As with most panfish, the black crappie is often overlooked as a worthy fly-rod target. However, these aggressive feeders take a variety of flies and provide a strong fight, especially on light tackle. You can find them in many waters across the continent, where the water is cool, clear, and full of suitable cover.
In northern California where I fish, we see 1- to 2-pound crappie and some up to 3 pounds. If you can present a fly to them in deep cover, you're in for exciting fishing, and if you want to teach someone how to fly fish, this is the place to start.
The best time to fish for black or white crappie (see sidebar on page 67), is during spring and early summer, when they move into the shallows to spawn. During the pre-spawn, they patrol the shallows in schools and are relatively easy targets. But when the water reaches 62-65 degrees F., crappie nest along the shoreline under or beside pilings, brush piles, sunken trees, rock piles, weedbeds, fence lines, and other natural or manmade structures.
Casting to the bedding fish often results in many snags, which means lost flies, spooked fish, and frustrating outings. When they are in cover, crappie don't usually charge a fly; the fly must get close to the fish to induce a strike.
To present my flies in and around the structure I use an indicator and a jiglike baitfish fly tied on a soft-wire hook. The indicator allows me to drop the fly exactly where I want — right in the strike zone—and it helps detect soft crappie takes. The fly's jig-like design helps keep the hook point off obstacles, and the soft-wire hook allows it to be pulled off snagged structure, which results in fewer lost flies and spooked fish.
Strike-indicator fishing for crappie is a visual and exciting style of fishing that works for all panfish. It's ideal for teaching kids basic fly-fishing techniques.
Presentation, Tactics, and Flies
Despite their aggressive nature, crappie are soft biters and they inhale their food softly. If you don't strike the second the fish inhales the fly, you lose. That's why I use an indicator to help me detect the quick takes.
I added strike indicators to my crappie fishing several years ago after an afternoon on a local impoundment. In the far end of a cove, schools of crappie milled in and around sunken grassbeds. I tried several patterns and retrieves, but I landed only a few fish and lightly hooked and lost a handful of others.
Later that day, when the sun was higher and there was better visibility, I put on polarized sunglasses and watched my fly as I retrieved it through the school. Suddenly the fly disappeared and reappeared just as quickly. Surprised, I cast again and watched the fly intently. When it disappeared again, I made a quick strip-strike and connected with a crappie. After that, I hooked dozens more. The second that fly disappeared, my quick strip paid off with a hookup.
What I witnessed that afternoon was crappie inhaling and exhaling the fly so softly and quickly that I couldn't feel the take. If I had not seen the fly disappear, I would have left believing that the fish were just not in a biting mood. I needed strike detection, especially during those times when the fly was not visible. An indicator helps detect these light biters—it shows any hesitation or movement of the fly.
My method for fishing crappie with an indicator is to cast just beyond my target and then pull it back on the surface until it's over the target. When stopped, the fly settles into the structure; it is often taken during its descent. If not, I impart a gentle jigging to the fly. This method allows me to fish structure thoroughly instead of just skirting its perimeter.
Usually a sideways or up-and-down movement of the rod tip imparts enough action to trigger a strike. Crappie prefer slow-moving prey and casually inhale the food, so a lure—spinner, jig, or fly—should be fished slowly to entice them with any consistency.
There's a large pine tree that I fish each spring in a nearby lake. The tree fell parallel to the shoreline in about five feet of water and the protruding branches offer ideal crappie cover. I cast my fly and indicator just beyond or on top of the trunk, and let the fly settle on the tree. I slowly pull the fly until it slips off the tree on the boat side and then I fish the entire length of the tree. As the fly settles into the shadow of the tree line, I expect a strike.
Without the indicator to help control the descent of my fly, my only option would be to cast as close as possible and hope to avoid hooking the tree. Unfortunately, this presentation requires a quick strip to avoid snags, not the slow retrieve needed to fish crappie successfully.
Crappie are shy by nature; they will not suffer boat noise, or even the splashing and thrashing of their brethren being caught. When they are frightened, they move away from where they are holding but soon return if left alone. If the bite slows or stops, I try another area and return later for renewed action.
Light-wire Flies. The other key to springtime crappie fishing is avoiding snags. I use a fly with a light-wire hook that I bend to resemble a jig hook, which allows the hook point to ride up and avoid snags. When the fly snags a branch, the soft-wire hook easily straightens and pulls free. The hooks can be reshaped with pliers several times before the soft wire becomes weak and breaks. A steady pull instead of a jerk to straighten the hook prevents shaking the structure and spooking fish. The soft-wire hook seldom results in lost fish, since crappie takes are light and hook-sets don't need to be hard.
I use a long-shank, Aberdeen-style hook (fine, light-wire) and place a 30- to 40-degree bend at the front of it about a quarter-inch behind the eye. The shape forces the hook point up and makes the fly work like a jig, which causes fewer snags.
