Lazy Days, Small Streams and Southern Catfish

By Wade Bourne

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.

"No business; no plans; no worries; no money; no future.  Too healthy to beg; too lazy to work; too old to steal.  Ain't got much; don't want anything.  Ain't mad at nobody.  Ain't running for nothing.  Waiting for the 3rd of the month." 

 

Joe B. Sweeney, Retired.  Lobelville, Tennessee.

     

Actually, Joe Sweeney's "business card" lacks one additional, important inscription:  "River rat, specializing on catching catfish."

     

And so he does!  This laid-back angler took early retirement a few years ago to fish and enjoy life.  This morning he's on the Buffalo River, across the highway from his house, doing what he does three to four times a week from late spring through mid-fall:  Rod-and-reel fishing for cats.  Shafts of sunlight are shining through sycamore and maple trees along the east bank.  In a few hours the morning will turn hot, but for now the air is fresh and cool.  A light breeze and a swaying current soothe Sweeney's soul as he watches his rods and waits for a bite.

     

"Isn't this the life?" he muses.  "This is what fishing ought to be, quiet and peaceful.  And I can pretty near always catch a mess of fish.  Just give me three fiddlers, some french fries and hushpuppies, and I'm in hog heaven!"

     

Suddenly, the tip of one of Sweeney's rods begins jerking.  The angler picks up the rod and waits.  Now his mood has changed from relaxed to ready.  He's like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.  "Gotta let'im take it," he coaches himself.  "Gotta let'im nibble 'til he pulls the rod down.  Go on, big boy, take it all..."

     

As though following Sweeney's command, the fish pulls the rod tip down with a decisive thump, and the angler quickly sets the hook.  Then a brief fight ensues, the fish wallowing in the current, then burrowing under the boat as Sweeney takes line.  However, the catfish's evasions are fruitless, and soon this squirming one-pounder is airlifted over the gunnels.  After a brief moment of admiration, the angler deposits the fish into a bucket holding two similar-sized members of its kind.  "Get the grease hot, mama!" he laughs.

     

Joe Sweeney has had plenty such chuckles on the Buffalo River over the years, because he's done this so many times before.  He's lived - and fished - here all his life.  When he was little, his father and grandfather taught him where to find smallmouth bass; how to gig for suckers, buffalo and carp; and how to catch catfish as a matter of routine.  "I used to specialize on fly fishing for smallmouth," Sweeney explains.  "But as I've gotten older, I've turned more to catfishing.  It doesn't take as much effort, and I can just about always count on getting a few."

     

And so can other southern fishermen who apply Sweeney's simple methods in creeks and rivers near their homes.  Channel, flathead and blue catfish abound in many of this region's small running waters, and they are vastly overlooked by anglers more attuned to big lakes and such "glory species" as bass and crappie.  Fishermen armed with minimal tackle, bait and knowledge can enjoy this almost-untapped resource with pleasing consistency.  The fish are abundant, and bites are frequent.  As Sweeney says, this truly is fishing like it should be.

 

Small Stream Catfishing:  An Overview

     

The Buffalo River in central Tennessee is typical of many streams in the mid-South:  Moderate in size, depth and current.  It meanders through quiet fields lined by rolling hardwood ridges.  The river course is a continuous series of shallow, swift riffles, deep pools below the riffles, then runs of medium depth and speed.  The Buffalo's water quality is good enough to support ample populations of smallmouth and rock bass, a variety of other sunfish, several species of rough fish, a hodgepodge of creek minnows, and catfish, which grow in surprising number and size.

     

"My biggest catfish from the Buffalo weighed 38 pounds, but I've hooked fish I know were bigger," Sweeney narrates.  "Also, I've heard stories about yellow cats (flatheads) up to 80 pounds.  Most of these bigger fish were taken on trotlines or limb lines.

     

"I catch mostly smaller fish -- 1/2-3 pounds.  There are a lot more of these, plus they're better to eat.  In fact, if I catch a catfish much bigger than this, I pitch him back in the river.  He won't be nearly as good as the little ones."

     

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.  Catfish can live in any but cold streams at high elevations.  These fish are adaptable to a broad range of current and turbidity conditions, thus their abundance.  Also, they are extremely hardy, and they will eat virtually anything organic.   

     

Sweeney begins fishing for stream cats in late April, and action picks up as the weather warms.  "My favorite months are June, July and August," he notes.  "This is when the fish bite the best."

     

Though catfish are known as night feeders, Sweeney goes after them only during the daytime.  "I catch all I want in early morning and late afternoon," he continues. 


