Journal... Entry 23- Day 3
"Come on down to my restaurant, John, about l:00 p.m.," Danny Wiles of Birmingham, Alabama, told me. "I've been fishing, and I've caught a big mess of slab crappie."
I'd always known Wiles as an excellent fisherman, because he consistently caught large crappie and spotted bass in tailrace areas. But until I talked with Wiles on this particular day, I hadn't realized he'd also lost his sanity. Our part of the country had the worst floods in the history of the state for the two days prior to his phone call. With rivers about to flow out of their banks all over our state, I knew the spillways below the dams where Wiles fished had opened wide and spewed forth fast-running water. No one in his right mind would have gone fishing the day Wiles went in the wind, rain and muddy water conditions. But at lunchtime when I sat down to drag some tasty, fried, crappie fillets through a puddle of ketchup, I started picking Wiles' brain about how to catch bad-weather, monster-sized papermouths.
"I only seriously crappie fish for about three to four weeks during the early spring prior to the spawn," Wiles said. "I've found the best crappie fishing to be on the worst days imaginable for several reasons.
"When the weather's bad, lots of water comes over the spillways at the dams, the wind's blowing, the current in the river is strong, and the water is muddy, rarely will there be another boat below the dam except mine. So I don't have any competition for the fish.
"Also I like to fish on those kinds of days because the current forces the baitfish into eddy holes and pockets downriver behind rocks, below underwater drop-offs and behind trees that have fallen into the river. During these flood- water conditions, the baitfish will school-up in these eddy holes, and the big crappie will stack up in these same areas while gorging on shad in preparation for the spawn. Usually I can catch all the crappie I want to take in a half-day's fishing. If I have a limit of 35 fish, I'll generally have five to l0 crappie that will weigh 2 pounds or more."
Wiles has discovered one of the best-kept secrets for successful pre-spawn crappie fishing for big crappie. He fishes at a time and in a place when most other anglers feel they won't have success while fishing. However, Wiles has learned that he has the most productive crappie fishing of the year and catches the biggest crappie when the rivers flood, and few weekend anglers fish because of the rough weather.
A few years ago, I'd planned a day off to bank fish for papermouths on a small stream near my home. As luck would have it, the weather turned off foul two days prior to my trip. The rain came down all night long, just before my off-day.
At first light, the gray sky threatened a shower. But I didn't have to work, and I had a bucket of minnows, a rod, a box of hooks and a few shot leads. Walking down the bank, I stopped at every point where I saw an eddy hole. All day long, I consistently took crappie in the high water with the fast current. For some reason, those flooding conditions seemed to cause the crappie to go on a feeding spree. To catch them, I found the slack-water areas where the fish could hold out of the current and feed.
But anglers won't just catch high-water, huge crappie in swift current and fast-moving streams. When the spring floods come, and many rivers and lakes back up into woodlots and fields, often the crappie will follow the moving water into the newly inundated lands.
I like to fish along a flood plain on the Tennessee/Tombigbee Waterway near the Mississippi border. Using a flat-bottomed johnboat, I go to the river when the water's up and have made some large catches in freshly flooded woodlots during the early part of the spring. I particularly enjoy fishing in these conditions around newly inundated briar thickets where baitfish concentrate. The crappie will school-up and feed on these baitfish. Also you'll find standing timber in very shallow water, another strategic structure to home in on when you angle for high-water papermouths.
To take these shallow-water crappie, fish with minnows and jigs, and hold the baits only 1 or 2 inches under the surface. In muddy and rising water, light doesn't penetrate very deeply into the water. Most of the baitfish usually will swim in less than a foot of water. The baitfish will follow the moving water into the shallows to feed off the new plant life and microscopic animals that come into the lake as the water floods. By keeping your bait in that very shallow water, your minnows or jigs will appear more natural to the crappie, and you'll take more fish.
Most anglers' boats draft too much water or have too big a size to move into these shallow-water regions. I prefer to use a small johnboat or a one or a two-man type of boat, which I can easily maneuver and fish from in backwater areas.
Also when the river's up, I'll carry my belly boat or lightweight two-man boat into the woods on my hunting club that's bounded by the river. If I launch the boat in the spring in the woodlots I've hunted in the fall, I'll have no competition for these flood-plain papermouths in many of these inaccessible regions.
Crappie belong to the sunfish family, the same as black bass, and will react to rising flood waters just as bass do. They'll position themselves near the edge of the shore in very shallow water, facing toward the bank where the baitfish will run. The crappie fisherman who understands how and where to find bass when rivers flood also will know where to look for crappie under the same circumstances.
TOMORROW: START OF THE SPAWN
Check back each day this week for more about fighting tactics for monster crappie...