O Crappie Days!

O Crappie Days!

The Speckled panfish does take flies.

  • By: Chad Mason
With a small gray Clouser Minnow knotted to a 3X tippet, I began working out line from the tip of my 6-weight rod. The target was a spot of shade under the drooping branches of a sad maple that didn't look like it would live to see another spring. The river had already taken its companion, whose dead boughs were pale gray in the sunshine but as brown as a new sapling below the water and coated with a fine green film of slime. I imagined, with as much certainty as a man can imagine, that a really good smallmouth would be lurking down there.

My Clouser drifted into the shade and when I figured it was almost to the sunken branches, I began to strip it back. On the second strip, the line tightened. But the rod bend was not as severe as I had hoped and the ensuing fight was, well, un-basslike.

I was surprised and delighted to find a fat 9-inch crappie. Unlike the blue-and-silver crappies I catch from lakes and reservoirs, this one had a glorious golden hue, with olive spots and a gleaming white belly. It was the most splendid-looking crappie I had ever seen-until I caught 10 more just like it on the next 10 casts.

So, like a lot of my angling passions, fly-fishing for crappies began as a fortuitous accident. The experience prompted me to experiment, and the laboratory results are now in: You can catch crappies with a fly rod, and sometimes you will even do it on purpose.

Crappies are not particularly difficult to catch for an angler in a boat with sonar, a bucket of minnows and spinning gear. Fly-fishing for them is a different matter. There are two great obstacles to catching crappies on a fly rod. One is the crappie's reputation as an open-water roamer; and the other is the subtle way a crappie often takes lures beneath the surface. (Crappies rarely take surface bugs.) In other words, location and strike detection are the chief hurdles to overcome.

Know that crappies are often more difficult to locate than bass and bluegills. Particularly in larger lakes or reservoirs, catching crappies is often more complicated than merely casting toward a visible tree stump. The fish often suspend off the bottom in open water. And when they suspend, these panfish are usually sedentary and relate to some structural element-a flooded tree, a drop-off, a weed bed, a reef and the like. Whereas bass and bluegills will usually be tight to the structure, crappies may suspend in deeper water a short distance away from the structure. This is why sonar and deep-probing spinning tackle are so useful for locating crappies in large bodies of water.

But we're fly fishers. Very few of us want to mess with big boats, electronics and heavy shooting heads to catch a 10-ounce fish. Without motors or electronics, a fly angler can have some success by drifting or canoe-trolling with a full-sinking line. But there comes a time when we need to ask ourselves why we're using fly rods instead of spinning tackle, and for me that is one such time. I'm just not that stubborn, I guess.

Simply put, there are certain times and places that are better suited to catching crappies with a fly rod…Read More » Spring is one such glorious time to catch crappies with a floating line. During the spring spawning period, crappies enter shallow shoreline areas to spawn when the water temperatures reach the low 60s. Where I live in the Midwest, the crappies begin spawning at least a week or two before the bluegills. Spawning depth depends on a combination of water clarity and bottom content. Crappies prefer clean sand or small gravel for spawning, especially near reeds, timber, docks or other structure and water that is slightly deeper than the level of sunlight penetration. However, they will not hesitate to spawn in very shallow water if their habitat needs demand it.
Early in the spawn, when the fish have begun building nests but their eggs have not been laid, crappies can be extremely easy to catch. My fly of choice during this period is the Sparkle Grub. The chief advantage of this pattern is that it sinks more slowly than lead-eye streamers and stays in the strike zone.
Once their eggs are laid, female crappie retreat to deeper water to recuperate while the males guard the nests. At this time, crappies will sometimes become more reticent about striking. Even if they do strike, though, they will often strike short or nudge the fly without engulfing it. Get on the spawn early for the best fish-catching action.
During summer, your best bet is to find crappies in rivers. Look for crappies in deep pools on the outside bends, particularly wherever trees have fallen into the drink. Those dead tree boughs are alive with crappies.Throw Clouser Deep Minnows in gray-and-white or olive-and-white. Use the 1/50-ounce lead eyes, painted red with black pupils.
In the fall, the fish seem to sense the oncoming winter and strike aggressively as water temperatures drop to around 60 degrees. In natural lakes, look for crappies along the edges of shallow weed beds that drop off into deeper water. On rivers and reservoirs, look for fallen trees. My favorite location at this time is any fallen tree on a steep bank, with branches extending into deep water. In the small reservoirs where I frequently fish, fall crappies will often be suspended 6 to 8 feet below the surface on the outside edge of a fallen tree. In a river, the depth may only be 4 or 5 feet.

A 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod is perfect for crappie fishing. Choose a rod with a relatively soft tip, since crappies have soft mouths that tear easily with too strong a hookset. Two lines are needed: a weight-forward floater and a sinking-tip. Use the floater in water less than 4 feet deep; switch to the sinking-tip line to reach crappies that are deeper. With my floating line, I use a 71/2 foot 3X or 4X leader. With sinking-tip lines, my leader consists of 3 feet of 3X or 4X tippet material.
When tying crappie patterns, I don't scrimp on hooks. My favorites are Daichi 2220 for the Sparkle Grub and the size 6 Tiemco 200R for the Clouser Deep Minnow.
One word on conservation: Some biologists tell us it's almost impossible to over-harvest crappies. (There is no limit on them in my home state of Iowa.) This may be biologically true, but I have a hard time believing it. Particularly on the small lakes and rivers where I fish, there is something about unlimited killing that just doesn't feel right. I frequently keep a small stringer of fish for an evening meal, but I don't "fill the freezer" with crappies.

Chad Mason is a frequent contributor to this magazine, Shooting Sportsman and other outdoor titles. 0