are known by a number of aliases; calico bass, strawberry bass, speckled
perch, sac-a-lait, and papermouth are just a few. I am not aware of any
studies on the matter, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that crappie
are the single most sought after fish in the Buckeye state. Every spring as
the sun melts away the gray doldrums of winter thousands of enthusiastic
anglers head to lakes and ponds in search of silver treasure. 2003 was a
banner year on many lakes, a couple of my favorites giving up more crappie
over twelve inches in that single season than most folks recall seeing in
the four preceding years combined. With some luck 2004 will be equally
The white crappie (Pomoxis annularis) is, by nearly an order of magnitude,
the more common of the two crappie species. The black crappie (Pomoxis
nigromaculatus) demands a habitat where the water is clear and where there
is an abundance of submerged aquatic plants and a sandy or muck bottom. The
aggressive white crappie is more tolerant of silt and clay, and flourishes
in the stained and turbid water which is far too common in Ohio. Fortunately
for us, both species are active minnow feeders with similar spawning habits.
And even more fortunately, both species love a well presented fly and are an
ideal target for the long-rodder. As a bonus, the prolific crappie is
absolutely wonderful on the table and makes no demands that the angler feel
guilt about keeping a stringer. Eat what you want, they’ll make more!
Crappies spawn in spring when water temperatures are between 60 and 65
degrees. Male crappies gather in shallow areas of dense weeds or brush and
fan nests two or three feet apart. Females come to the shallow nests to
deposit the eggs and may spawn several times in a season, ultimately laying
as many as 300,000 eggs per adult. Spawning can be a noisy affair, it is
easy to hear and see crappie splashing along wooded shorelines. Don’t be
fooled into chasing them, though. While en flagrante the crappie won’t eat.
Instead the pre and post spawn adults will gather along the first break out
from the nesting area; that is where they are at their most vulnerable to a
well presented fly.
To be successful in the pursuit of the calico we must first understand a
little about its personality. Crappies don’t “school” in the typical sense
of the word, but they do roam in loose groups. While a crappie may be found
on a lake’s bottom, or even rising to a dry fly, the species is noted for
its habit of suspending – hovering a few feet over structure. They are
notorious for refusing to move more than a few inches up or down to chase
artificial or natural bait. Crappies eat plankton, insects, small
crustaceans and especially fish such as minnows and immature rough fish. A
quick examination of an adult member of the species will show large eyes set
high on the head, all of which suggests they see well and are sight feeders.
Crappies also hear well and can be easily spooked by noisy boat handling or
careless wading. That said, a bit of careful deduction coupled with a dash
of observation and a dose of stealth will combine to provide success more
often than not.
Papermouth don’t make many special requirements of a fly fisher’s tackle. As
the moniker implies, the crappie has a thin and delicate mouth prone to
allowing a hook to tear free. For this reason sharp, light wire hooks are
best. The crappie’s flat body provides enough surface area to make them
difficult to move when hooked, but this fish is certainly not built for
speed or endurance. I like using moderate-action four to six weight rods,
depending on wind levels and the depth which needs to be fished. When
crappies are in close and shallow, a floating forward taper line will get a
fly where it needs to be. A slow sinking line can be an invaluable tool when
the sac-a-lait plays its favorite card and suspends six to ten feet deep,
though. Under these conditions I switch to a uniform sinking taper line like
the Scientific Anglers Wet Cell II. A uniform sinking line has a tip which
is more heavily weighted than the body, so it keeps a straight connection
from the rod to the fly. This is important for a light biting species like
crappie. Also, the sinking line should not be of a fast sinking design; two
to four inches per second is plenty fast enough. Success is often dependent
on our ability to make a slow presentation to a suspended target.
Weather permitting and soon after equinox (March 20, 2004 – one of two days
every year when there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of
darkness) crappies will begin to swim into shallow water where they feed on
stirring insect life and small forage fishes. The north shores of lakes and
ponds are the first to warm and so are the first to provide quality angling.
Specs will seek out areas rich in woody structure such as submerged standing
timber, beaver houses and deliberately placed brush piles where they can
suspend in three to six feet of water over a bottom six to twelve feet deep.
