You can call them crappie or the biologically incorrect white perch.
You can cross the Mississippi river into Louisiana and call them sac-a-lait.
Or, you can call them by the odd, but oh-so-accurate nickname “paper mouths.”
But no matter how you refer to them, it’s important to know that these popular and downright tasty game fish can be caught after the spring spawn, which, unfortunately, is the only time many fishermen can find and catch them, and when the vast majority of the fish are caught.
Once that shallow-water action ceases, and it ends almost as quickly as it starts, many fishermen struggle to find crappie once they return to their deep-water haunts for the summer. That’s not the case for some anglers though, like Scott Vance of Collinsville.
Vance, a designer of crankbaits and jigs for Arkie Lures, relishes his time on the water after the spawn is long gone, when he often has the lake to himself and the deep water crappie are hungry and willing to hit almost any colored crankbait he offers.
“After the crappie spawn, they head out to open water and usually scatter along the flats and edges of the submerged creeks, drops, and deeper water,” Vance said. “They’re pretty tough to find if you don’t know the lay of the lake and their habits. But once you understand their seasonal patterns and movements, it’s simply a matter of learning the lake and keeping up with the shad movement.”
Can deep-water fishing really be that easy? Well, yes if you have a mentor who can guide you every step of the way.
Scott Vance also had a mentor, perennial bass tournament winner Steve Jordan, of Collinsville. Jordan learned Okatibbee Lake, located just northwest of Meridian, the hard way, in the days before the advanced electronics and graphics hit the scene. He learned by experiencing time on the water by trial and error.
While Jordan and former bass angling partner Bill Pennington were busy winning bass tournaments in their early years, they did it on the strength of their knowledge of the submerged lake bottom with aerial photos, and their own custom maps and triangulation points.
They did something that few people in their time did, uncorking the mystery of the hidden lake bottom to catch fish. Then, as now, there was no substitute for spending time on the water with lots of trial and error. In addition to aerial photos they also took pictures of the lake bottom during low water conditions during periods of drought and annual winter drawdowns.
These days, modern technology such as the new GPS units that come equipped with side and down imaging that shows the hidden underwater world of the lakes almost as if they were on a television screen. Anglers such as Vance have used the new depth finding units to pinpoint previously unseen bottom structure and reap the benefits trip after trip.
“I was fortunate to fish with Steve Jordan and learn a lot of the hotspots and honey holes from him,” said Vance. “I was able to see first-hand how he located and fished those spots and then use modern electronics to take it to the next level. With the advance of the new electronic depth finders, GPS units and imaging systems like the Hummingbird Helix units, everybody can learn the bottom and catch crappie consistently in deep water.
“But they have to put in the time to learn how to use the equipment and employ the right tackle and techniques.”
While many people prefer fishing for crappie with minnows or jigs, Vance found that it limited his time catching fish since he spent more time in dead water trying to locate some to catch.
“After the spawn is over the white crappie will scatter across the flats, creek channels and open water, and, in my opinion, pushing crankbaits is the best way to catch them during that time,” Vance said. “There are three advantages to pushing crankbaits and the first is the most obvious, you can cover more ground. You can also maneuver around stumps and brush easier and avoid the line tangles you may have by pulling crankbaits from the back.”
You can also get shallow crankbaits as deep as you want by pushing the crankbaits with Vance’s pushing technique and equipment. Unlike pulling crankbaits from the back of the boat, Vance likes to push them from the front.
“I’ll take a 3-ounce custom made sinker and attach it to my main line and then have 3 feet of leader with a swivel and crankbait behind it,” said Vance. “I’ll let out the amount of line I need to run a certain depth and then let my equipment and the crankbait do the rest.”
Vance reaps the benefits of a steady catch of hungry crappie.
“Once you locate the crappie, then concentrate on those areas,” Vance said. “I can fish the whole lake (Okatibbee) in three hours and I’ll usually find the shad and that’s where you’ll find the fish. The key is definitely finding the shad because the crappie will stay in the areas where the shad are and actually follow them.
