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Breaking the Code to Crappie Moods

Figuring out the best profile, size and color of crappie bait can be the key to catching fish. Let’s look at the patterning process.

big winter crappiebig winter crappie

I am a longtime believer that lure size and color make a major difference in fish catching success. I’ve just had too many experiences as proof to keep me from thinking otherwise. One such outing came just a few weeks back, thanks to live sonar technology and an almost laboratory-like fishing situation, which allowed me to literally watch for hours just how critical making the right bait choice can be.

A combination of a frozen lake surface and a spillway’s protective cable had me and fishing partner Leon Adams locked into place. We were on Spavinaw Lake, a popular crappie fishery in in northeastern Oklahoma and one of Leon’s favorites. He was fine with the fact we couldn’t advance any farther, knowing we were at least within casting range of our intended destination near the dam. Our start was slow, resulting in only three or four crappie in the first couple of hours. By mid-afternoon, we added the final fish of our two-person, 74-crappie limit. We never moved, so what clicked?

This is not a “when and where” story. I believe the lake and timing are the least important takeaways. To me, far more important were the “what, why and how” processes allowed by the unique situation that had fallen into our laps. Crappie are moody by nature. Regardless of season, crack the code when they’re really hunkered down and you’re in for some genuine fun.

Real-World Underwater Microscope

winter white crappiewinter white crappie

Rare is the chance to fish a public lake from a boat, secured in the same spot for several hours. An Arctic Blast at the end of January had left a layer of ice on most of Oklahoma’s lakes for a few days. We stared in disbelief at the solid sheet that still existed from the boat ramp to the spillway upon our arrival. The sound and feel of my fiberglass boat crunching its way through the ice was not pleasant. I exhaled in relief when Leon said “good” to our position.

Wind was not a factor. Water color was clear, and its temp at around 35 degrees at sensor depth. With our boat perfectly still over 40 feet, the view on my front Lowrance unit was amazing. I switched back and forth between ActiveTarget’s Forward and Down modes as I scoped our spot. I ultimately left it in Down mode and centered on a cloud of fish that sat motionlessly suspended 35 feet underneath.

We spent most of our first two hours casting and slow-retrieving Bobby Garland Baby Shads, a known and proven winter tactic for this lake and the spillway area. I also tried Bobby Garland’s new 1.75-inch Live Roam’R. Its size and shape closely resembled the few dead shad we’d seen frozen in the ice. The Live Roam’R can be rigged flat (dead-rigged) or upright (live-rigged), so I thought it to be an ideal choice should a shad die-off be happening.

All the while, the school of fish under our boat remained in place and almost as frozen looking as the lake’s surface. I had blown them off early as baitfish or trash fish, as they had showed zero interest in our lures.

Test Tank

I eventually found myself spending more time experimenting with different Bobby Garland lures and watching them on ActiveTarget than fishing. Live technology has been a game changer to crappie fishing for a while now. I’m no expert with it, but would love to be. Here I had the perfect opportunity to get better.

I studied my rod tip’s positioning in relation to my sonar’s transducer and directional arrow, both of which are integrated into my Ghost trolling motor. On my screen, I watched intently to how rod positioning correlated to jig location. When I couldn’t see my jig at all, I’d keep re-dropping until I understood why I’d see it or couldn’t.

Something that was reinforced on this day was just how slowly a single bait rigged on a jighead falls. I guarantee it’s slower than you think. I also reconfirmed how even the most subtle rod movement dramatically impacts a bait’s action.

A Door Opened

crappie bait selectioncrappie bait selection

As I fished various baits and colors good for Spavinaw, I observed the 2-inch Baby Shad (Crystal) and 2.25-inch Baby Shad Swim’R (Bluegrass) were comparable in fall rates when rigged on the same 1/16-ounch jighead. The 2.25-inch Slab Hunt’R (Blue Ice) fell slower, but that made sense because of its larger profile and prop-like tail to create more drag.

The 2-inch Slab Slay’R (White Pearl) had a fall similar to the Baby Shad, but with it I saw something different. A fish moved. I lifted the jig. I lowered it. I jigged it. I dead sticked it. A fish slowly separated from the pack to inspect, but then melted back into the school.

I sensed a door opening.

The Slab Slay’R showed promise. I switched its color to Junebug/Pearl Chartreuse, thinking darker might be better for the depth. I lowered the lure and again stopped just above the school. A form once more appeared at the bait. I felt resistance as I slowly raised my rod, and I jerked. I watched on-screen as the fish and jig went separate ways. I knew something was still “off.”  

