Life is full of assumptions, but to the open-minded, opportunity springs abundant. Take, for example, crankbaits. Mention that lure category and most anglers will start telling you their tales of big bass.
Certainly, nothing is wrong in that. The mental connection makes sense.
However, crankbaits have a much broader application and in southern fisheries, diminutive versions of these wiggling motion makers bear great invite to our prized panfish — bluegill and crappie.
These species vary somewhat in their preferences and approaches to feeding, but there’s plenty of crossover.
* Both tend to operate in schools, or at least small packs.
* Both are highly motivated by feeding competition.
*Both seem much more willing to dart after a moving object than bass.
For a look at this scaled-down version of a popular freshwater tactic, I asked a couple experienced anglers with a fondness for each species. Fellow scribe and freshwater multi-tasker Jeff Samsel loves his ’gills, while Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bernie Schultz enjoys crappie dinners so much, he spends a lot of his time off the road in this pursuit.
Their thoughts are integrated into this little fishin’ chat.
“A mini crankbait represents a crawfish or a ‘hopper or other big meal for a bluegill, so it tends to produce a larger grade of fish than a smaller lure,” Samsel said. “A bluegill will nip at virtually any lure, and it will try to eat anything it can get inside its mouth.”
A good thing about bluegill is that theirs is a diverse habitat range. Samsel likes cypress knees, lily pad edges, deadfalls and docks.
“Really, any shoreline cover is apt to have bluegills around it from spring through fall,” he notes. “Like most fish, though, they seem to have daily preferences, maybe based on food chain influences that I can’t see, so I try to cover a lot of water initially and look or patterns in where I get strikes.”
As Samsel points out, food availability generally determines bluegill residence. Consider that emergent grass, cane, pad stems and weed mats offer habitat for a wide assortment of aquatic insects, along with those succulent grass shrimp that panfish love. Think of it like a buffet line: the fish may be looking for some of those tasty items down by the appetizer and salad bar section, but if you show them the equivalent of the crab legs or carved roast beef, they’ll make room on the plate.
Also, consider how windy days, rain and the ensuing runoff sends a lot of terrestrial insects into the lakes. These are periods of heightened opportunity, so make sure you’re working the area when such meteorological factors play to your favor.
What to Throw: Indiscriminate gluttons, bluegill are notorious for smacking just about anything they can stretch their mouths around, so all your standard baitfish shapes like a Rebel Tracdown Minnow, Rapala Ultra Light Crank and Rapala Shad Rap (size 04) will do just fine. However, some more specific shapes exist to provide options for what you offer bluegills.
“Rebel Bighoppers and Crickhoppers are my favorites,” Samsel said. “Yellow grasshopper, green grasshopper and brown cricket are all good colors. Other good mini cranks include Rebel Teeny Wee-Crawfish and Strike King Bitsy Minnows. The best crankbaits are less than 1½ inches long, shallow diving and buoyant.”
Elsewhere, Strike King’s Bitsy Wiggler presents the curvy figure of an earthworm, while the banana shaped Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish (size 05) has a unique look with a serious shimmy. And because no self-respecting bluegill can turn down a surface-stranded winged insect, imposters like the Rebel Bumble Bee will likely garner plenty of attention. Remember, patience is king, so give the Bee sufficient surface time before cranking.
Complementing your lipped baits, mini versions of lipless baits like the classic Rat-L-Trap can be particularly effective for covering water and finding active fish.
Presentation: Crankbait fishing is inherently user-friendly — just chunk and wind. Varying the speed and pausing might help attract attention or close the deal with an indecisive fish.
“My favorite technique is actually to use a shallow crankbait (especially a Bighopper) as a surface lure, either waking it by reeling slowly with the rod tip high or twitching it so it dances erratically on top,” Samsel said. “Either way, I add pauses to suggest a terrestrial insect trying to regain orientation.
“If you’ve ever thrown a grasshopper in a pond and watched what happened next you can picture what I am going after. If the fish won’t come up, I pretty much just cast and wind, trying to bump grass edges or hard cover when I can.”
And taking a page from the bass angler’s handbook, snagging those mini ‘traps in hydrilla edges and then ripping the bait free generates the kind of sudden pop that gets the bluegills looking in the right direction. When the bait pops out of the grass, it looks a lot like a crawfish scooting to its next location and big bluegill are quick to capitalize on such sightings.
Most anglers will find it easier to toss tiny crankbaits on spinning gear, as it’s tough to propel light lures with baitcasters. Samsel throws his bluegill baits on a 5 ½- to 6-foot ultralight spinning outfit typically spooled with 4-pound line.
“Traditionally, I’ve just used mono, but I’ve become a big fan of Berkley Nanofil with a couple of feet of mono leader at the end,” he said.
Spanking the Specks
Much of what we just covered for bluegill will transfer seamlessly into the crappie arena, but we’re breaking them up simply because of the likelihood of running into bigger fish, as well as the crappie’s willingness to attack smaller bass-size crankbaits.
The deal with crappie is that they’re more interested in baitfish, so unlike the liberal-minded bluegill, you’ll want to stick with those profiles. Baits like the Rapala Ultra Light Crankbaits and size 04 Shad Raps and Strike King’s Series 3 Mini fit the bill.
“The primary forage for crappie is small baitfish so in that regard, I think they’re very similar (to bass),” Schultz said. “Anytime there are shad, shiners and small minnows, I think both species target them equally.”
That, he said, explains why he occasionally reels in hefty crappie while throwing crankbaits for bass. When he’s targeting specks, his nickname for crappie, he’ll go with the smaller crankbaits.
But, he said a motivated slab has no trouble catching and biting a Rapala DT-6.
“A big crappie will aggressively eat a crankbait and it seems to me that they seem to show a preference for it,” Schultz said. “I‘ll be in the boat with people throwing spinner type baits and I’ll catch decisively bigger crappie on crankbaits.
“The size of the fish (in the area) should determine the size crankbait you use, but if you go with the larger crankbaits, you’ll catch the larger crappie.
Presentation: As for retrieves, Schultz suggests experimentation, with attention to patterns.
“You have to mix it up,” he said. “I pretty much chunk and wind and I mix it up until I figure out what they like on a given day. Sometimes when I pause the bait, and it starts to float up, that’s when they slam it.
“If the crappie are thick, I just steady retrieve. Given the competition factor, when there’s more than one fish, you have a better chance of getting bit.”
Although your standard crankbait wiggle is usually sufficient to entice crappie, Schultz said that Rapala’s Scatter Rap crankbaits ratchet up the appeal. The unique, curved bill imparts an erratic and evasive action that resembles a baitfish suddenly realizing its stumble into a rough neighborhood.
To maximize the action of any crappie crank, Schultz fishes with light fluorocarbon, something in the 6- to 10-pound range. “You want the bait to wobble and, in the case of a Scatter Rap, swing side to side,” he said. “You don’t want to retard the action, because that’s what attracts the fish.”