“You can wear them out once you find the areas that the shad and crappie are in. And, you need to keep those crankbaits above the crappie as they feed looking up. They’ll come up and hit your crankbaits if they see it swim by, but they won’t be looking down if it runs below them. In the summer we normally catch them in water from 8 to 16 feet deep.”
Quality equipment is vital
Fishing deep water is like fishing blind and finding a needle in a haystack if you don’t have the proper equipment, but there are plenty of quality electronics on the market these days.
“I’ve used a Lowrance LMS 520 GPS Sonar for a few years and I have thousands of waypoints saved on various lakes,” Vance said. “There’s just no substitute for having a modern LCR and GPS unit, and mine enables me to find new cover or stumps as I’m fishing and log the waypoints for those, too. Then, when I’m in an area, I can troll from stump to stump and watch it on the screen to know exactly when I get to the hotspots.”
On several occasions Vance would call his shot, saying, “We should get a bite about now,” and wham, the pole would start jerking as we trolled over the cover.
Vance has recently switched to the Hummingbird Helix 7, and it gives him even more control and vision to spot new structure, and also sync up with his Minn Kota Terrova i-Pilot trolling motor.
“I downloaded the Lakemaster Plus program on the Helix 7, and it shows every levee, ditch and submerged hump in Okatibbee Lake, and it’s got it down to a T, leaving no guesswork,” said Vance. “I’ve got three Group 31 Trolling batteries under the deck there that operates the 36-volt 101-pound thrust trolling motor.”
Vance usually sets the I pilot on 1.7 or 1.8 miles per hour when he’s pushing crankbaits and he doesn’t stop when he gets a hit, but keeps on trolling while reeling in the crappie. That way he can cover ground quickly and efficiently find and catch crappie. If he finds an area with a lot of bait and crappie, he’ll work it back and forth catching crappie during each pass until the action slows down.
With the Terrova I Pilot, Vance can set the unit on auto and sync it with the Hummingbird Helix unit and follow the way points and hit all of the hotspots with little wasted effort. On the day of our trip, the cranking expert employed both pushing and pulling techniques at the same time on Okatibbee Lake.
“Sometimes I catch more fish by pushing, and other times I catch more by pulling, so I do like to push and pull at the same time on lakes where it’s legal to have out several poles at a time,” Vance said. “Another good thing about pushing and pulling is that I get more baits in the water.
“Right now I’m pushing four cranks and pulling four and covering a wide swath of water as they’re all separated from each other very well. When the fish get active and the bite is on it gets real hectic, and that’s when you need a partner for sure.”
We spent a hectic morning on the water and constantly picked up crappie of all sizes, sometimes catching them two at a time while cranking them up by pushing crankbaits. The larger crankbaits seemed to garner the most strikes and catch the most fish that and they were pretty good sized running from a 1½ to 2 pounds on the high end. That’s quality fish no matter where you fish in Mississippi.
Spider rig essentials
“I started spider rigging a few years ago and quickly found out that I needed some quality rod holders,” said Vance. “These Spiderlocks by Gene Johnson, of Madison, are the best rod holders in the business especially for pushing or pulling crankbaits because there’s so much stress or tension on them. They are height adjustable and have adjustable teeth and every adjustment you need. They are easy to move them to whatever setting you need with no wrenches needed.
“They do have a few adjustments and they just won’t slip, like some do. You better have your drag set properly because they won’t give, Gene also makes these Rod Transporters that I have installed on the boat, and it’s a simple matter to get them off the rack and begin cranking within just a few minutes of launching your boat.”
After hot weather arrives, being cool and comfortable is also a key component of being able to stay on the water and catch fish instead of getting too hot too early and burning out. Johnson also made a very handy umbrella holder that attaches to your boat seat pedestal, allowing both anglers the opportunity to comfortably fish in the shade, which cuts the temperature down significantly under the summer sun.
