It’s crappie season in Mississippi, the most famous “perch jerking” state in the Union, where this time of the year on any major body of water you can find anglers nearly shoulder to shoulder hoping to catch a limit.
To the masses who fish Magnolia state waters, either as resident or visiting guests, March means it’s time to head to the backs of tributary creeks, coves, and bays in the search of crappie intent on spawning.
Most crappie anglers consider woody shoreline cover to be the ideal spawning habitat and accordingly head for shallow areas that contain visible wood structure to catch crappie this time of year.
Seven-time crappie national champion Steve Coleman claims that, when the pre-spawning season hits, it’s not just wood that will hold crappie but also rocks and boulders.
What better place to find rocks and boulders than the miles and miles of riprap that comprise many impoundment dams, roadways, and bridge overpasses. Every major impoundment in the state — Grenada, Sardis, Enid, Ross Barnett, Arkabutla, Pickwick, and a host of smaller impoundments and even state lakes utilize riprap to impound their waters. The bonus is that these locations, with the exception of Barnett Reservoir, are frequently overlooked by crappie anglers and for those who do target riprap, there are miles of it for anglers to spread out along.
“You’ll find crappie staging to spawn and even spawning anywhere on these dams or any riprap bank,” said Coleman. “Find where the riprap comes down and meets the bottom, most of those fish, they’ll back up into those rocks. They’ve got to have cover, just like brush, to hide their nests and the rip rap provides all that for them.”
Before the females move in and lay eggs, male crappie will begin sweeping out nest areas to host the fry after hatching. While the males are holding tight to the shoreline, the females will stage within easy reach along the edge of the drop. With hormones running high, the overprotective male crappie will attack anything that comes in close proximity to their nest.
And that includes a properly presented jig or minnow.
“I look for big pieces of rock that have rolled down into the lake, individual hunks of rock,” said Coleman. “Those males will swarm around a big rock just like they will a stump. When you’re trolling rocks, you want to be as shallow as you can get. If it’s 18 inches deep, put your poles 18 inches deep and go right down the edge of the rocks. Those males will try to knock your bait out of the water.”
While staging in the pre-spawn, crappie have a nasty habit of hiding in plain sight, at times making them a challenge to catch. It’s also a time of year when black crappie and white crappie, wrongfully considered by many to be one species, show just how different they can be.
In days gone by, anglers considered conditions and locations to figure out the crappie hide-and-seek pattern. Black crappie favored heavy structure, clearer water, and hiding in numbers. White crappie favored more open water, dingy or murky waters, and preferred to suspend and spread out.
Like everything in today’s modern world, technology leads the way, often doubling or tripling in speed, capacity, and ability every few years. Fishing sonar technology is no different. Sonar that used to be a vague, downward view of the water in black and white blips is now capable of showing a 360-degree view of the underwater world in living color and intimate detail.
Magnolia Crappie Club tournament angler Kent Driscoll, like most veteran crappie anglers, was quick to embrace side imaging/structure scan technology as soon as it became available to the retail industry, and has graduated through several generations of upgrades since then.
“I use the side imaging and down scan technology year round, not just during the spring,” said Driscoll. “A few years ago at Lake Washington in the Mississippi Delta, my tournament partner John Harrison and I rode around in the boat in the dark, just graphing the areas we were interested in fishing. It’s amazing what you can see and the detail you see it in, especially without any glare from the sun. What stood out most was that everyone was sure the fish would be up against the trees, and side scan showed us better fish were holding out off the trees above isolated cover.”
Driscoll touts two pre-spawn situations where side imaging/structure scan sonar technology has helped him countless times to find fish, then catch them. Crappie may move shallow during the pre-spawn but not be in the shallows, which is where the sonar shines.
“At Pickwick Lake, you can ride by a boat dock that has some decent water depth under it and view it from different angles,” said Driscoll. “That will allow you to count the number of fish under it, and even what supports the fish are holding against. And if you don’t see fish, you move on to the next one.”
Marking crappie with modern sonar during the pre-spawn also works when there isn’t any structure around. While migrating their way to the shallows, crappie will suspend over the edge of a tributary channel. Attempting to ride over the top of these fish to get them in the sonar cone pushes them out of the way, giving the false impression that no fish are in the vicinity.
“When crappie are suspending shallow, the best way to mark them is set your side imaging out to about 70 feet,” Driscoll said. “Even if they’re holding only a foot or two deep, you can see them on the graph on either side of the boat. Those are perfect trolling fish, either tight lining or long lining, and you’d never know they were there with only downward facing sonar.”
Ray Looney of Columbus is far from a novice crappie angler, living on the banks of the Columbus Pool of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. He spends much of his spare time stalking its waters.
Looney discovered a pattern while fishing for pre-spawn slabs on Columbus Lake, a pattern he has since found works in nearly every oxbow or river-oriented lake that would have surely netted him a win on most any crappie lake across the country. He regularly produces 14- to 15-pound for seven fish.
“In early March, they’re not spawning yet,” Looney said. “But while the water’s still 57, 58 degrees, the big fish are running back to the furthest back portion of deadhead waters, where there’s no water coming into it. I’m fishing that long stretch of water less than 4 foot deep.”
Looney said he learned the tactic while fishing with and competing against other anglers on Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake. At Reelfoot in March, Looney said the fish are not moving in to spawn, they’re trying to stay warm.
“What I found is that water back there is 3 to 4 degrees warmer than the water closer to the river,” he said. “Our fish spawn later in the year because we move so much cold fresh water through the system. Fish are just looking for that warmer water and running past where I normally catch them when they’re spawning. We’re talking about catching big crappie in 2 to 3 foot of water — water that’s crystal clear so you have a hard time getting to the fish without spooking them.”
While most anglers would troll with tight lines on 14- to 16-foot rods and ease into the area to pick off the fish, Looney said the commotion would inevitably ruin the area. That’s when he came up with another play.
“I’ve started using a 5-foot, 5-inch lightweight spinning rod and casting a really small 1/32-ounce jig under a very light weight, clear cork,” he said. “Having a clear cork makes a difference. A bright cork will scare the fish. I’m throwing that rig 30 feet into these stumps to get up toward the bank and catching huge fish.”
Casting to shoreline-oriented fish is nothing new and there are certainly other rods on the market capable of doing it, but Looney discovered another secret of the shorter rod.
“The first time I did it, I used a 7-foot ultralight rod,” he said. “But there are a bunch a stumps and logs in there and a 2-pound crappie is tough on a long ultralight. I needed a rod built to muscle a fish in close quarters, because it’s standing cypress everywhere you cast.”
Looney also indicated that the weight of the jig and it’s presentation has a lot to do with the success of what he now call his “Chunkin’ Corks” technique.
“I’m pegging the cork because it’s only a foot and a half, maybe 2 feet above the jig,” he said. “The reason the 1/32(-ounce) works better is when you pull that cork, the 1/32 will rise up and fall slow. A 16th- or an 1/8-ounce will just drop straight back down. The 1/32 has some float to it; it falls slow.”