It is important to keep at least ten feet away from your targeted cover -
twice that much if the water is clear - as these fish can be easily spooked.
Ideally you will find this cover just off a spawning flat where the old
creek channel of a lake cove climbs to the shallows.
I target early season pre-spawn fish with a floating line and an eight to
ten foot leader terminating with a three foot tippet of four or six pound
test fluorocarbon. A marabou or rabbit strip minnow imitation such as a
zonker is a good choice and I like any color so long as it’s white. Start
with a size six fly about an inch and a half long and go down in size if the
fish seem reluctant. Cast beyond the target structure and give the fly
plenty of time to sink to depth. Retrieve the fly very, very slowly using a
hand-twist retrieve. Retrieve speed shouldn’t be any faster than two to four
inches per second.
late April the surface temperatures will be reaching into the low 60s and
the crappies move into the shallow water to spawn. Again the north side of
the lake is where this activity will start. You can chase the spawn around a
lake for two to three weeks on the larger waters by starting on the north
shore and fishing right around to the cooler south bank. Look for thick,
complex cover with easy access to deeper holding areas to find the largest
groups and the biggest fish. Once the spawn starts in earnest I like the
same rig discussed above, but I add a small popping cork or float about
three feet above the fly. I also shorten the overall leader to seven feet or
so, keeping the three foot tippet of four to six pound test fluorocarbon.
Cast to the first break adjacent to where the crappies are spawning and
allow the fly to sink. Work the fly with short twitches that cause the float
to kick up a bit of water, allowing sufficient pauses to keep from pulling
the fly up to the surface. Takes will be at their most aggressive at this
time of the season, but a slow and steady retrieve still wins the race.
Early season crappie feed extensively on shiners and small shad. While
spawning structure is a key feature for which to look, areas offering both
spawning habitat and thick baitfish populations are ideal. If you find
schools of shiners or shad in deep water (six to twelve feet) adjacent to
wooded flats and bank cover, you have made it to speckle-side Mecca. Shiners
and shad both will follow plankton blooms, so a northeast cove bank is the
best place to be after the wind has blown from the west for a few days.
Constant wind direction stacks plankton against the shore and the shiners
come to feed. The wind action also pushes warm surface waters to the same
locale, precipitating aggressive feeding by staging crappies between their
egg-laying sessions. Knowing the habits of baitfish in local lakes will help
you find trophy crappies.
As the spawn winds down, or if inclement weather pushes the papermouth off
the flats, I look for fish in deeper water. These fish aren’t easy to catch;
the key is to keep moving. I like to slowly drift along a promising break in
my canoe, casting a streamer on a sinking line in front of the drift. If
necessary I use a length of chain on a rope to slow the drift down to where
I can just keep ahead of the boat’s progress using a slow hand-twist
retrieve. I use a uniform sinking line which keeps a very direct connection
between my fly and my rod tip. Crappies under these conditions are very
light biters and strike detection becomes critical. I use a two or three
foot length of fluorocarbon as a leader and make a long cast downwind,
allowing the fly to sink to depth. Because you are drifting with the wind
you are casting with the wind – a pleasant change of pace for most of us!
Count down your presentation so you know exactly what depth you are fishing
and return to that depth when you catch a fish. Crappies never travel alone
and where there is one there are often several hundred close friends.
There is no shortage of productive places to fish for specs in Ohio. In
southwest Ohio, East Fork Lake (Harsha), Cowen Lake, Paint Creek Lake and
Acton Lake are all very good waters. I have a strong penchant for those
places where there is a 10 horse power outboard motor limit, so you’re most
likely to find me on the smaller waters where paddle craft are safe from
lunatics in go-fast rockets. Beaver Creek Reservoir, Findlay Reservoir # 2,
Pleasant Hill Reservoir, Nettle Lake, Delaware Lake, Kiser Lake, Piedmont
Lake, Berlin Lake, and Mosquito Lake are also good destinations. Regardless
of where you choose to fish, whether large lake or farm pond, make sure you
keep your retrieve slow and your presentation at the right depth and I am
sure you will find the calico bass a delightful and sporty mark.