Another must is a comfortable seat, and fishing with Vance was both fun, enlightening, and comfortable. His seats are the best I’ve seen.
“I took one of the Millennium Deer Stand seats and had it put on the pedestal and it’s the most comfortable fishing seat I’ve ever been in,” said Vance. “It doesn’t get hot, water doesn’t harm it and it’s just very efficient and comfortable to sit in, and being comfortable means being able to keep fishing longer thus putting more fish in the boat.
“I use Okuma line counter reels and they’re essential when pushing or pulling crankbaits,” Vance said. “The amount of line you have out controls how deep your crankbaits will run and you must know how deep you are to consistently catch fish. Otherwise, you’ll stay hung up on bottom or run too shallow and not get a bite. The repeatability of the line counter reels is nice because I want to make sure my crankbaits are right above the stumps, and I like to fish over the edge of the channels and creeks.”
“As a general rule the depth of the crankbait is going to be two-thirds the amount of line you let out,” said Vance. “I’ve made a depth chart and put a copy of it in each of the weights I make and sell for anglers too. That makes it a simple matter of reading the chart to get the crankbait down to the desired depth. Just read the chart and find out how much line you need to let out to get to that depth and you’re ready to catch fish.”
Bass Pro Shops also has a good line counter reel, the StrataMaxx Line Counter. He also employs 20-pound braid with a 6-pound diameter since it has no stretch and he can detect a bite or even the slightest change in the lure’s motion.
Vance prefers the Bass Pro Shops Tightline Special rods when he’s pushing cranks because of the stiffness of the rods.
While there are many crankbaits on the market, Vance prefers the Arkie crappie crankbaits so much that he became a lure designer for them.
“Mitch Glenn is the general manager of the company and he’s in tune with the fishermen and lure designers,” Vance said. “He listens to what you want or need and then he gets it done, or finds a way to make it work.”
Vance said depth dictates which Arkie he will tie on his line.
“Arkie makes a 220 crankbait, which is small and good for pushing, too,” he said. “They only run about 3 feet deep so you can get them down there with the 3-ounce weights and run them at the depth you desire with little hassle. After I started using them, I changed out the hooks and they really caught the crappie with a size 8 treble and they started using them on the back hook with great success.
“Arkie came out with the 350 crankbait which is a little bigger and runs deeper and is the equivalent to the Bandit 300 and it’s been a huge success. Last year the supply just couldn’t keep up with demand as the crappie were killing the baits and the anglers were buying them as fast as they could make them.”
While crappie sometime prefer smaller crankbaits, the big crappie usually want the larger crankbaits, and they’ve been really good on the flood control impoundments in North Mississippi.
Vance fishes for crappie in different lakes around the state and has a few basic tips when it comes to choosing colors.
“Crappie like a fluorescent color but during the early morning or on cloudy days, they like black and pink,” said Vance. “When I’m fishing clear water I’ll usually use clear baits and I’ll start out with a solid black or bubble gum belly during the early morning and change colors after the sun gets up pretty high and bright.
“On Okatibbee it’s usually a little stained or murky during the spring through summer, and I like the orange/chartreuse, hot pink/chartreuse, black/hot pink and the chrome/clown colors.”
Vance consistently catches slab crappie from 1½ to 3 pounds plus depending on where he’s fishing. At Grenada Lake he consistently catches 2- to 3½-pound magnum-sized crappie with crankbaits.
Pushing crappie crankbaits is a lot like feeding a baby ice cream — they just can’t resist it.
If you’re looking to beat the heat and crowds then head to the nearest reservoir or lake from June through the fall and try a few of Vance’s tips and techniques of pushing crappie crankbaits and you just might experience the trip of a lifetime. Check out Vance via email at email@example.com, on Facebook, or contact him at 601-938-1040 for more details.