Bruce Roberts trolled slowly with a crappie pole in each hand, searching for prespawn crappie while scanning his Humminbird down-imaging unit.
Suddenly the screen on the scanner lit up a like a Christmas tree and a split second later Roberts felt the tap-tap of not one but two crappie as they thumped his crappie jigs. Roberts quickly set the hook and brought both crappie into the boat.
As soon as they were secured, he reached over and saved the GPS location to mark the school of fish — not a bad start to a cool day of crappie fishing.
Although many people are resting comfortably inside their warm homes wishing for spring and good fishing weather, a few anglers like Roberts are already catching pre-spawn crappie and lots of them.
“Last year at the end of February the fish were in the deep bends off the flats on Okatibbee Lake,” said Roberts. “The fish were only 7 to 8 feet deep over 15 feet of water, and they were really biting.”
Once he had located the crappie, Roberts soon found that a consistent pattern. Crappie were stacking up over most of the deep bends of Okatibbee Creek and it was simply a matter of catching them. Roberts chose minnows.
“I like to fish jigs most of the time, but when they’re out here in the open water and it’s still cold I prefer the minnow rigs,” Roberts said. “I use the pre-rigged Capps and Coleman rigs because the crappie those minnows in cold weather, and they’re easy to rig up. And, sometimes you’ll catch two at a time on one pole.”
Roberts likes to use Covington Minnow farm minnows because they’re usually fresh and lively. For 50 years, Covington has supplied minnows to most of Mississippi and Alabama.
“There’s just something a little different that minnows do for you during cold weather,” he said. “That minnow rig will outfish anything you want to use. I’ve had six poles out and when the fish start biting I’ve had fish on all six poles and two poles had two fish on them.”
No wonder minnows are Roberts’ pick during the pre-spawn.
Sonar changed the game
For most of our lifetime, crappie were simply a spring and fall pursuit, during times when they were readily accessible in shallow water. That all changed a few years back when companies like Humminbird and Lowrance began developing superior “fish finders.”
Gone were the days when people used flashers to read the bottom or LCR’s to see elementary views of what was under the boat. Modern day units are vastly superior and very high tech and getting easier to use.
“I use a Humminbird 1199 and SI on my boat with a 999 SI on the trolling motor,” Roberts said. “I’ll sync up my trolling motor with both units and then we’re in business.”
Roberts uses the modern-day marvels to locate and store previously unseen structure along the bottom of the lakes. During periods of low water early in the year on the flood control lakes like Okatibbee, Grenada and Sardis, crappie will usually be found along the creeks, drops and shallow humps so it’s especially important to have good electronics.
Roberts is a former champion bass angler who now spends his fishing time relaxing and catching crappie. He knows the importance of the new units and their GPS systems.
“I have 170 to 180 different stumps or brush piles saved on my unit and I can put my unit on I-Pilot and go from one to another,” Roberts said. “I’ll have one set on the GPS mode so that I can watch and see as I’m approaching a location and get ready. If I catch several on one spot I’ll just troll back and forth over that stump until the bite slows and then I’ll proceed on my route, letting the electronics do their job.”
Since most anglers are weekend fishermen it’s important to know where the fish are when you’re fishing. Electronics are a key to not wasting time on the water. Roberts wants to catch fish and you can only do that where they are when you are fishing, not where you caught them last weekend.
“Sometimes it happens almost overnight,” Roberts said. “I was fishing and catching them over the deep creek bends on Monday and by Saturday they were on the banks and shallow drops.”
Roberts went back to the spots he had caught them on the Monday trip and couldn’t find any fish nor get a bite, so he knew pretty quickly that the fish had moved. His ability to adapt quickly allowed him to move with the fish, thanks to his modern electronic units and his knowledge of their use and the lay of the lake.
“You can waste a lot of time fishing where they were last week, or you can move with the fish and keep catching them,” said Roberts. “But you’ve got to have quality electronics and know how to use them.”
Depending upon current water levels, the key thing is the water temperature. That’s what drives the crappie this time of year and it drives them ultimately to the banks or shallow spawning flats.
“When the water surface temperature is in the 50- to 55-degree range, they’re getting ready to spawn and you better get ready, too, or you’ll miss it,” Roberts said. “When it reaches 60 degrees they jump and run to the bank or shallow spawning flats.
“It can happen overnight.”
Prespawn shallow fish
After the fish leave the deeper structure and creek channels, many will stop on the first drop right off the shallow flats while many will follow those shallow ditches and stage along the stumps, shallow humps and even submerged dams and roadbeds.
“Once they go shallow, I’ll switch to 100 percent jigs and jig poles and use a foot-control trolling motor,” Roberts said. “I’ll mark the spots where I catch fish in shallow water, and I’ll work it time and time again and usually catch fish on it.
“I’ll fish it until they stop biting and move on to the next spot. After I set the location on my GPS, I’ll come back the next day and start all over again.”
As the shallow fish move up to spawn in waves, they will likely be found on the same structure as more fish move in day after day. Shallow water stump fields located in flats and along ditches are some of the best pre-spawn locations to fish.
During one trip to Okatibbee Lake, I watched as Roberts and his daughter Morgan continuously caught crappie after crappie from one stretch of open water about 60 yards long. Both anglers were on the front of the boat in chairs, holding jig poles in their hands and catching white perch all afternoon.
Okatibbee Lake is Roberts’ home lake but he also fishes Grenada and other flood control impoundments with similar success. On Okatibbee, Roberts knows that the fish spawn at different times around the lake and he simply moves from one area to another catching pre-spawn crappie.
As soon as one area slows he moves to another area and catches them there. Sometimes the pre-spawn period may last as long as a month as it moves through different parts of the lake.