For most situations, I use flies tied on #2 and #4 hooks to imitate the threadfin shad that live in the crappie waters I fish.
When the water is especially clear, I use #6 hooks and sometimes #8, or if a lake is loaded with newly hatched fry, I'll go even smaller. On your crappie or other panfish water, you should determine what is the most abundant crappie forage and match it with your flies.
Effective crappie flies are tied with marabou tails and some Flashabou. These two ingredients impart natural movement to the fly without much stripping or jigging. The Crappie Kandy with bead-chain eyes (see recipe on page 47 and tying notes below) is one of my favorite springtime flies and is relatively easy to tie.
When I attach my flies to the leader, I use a loop knot Lefty Kreh taught me years ago. The nonslip mono loop (Practical Fishing Knots II, by Kreh and Mark Sosin, The Lyons Press, 1991) allows the fly total movement and a natural swimming action in the water. A snugged-up knot restricts the action, but the nonslip loop allows you to fish slowly and still impart action.
Several kinds of strike indicators work—from a piece of yarn to numerous commercial floats. My choice is the Corkie, a steelhead and salmon float, because it's inexpensive and comes in a variety of sizes. The Corkie has a hole through its middle, and by sticking half of a round toothpick in as a stopper, I can move the indicator up or down the leader to change depths. Often I find myself casting to exposed brush three or four feet deep, and then the next cover might be in six to eight feet of water. The Corkie lets me change depths quickly.
At California's Nacimiento Lake, where I do a lot of crappie fishing with my friend Dan Blanton, there are areas with Christmas (pine) trees deposited to create cover. One of my favorite areas is a long submerged fence with Christmas trees tied to it. The Corkie rig allows me to fish parallel to the fence line in from 3- to 5-foot depths and then from 6- to 8-foot depths.
[Dave Whitlock uses a slip-bobber technique (see page 47) to fish heavy panfish cover. Combined with a jiglike fly, the technique allows the fly to sink to the proper depth and hold in a horizontal position. The Editor.]
Panfish fishing doesn't require special equipment. Most trout-fishing gear will get the job done, or you might want to experiment with a 2- or 3-weight rod. I prefer soft-action 5- or 6-weights with weight-forward floating lines. Nine-foot or longer rods help cast the added weight of the indicator. Most casts to crappie structure will be 40 feet or less.
I use standard 7- or 9-foot leaders tapered to 3X or 4X tippet. Crappie are not leader shy, and the stronger tippets help when you must pull flies from snagged structure. This system works anywhere in the country, on any panfish.
Crappie Kandy Tying Notes: Before you start, use needlenose pliers to put a 30- to 40-degree bend in the hook shank about a quarter-inch behind the hook eye. Tie in the eyes on the shank, just behind the bend. After you finish the tail and tie in the rib, attach the body material behind the eyes, wrap it to the rear of the hook, and then back to the eyes. This provides a thick body profile. When the fly is complete, coat the body and eyes with cement, Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails polish, or a similar coating product. Let it dry, then flatten the body with smooth pliers. Repeat the coating two or three more times.
Crappie Life Science
The black crappie is a sunfish, related to the white crappie. It is marked by silvery sides, dark-olive or black backs, and spots scattered on its sides and fins. They are better fighters than white crappie and prefer the clearer, cooler waters found in the northern lakes of North America.
Crappie, black or white, begin to feed when the water temperatures reach above 40 degrees F. As the water warms, they become incresingly active, and in spring when the temperature hits around 65 degrees F. they begin spawning.
Crappie and panfish are aggressive during the late prespawning and spawning periods. During the latespawn, they patrol in schools and take a variety of baitfish, insect, and popper patterns. Their spring willingness to smash flies, bait, and lures has gained them the reputation of easy prey, but they can be more difficult to take with flies in summer.
After the spawn, crappies return to deeper, cooler water. Getting a fly to them is not as easy. You must locate deep-water structure and fish with sinking-tip lines and slow retrieves. Fish return to feed in the shallows at night and later in the fall, when the shallows water temperature falls back into the 50- to 60-degree range. They also move into the shallows when there is an abundance of bait or a hatch.
Crappie are live-food predators that eat minnows, aquatic insects, terrestrials, shrimp, crayfish, leeches, and aquatic worms. They ambush their food, using camouflage to let it approach, and then they suck it in. All flies should be fished slowly. Takes are subtle and strike indicators help, as do poppers fished with dropper flies.
Crappie have tender membrane-and-cartilage mouths similar to shad, so you should use barbless flies that won't do damage.
It usually takes up to four years for a fish to reach 12 inches. Average crappies weigh 11/2 pounds, but can reach over 4 pounds.
Ed Given is a freelance writer who spends his time in Idaho and northern California. He conducts fly-fishing seminars and slide shows across the country.