Slab secrets: Part 1
Where to find spring and early-summer slabs, and how to hook ’em
As the days warm, the trees bud and the lilacs bloom, black crappies will be flooding the shallows to spawn, making for some of the fastest and finest fishing of the season.
FIND WARM WATER
Pre-spawn crappies are always looking for the warmest water they can find. The best places to start your search, then, are the warm-water areas where you know they’ll eventually be spawning—green pencil reeds, flooded brush, fallen trees, sprouting beds of cabbage and isolated shallow rock piles.
After you’ve identified one of these hot spots, move away from it, all the while keeping your eyes glued to the water temperature reading on your sonar screen. At this time of the year, marking a school of crappies on your sonar is a bonus—what you’re really looking for is the warmest possible water. You’ll usually find it along the north shore of the lake, in the south-facing bays, coves and indentations that warm up first. Even a one- to three-degree temperature difference is important, so concentrate your early-spring crappie search in such places.
FISH WITH FLOATS
Once you’ve located the right water, where do you think you’re going to find the fish? No, not around the obvious shallow shoreline structure and cover where everyone else is fishing and drawing blanks. Instead, the crappies will be hovering in the one place most anglers never look—in the middle of the bay just inches under the surface, where the water is the most inviting.
The fish are often so close to the surface, in fact, that when I toss out a light 1/32- to 1/16-ounce grub-tipped jig positioned beneath a small bobber, the crappies will often smack the float. Attach your float so that your offering hangs no more than eight inches below the water’s surface. Why? Crappies won’t hesitate to scoot up to inhale your lure, but they’re often reluctant to swim down to eat it. For this presentation, the ideal rig is a seven-foot light- or medium-light spinning rod and 2000 series reel spooled with four-, five- or six-pound-test monofilament.
Finding fish just under the surface in the middle of a bay is the most overlooked spring crappie pattern, and you’ll have it all to yourself. And don’t bother heading out too early in the day, as the best fishing is typically on sunny afternoons once the water has warmed up.
BONUS TIP: SMELLING THE SPAWN
Once the water temperature reaches 15ºC, crappies will be up shallow and in an aggressive pre-spawn mood.They’llthen spawn once the water temperature hovers around20ºC.How soon the water warms up depends on where you fish, of course. On my home waters in northern Ontario, for example, we’re targeting crappies from mid- to late May through to the end of June. No matter where you are, though, if the lilacs are blooming, the crappies will be spawning—you can take that one to the bank.
SEARCH THE REEDS
The folks in the southern U.S., where crappie fishing is more of a religion than a sport, refer to reeds as cane. The crappies themselves couldn’t care less what name we give to this emergent vegetation; to them, the green stalks are simply heaven. That’s why newly emerging pencil reeds—true bulrushes, actually—are where you’ll find crappies once the shallows have warmed up sufficiently for the fish to begin spawning.
Having said this, however, not all pencil reed beds are created equally. Indeed, the very best aren’t made up solely of reeds. Instead, they’re spiced with other ingredients like submerged rock piles, scattered boulders, weeds and trees—complex cover that attracts swarms of minnows and baitfish. Pencil reeds also typically grow on hard sand bottoms, a bonanza to the mayfly, caddisfly and chironomid larvae that crappies devour. As a result, pencil reeds not only serve as intimate crappie bedrooms in the spring, they also make for busy banquet halls.
My favourite plan of attack is to tip a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig with a lively nose-hooked minnow or soft-plastic dressing, then suspend it under a slip float so that I can quickly adjust the depth. I carefully position my boat so that I can make short underhanded pitches along the outside face of the reeds, as well as down the alleys and passageways. As for those rock piles, isolated boulders, weeds and trees sprinkled among the reeds, they’re the real spots on the spot at this time of the year.
PROBE SUNKEN TREES
While newly emerging green pencil reeds are superb spring crappie locations during the spawn, some lakes lack the firm bottom necessary to support these lush bulrushes. When this is the case, knock on wood instead.
I never overlook a fallen tree any time I spot one in the water. But just as certain reed beds attract more crappies than others, so, too, do different kinds of wood. The secret? The ganglier the tree, the better the fishing. Indeed, I’ve spent as much as a half-hour or more plucking as many as 25 or 30 crappies from a single blowdown.
Many anglers miss out on these top prizes, though, by drifting in much too close. They’ll park the boat beside the half-submerged tree, pitch a jig into the heart of the cover and hook a slab-sided beauty, only to spook all the fish on the fringes. Crappies love to hover and suspend around objects, even in shallow water, so when they find a piece of cover such as a fallen tree, they spread out and loiter around the outside edges.
Knowing this, I keep my distance and cast a small crankbait—Rapala Scatter Raps are my favourite—or a 1/8-ounce ReelBait Flasher jig (above) tipped with a Trigger X minnow or grub. The monster crappies that patrol the outside edges of the cover will practically knock the rod out of your hand when you pitch your bait up against the bark and try to swim it away.
EXPLORE THE DOCKS
Casting crankbaits and jigs up against a boathouse, crib dock or marina jetty may not seem as appealing as probing a lush bed of pencil reeds or a fallen tree in a wilderness lake, but it’s just as effective. For crappies, boathouses and docks provide amazing shelter, and perhaps the best shady cover of all on hot, sunny spring days.
As with weedbeds and submerged trees, the best man-made cover has variety and complexity. You’ll catch far more fish beside an old wooden dock built on untreated wooden posts and rock-filled cribs, for example, than you would beside a clean, plain-Jane plastic dock.
To fish a dock well, learn how to skip a jig and soft-plastic dressing under it and into the shadiest section. Use either a side-arm motion, as though you were skipping a stone across the water, or hold the jig carefully between your fingers, pull the tension tight on a short 4½- to 5½-foot rod and shoot the lure under the dock. Shooting docks is an old standby in the southern U.S., but few Canadians take the time to learn how to perform this deadly presentation.