Thinking the round body might be the attraction, I rigged a 2.25-inch Minnow Mind’R (Silverfish). It’s close kin to the Slab Slay’R, but with a split cupped tail instead of solid. I had another fish at the bait. I stared at my rod top and line, but nothing happened. Not until I barely lifted my rod did I feel anything different – resistance – and I set the hook. Crappie aboard! I turned to show it to Leon seated in the back chair.

“Do it again,” he encouraged with a big grin.

More Minnow Mind’R drops, including color changes, didn’t deliver, though.

It’s Just Right!

crappie on Itty Bit Slab SlayRcrappie on Itty Bit Slab SlayR

I knew I was close to having the lure that was “just right!” It was the dark colored, round-bodied baits with little or no tail action getting the most attention. Then it hit me! Bobby Garland pro staffer Gary Rowe had reported just a couple of days earlier about his success on nearby Fort Gibson Lake. His luck came on one of his favorites – a 1.25-inch Itty Bit Slab Slay’R – but what stuck out as unusual was the Black/Hot Pink color he used. The selection was a stark contrast to the Bone White/Chartreuse norm he relies on most.

I dug until I found the little Black/Hot Pink Slab Slay’R. I switched my jighead to a 1/48-ounce Itty Bits head and added two #7 split shots on my line about 10 inches up for additional weight because of the depth. The split shot and lure rig clearly showed on-screen during descent. I stopped short of the school and watched as a fish moved to the bait. Nothing happened. The bait didn’t move. There was no line twitch. My rod tip never quivered. As much out of frustration as suspense, I set the hook. A fish fought back. “I felt nothing,” I told Leon as I showed him my catch. “Do it again!” he challenged.

I did, again and again. After the fifth catch in a row, Leon had a rig on identical to mine. We both watched on-screen as it fell to the school. A fish approached and Leon automatically jigged his rod. Then he twitched it again. “No action,” I instructed. “Hold it perfectly still.” When the fish and jig image became one, I said “lift your rod.” Leon grinned as his rod bowed and said, “I never felt a thing!” We finally had it – the lure choice that these crappie wanted.

Rarely did we feel an actual bite. Most often we watched the fish and jig forms just melt together, then we’d instead “feel” for resistance at the end of our lines. Now knowing the depth needed and how to present the lure, watching the screen was no longer a necessity. We could also count the jig down to the depth, and we settled into a busy afternoon of catching.

In true fisherman style, we did continue to experiment with other baits and colors. Leon found some success with another diminutive profile – the 1.25-inch Itty Bit Slab Hunt’R (Bluegrass) – but it didn’t outperform our best choice for the day’s crappie mood.

In the end, nothing worked better than the Itty Bit Slab Slay’R in Black/Hot Pink. Most of our limit came by stopping the lure at the very top of the school and holding it motionless. Our catch was a mix of black crappie and white crappie, and their sizes ran the gamut. The biggest was a black crappie weighing over 1.5 pounds, but we had a few others of both kinds that approached that size.

5 Takeaways I Won’t Forget

Crappie on Itty Bit Slab Hunt'RCrappie on Itty Bit Slab Hunt'R

The lessons learned from this outing aren’t about live-sonar technology nor cold-water fishing. Instead, they’re all about understanding just how specific a crappie’s eating mood can be. Just because you’re not catching fish, don’t assume they’re not biting. Instead, experiment with baits, presentations and depth. Finding the right combination can unlock a treasure of crappie-catching success.

  1. Know what lies below. While live-sonar is not a must-have, it is to your advantage to use whatever means you have to determine depth and cover underneath. Any quality sonar unit is definitely helpful, but you can also arrive at depth and cover information by simply dropping and counting down a jighead, and “feeling” around with it.
  2. Don’t overwork your lure. Crappie guides say that’s usually the hardest thing to convey to clients, and now live sonar teaches the same. A rod-tip twitch of just a couple inches can make your bait jump several inches and can scare a crappie from your bait.
  3. Fish to your strengths. That means knowing your rod, reel, line and baits, because all in combination have an impact on how your bait performs and what you can feel. Spend your time doing what fits your fishing style and preference best.
  4. Pay attention to fishing reports. Crappie anglers reporting success, even if not on your own waters, can be useful. On this trip, I used reports from two different lakes in northeastern Oklahoma to help home in on my success.
  5. “Listen” to what the crappie are saying. Always have a few different contrasting baits on hand. Chances are high that a particular shape, size and color will dominate over another in any given situation. Continually experiment, while both catching or not catching, noting what might be triggering one option’s enhanced interest over another. Crappie will “tell” you what they want.