Roberts gears up
“I prefer the Berkley 14-foot crappie rods with the Wally Marshall crappie reels when I’m trolling the deep water with jigs or minnow rigs,” Roberts said, explaining that he switches to lighter equipment when the crappie enter final pre-spawn mode.
“I like the 12-foot B&M Ultralights with 8-pound fluorescent Hi-Vis line,” Roberts said. “I’ll use the chartreuse colored line or the Wally Marshall Camo line if it’s murky or muddy.”
Roberts prefers the light poles and line for the feel and sensitivity of them. He can tell if they just barely take a nip. The light line is not a problem while fishing jigs in shallow water as they are easy to shake off of a stump. Simply grab your line with one hand and run the pole down to the jig and lightly push the jig off of the object.
“I like the Arkie flathead jig and grubs because I can work that head through grass or structure without staying hung up or having grass wadded up on it,” Roberts said. “I’ll also use a Southern Pro Li’l Hustler head or a Rockport Rattler’s Chartreuse head jig. Bobby Garland also has good grub colors and I use them as well.”
No matter what combinations of jig heads and jigs he uses, Robert’s favorite color combinations is chartreuse/red or black/red.
Crappie on the rocks
Perry Davis of Meridian spent his younger years working for NASA in Huntsville, Ala., before coming home and concentrating on catching bass. Davis and his tournament partner Steve Jordan caught a lot of bass and won more than their share of bass tournaments.
While fishing bass tournaments Davis learned a thing or two about fishing deep water structure and translated that to his current preferred fishing pursuit: catching crappie and pan fish on light equipment and light line.
Davis likes to fish for the pre-spawn crappie along the rocks on the eastern sides of the lakes during the pre-spawn time period.
“On Okatibbee Lake I like to go over there near the east bank of the emergency spillway and work the area along the rocks,” Davis said.
Davis credits former longtime Okatibbee Lake Manager Bill Pennington for his method of catching pre-spawn crappie on the rocks.
“We were fishing over on the east side of the lake along the emergency spillway many years ago, and I saw Bill and Beverly Pennington fishing for crappie and they were really catching some slab perch. Well I didn’t forget that lesson so I started fishing the rocks and have been doing it ever since.
“If the water temperature and lake level is right the crappie will move up on those rocks and get ready to spawn. If you can find some stumps, brush or structure in 4 to 8 feet of water off of the rocks they’ll relate to that cover, too. In fact, I used to sink wax myrtle bushes in 4 to 6 feet of water right off the rocks, and the crappie would load up on them when the time was right.”
Davis prefers the east side of the lake as the rocks have all day to collect the sun and warm up the water.
“I think they’re coming up on the rocks as the temperature warms, and they’ll warm up pretty quickly into the 60s as the afternoon sun shines directly on them,” he said.
A light-tackle preference
“I prefer spin casting equipment with light line and I like to use Roadrunners,” Davis said. “I loved to bass fish and feel those bass thump a bass jig back when I was fishing tournaments. It feels about the same to me when the crappie thump that Roadrunner on light tackle too.”
Davis works the light tackle very slowly covering every inch of the rocks or structure in his search for the crappie. When he finds fish, he’ll use Roadrunners and jigs to entice bites.
“I’ll catch eight, 10 or 15 crappie on one pass down those rocks just working the Roadrunners back and forth,” said Davis. “When they’re staging along those rocks you can just work it back and forth, but hold on because you may catch a slab-sized crappie on that light tackle.”
Davis loves to make those milk runs and catch the crappie from the same spots as new ones filter in and take up residence where the others were caught. The good thing about making milk runs is that you can do that all over the lake and then come back to where you started and catch more, when they’re in their pre-spawn transition period.
“Crappie are like deer, they like to find a little cover too, so find brush or stumps along the rocks, points and shallow ditches and you’ll be near crappie during the early pre-spawn time,” Davis said.
He prefers casting to crappie because it’s similar to his bass fishing.
“You can feel it all the way to the boat and sometimes you’ll feel them swimming away slowly without ever feeling them hit,” Davis said. “When you’re banging into the rocks and structure you’re right where the fish are and that’s where you’re going to catch the fish.”
Another tip that Davis doesn’t talk about very often is crappie nibbles.
“I’ll take a 1/16-ounce Roadrunner or jig and put a crappie nibble on it and sometimes that means the difference between catching fish and going home empty handed,” said Davis. “Those crappie nibbles will leave a little scent stream behind it, and the crappie will home in on them, too.
“Sometimes we’d fish trees without a weed guard and we would lose a lot of jigs, so we started making our own weed guards. We started putting a weed guard made out of nylon rope on there, and it really makes a difference in the brush.”
Davis likes to fish the lures really slow and pull it through brush, trees or logs and he loves the feel he gets from bumping the stumps.
“Oneday, I pulled a 1/16-ounce jig over a log and couldn’t get a bite,” Davis said. “I pulled that thing over the log three times and never got a bite. On the fourth pull over the log I just let it sit there a few seconds and when I moved it again a big crappie nailed him instantly.”
Davis also uses a jig and cork rig under certain conditions but that’s as a last resort if they won’t bite anything else.
“I prefer fishing Roadrunners but sometimes I’ll use a small Renosky Keystone jig below a cork in cold weather,” Davis said. “I’ll work that thing really slow and when I get over my spot I’ll let that rig just sit there too.”
More often than not, he’ll start catching them with no fear of getting hung up.
“After I find out the depth the crappie are holding it’s simply a matter of stopping that jig on top of them and letting them do the rest,” Davis said. “The colder the water the better this technique works.”
If you’re tired of the cold weather and itching for some hot fishing action then bundle up and head for the nearest lake, and you just might experience some of the hottest crappie action during the coldest time of the year.