I go to any lake where black crappie are in good supply, I need to go small.”

That can create problems in the final cool weeks of the pre-spawn when big white female crappie are staging in deep water near the spawning grounds. Grafton often carries two minnow buckets, one with large and one with small. That way he is prepared for white or black crappie. 

“When the big white crappie are ganged up and biting, that’s when I get away from the jigs altogether, switch to bare hooks on my trolling gear and use the biggest minnows I can find at the bait shop,” Grafton said. “Eagle, Washington, Barnett, Chotard, Albermarle, Wolf ... doesn’t matter the lake, when I chase white crappie in March before the spawn, I’m using the biggest minnow I can find.

“But I also have the small ones in case that plays out and I want to go chase black crappie. I have never found a time when black crappie like a bigger minnow over a smaller one.”

Most pure crappie fishermen who fish more for sport than food agree that when the spawn begins, you can leave the minnow buckets at home.

“Plain jig,” said Grafton.

“Just a jig and color doesn’t really matter,” said Rogers.

Of course, there will always be those fishermen that are in it purely for food, and that’s the guys you see anchored in spots with about a dozen poles and corks all around the boat, drowning minnows. James Watkins of Jackson is one of those.

“I don’t have the time or the money to run all over the lake looking for fish,” Watkins said. “I got mouths to feed, a lot of them. I always have as many poles as me and whoever is fishing with me can handle and we put as many minnows in the water as possible, whether it’s deep or shallow.

“Jigs just don’t fit into my program. I don’t troll; my old boat isn’t set for that. I don’t have a trolling motor. That also eliminates jigging around stumps or vegetation during the spawn with one pole. That just seems like so much work, holding one pole. If I have 10 poles, all with minnows, all around me, I know it’s only a matter of time until I fill my ice chest.”

Rogers sums up the bait debate simply.

“I still believe that the best crappie philosophy is this: It’s not what, it’s where,” he said. “If you put a bait, whether it’s a jig or a minnow or both, in the right place, a crappie will hit it.

“That’s the secret to good crappie fishing, knowing where the fish are at the right time.”