Uprooting ‘Cover Crappies’ where Others Don’t Look

Springtime is crappie time, and for me the first prolonged warm spell in May signifies the arrival of this species in shallow water. Schools of spawning crappies will migrate from main-lake areas, seeking the thickest, most luscious shallow-water cover to lay eggs in protection. Wood cover, weed beds, and bulrushes are popular spawning grounds, and are the most sought-after accessible fishing locations for anglers.

While these community spots are areas to focus on, nobody is going into the shallowest jungles where boat access is difficult.

During the last few springs on some of my favorite lakes I’ve made some strange discoveries while bass fishing. Pitching and flipping through the emerging thick cover for largemouths in spring, I’ve often found that the most inaccessible bogs and root systems of lily pads contain the most favorable and unsuspecting schools of spawning crappies. These spots are often loaded with fish, and nobody is locating them. I can only speculate that most folks don’t have the required shallow-drafting hulls or powerful trolling motors to reach them here.

When and where
Depending on region and climate, the crappie spawn generally begins when water temperatures reach 60 degrees. Warming waters draw in crappies from their open-water main-lake habitats and toward shallow, vegetated bays and marshes for the spawn. Peak spawning occurs from 65 to 70 degrees, and this period, where I am, takes place in late May through the first week of June.

Crappies will choose deeper waters and thicker cover for spawning. Sometimes, that cover may be thicker than most anglers and their boats can penetrate through. The average depth crappies spawn in is between 3 and 6 feet, but on many of the darkest waters and marshes I prowl they can be in water as shallow as a foot. Males will be most frequently caught due to their aggression as nest builders, and, as they await their courtship with females. Meanwhile, females will be present but in less abundance.

The habitat for uprooting crappies is entirely focused on lily pads and their complex root systems. These areas are always associated with shallow bogs and marshland adjacent to a lake. These are textbook spots for the crappies to set up for the following reasons. First, the darker water and shallow habitats provide significantly warmer water temperatures that can lead to a faster, uninterrupted spawning period. Second, the higher fertility of these spots offers greater food sources for the abundant schools of fish. Third, these shallow jungles of thick cover are mostly inaccessible for the average boat, thus they are the perfect sanctuary that’s away from predators and anglers.

The best locations may stretch for several hundred yards, providing hours of casting and dipping through pockets with repeated, controlled drifts along the edges. Within this habitat, fluctuating holes will be prevalent, as will several nooks and crannies, underwater funnels, tunnels and open pockets.

Crappie safari
Over the Memorial Day weekend in 2014, I went on my first crappie safari. On one 80-degree, windless sunny day, masses of crappies were infiltrating into the shallow backwaters and bogs of my favorite lake to spawn. To best approach these fish, we set up shop in my 16-foot boat at the mouth of the backwater where a community of boats was stationed. Everyone was consistently catching, but my boat wanted more.

We slowly wandered our way into the bog with the trolling motor raised high up into the water column to prevent the bottom from churning up, and migrating fish from spooking. Before us was a one-half-mile distance of lily pad kingdoms to probe through. Of the dozen-plus boats concentrated in this large area, we were the only boat that was mobile and aggressive as we zigzagged around those who were still anchored, and then through all the dense lily pad root systems, outfishing everyone likely at a 5:1 ratio.

Our timing and strategy on this day was perfect. The farther and deeper into the mostly inaccessible bog we went, the more concentrated and abundant the crappies were. Of all the boats fishing near the mouth in community spots, nobody else was seeing this nor could reach the fish like we were. In a few hours, more than 50 keepers were caught.

During mass spawning runs like this, crappies, like all other fish, are non-renewable resources, thus it is encouraged to harvest conservatively by keeping only what is needed. A mess of 20 will result in five to 10 meals for one individual. More fisheries and quality-sized structures are destroyed during these periods than any other point in the season. Take the abundant 10- and 11-inch eaters, but be sure to release all others.

In order to fish aggressively like we did, boat control and placement of baits far outweighed all the techniques used. Slowly pushing the boat with my bow-mount Minn Kota Powerdrive V2 with the co-pilot remote, we were then able to cruise at the slowest speeds that allowed us to use a combination of presentations: drifting, dipping and casting.

Tackle and techniques
Pegged in my boat’s rod holders, we each drifted one rod that was rigged with a jig and swimming plastics below a small slip float. Used in a planer board-style manner rather than a strike indicator, our floats kept baits placed within 1 foot underwater and trailing 25 yards away from the gunnels. Whenever a fish grabbed the crappie slider or micro-twister tail, our indicator was the bend in the soft rod tip, and exploding float. Around large, open pockets and along the edges of the root systems, this unusually stealthy drift-fishing system led to numbers of crappies that didn’t get spooked by our nearby presence.

While drifting with the float system, dipping and casting, as well as deadsticking the open pockets and canopies of bogs and roots, we were kept busy and entertained. With a combination of jigs and small plastics that included small Crappie USA tube jigs and 1-inch Polly Wogz grubs by Stankx Bait Co., crappies were extracted from cover. My favorite crappie jigs of late are hand-tied hair jigs by my friend and In-Fisherman contributor, Jim Gronaw. Labeled under the name of “River Critter Hair Jigs,” they swim and flutter before the faces of crappies and don’t require being tipped with small plastic trailers or other extras.

A new hot plastic we discovered came into play—the Crappie Scrub. We deadsticked them on a 1/16-ounce jig beneath a float and saw some of the most remarkable, effortless, aggressive crappie bites I’ve ever witnessed.

For such jungle-fishing situations, live bait is never needed. Since the purpose is to keep mobile and cover water, weedless jigs and hooks also aren’t required because they can usually be retrieved from snags. Despite the need for a shallow boat and powerful trolling motor to get you there, the required tackle is fairly simple and minimal. A 6- to 9-foot medium-light-action rod with 6-pound-test copolymer or a 2- to 4-pound braided superline are excellent for all drifting, and most dipping and casting scenarios. I know that if I had this option in my boat at the time, a 12-foot cane pole used for dipping (pole and line fishing) would have been a remarkable tool for even easier crappie extractions from thick cover. I’ll try to remember this for Crappie Safari 2017, as it does me no good to leave simple tools like this sitting in the garage.

Conclusion
To gain entry into the expansive kingdom of lily pads and their complex infrastructure, having the right watercraft and a quiet trolling motor will allow for this unique fishing adventure to happen. Location, coverage, and quality of drifts will dictate your success. Always remember that the most impenetrable roots and fields of lily pads are generally the best, and is why the majority of northern crappie anglers aren’t fishing it yet.