"However, when the sun starts shining in over the trees, the action slacks off.  I think the bright light drives the fish back under logs and into holes, and they quit feeding until the shadows reappear."

     

For this reason, Sweeney prefers an overcast sky to a clear one.  When clouds block the sunlight, catfish may feed right through the day.  "I especially like a still, humid morning following a night of lightning and thunder.  I don't know why such a morning is better, but it is."

     

A crucial element in Sweeney's stream-fishing pattern is location of the fish.  "Most people think catfish hang in deep, quiet holes.  This may be true of the bigger ones, but smaller cats feed in shallow, swift areas.  I'm talking about runs that are 2-3 feet deep and exposed to direct current.  Also, a spot is better if it has a clean gravel or clay bottom instead of a mud bottom.  Catfish hold around cover (logs, treetops, rocks, etc.) in these areas and move out into the current to find food.  In fact, they feed a lot like a bass."

 

Tackle, Rigging, Baits, Boat

     

Joe Sweeney's tackle for stream catfish is both elementary and inexpensive.  He uses two 6-foot medium action fiberglass casting rods fitted with spincast reels.  (He notes, "It's hard to beat the old Zebco 33 for what I do.")  He spools 8-12 lb. test line onto these reels.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.  "I prefer smaller hooks than most catfishermen do," he remarks.  "I use #4 Eagle Claw wire hooks.  I'll tie the first hook directly into my line with a granny knot some 18 inches above the end.  Then I'll tie on my second hook 8-10 inches below this.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.

"Last, I add my weights.  I'll run two or three egg sinkers up the line, then clamp a small split shot on the end to keep the egg sinkers from sliding off.  For fishing the Buffalo in the summer, I like about an ounce of lead.  This is plenty weight to hold the bait on bottom in swift current.  Fishermen on other streams may add more or less weight as differences in depth and current require."

     

Sweeney says catfishermen can bait with any of a range of cut-up fish pieces, crawfish tails, stink baits, worms, insects, etc.  However, he has narrowed his bait choice to three top performers:  Red worms, chicken livers and catalpa worms.

     

"I raise my own red worms; they're always good for catfish.  Fresh chicken liver is also a standard, and it's one of the cheapest baits you can use.  A box costs around 75 cents.  Chicken livers are messy to handle and hard to keep on the hook, but that blood and liver smell sure attract catfish.  When I use liver, I'll cut off a thumb-sized piece and run the hook through it two or three times."

     

However, Sweeney says his favorite bait for stream catfish is a live catalpa worm.  "I planted three catalpa trees in my yard in 1956 just so I'd have a supply of these worms.  I get two crops a year, one in June and the other in August.  When I notice the leaves starting to disappear off my trees, I can collect catalpa worms by the dozens.  They're big and tough, and they stay on the hook well.  Catfish absolutely love'em."

     

Sweeney routinely fishes different baits on his two rods to see if the catfish have a preference.  "One day they might want worms, the next day livers.  But they'll eat just about anything. 

     

"For instance, one of my neighbors lives on a bluff overlooking the Buffalo, and a couple of years back he cooked a country ham and trimmed off some fat and skin and threw it in the river.  The next morning I was fishing under the bluff, and I caught a cat that weighed about 3 pounds.  When I cleaned it, there was that ham fat and skin rolled up in a ball in its belly."

     

Sweeney's boat/motor combo is as simple as his taste in fishing.  He runs a 14-foot aluminum johnboat powered by a 15-horse outboard.  He outfits his boat with a bucket or cooler to hold his fish, seat cushions, paddle, and two anchors - one attached to the bow of the boat, the other to the stern.

 

Streamfishing Methods

     

Thus rigged, baited and boated, Joe Sweeney is ready to begin his quest.

     

"Again, most people fish the deep holes, but in summer I catch a lot more in the shallow, fast runs," he reiterates.  "I look for logs, rocks or undercut banks in direct, moderately strong current.  Then I anchor just upstream from this cover and cast downstream beside it.  When the weight hits bottom, I reel up slack line and set the rod in the boat with the tip sticking over the gunnels.  Then I just sit back and watch for a bite."

     

When fishing alone, Sweeney anchors only one end of his johnboat.  The other end swings downcurrent, and his lines extend beyond into his target area.  However, when accompanied by a partner, Sweeney anchors his boat across the current with anchors on the bow and stern, then both anglers fish the downcurrent side.

     

Sweeney likes to anchor approximately 20 yards upcurrent from his target area, and he casts as close to his target cover as possible.  Then, with his first rod propped up, he casts his second line a few feet out from the first, and he sets this rod up in a like manner.  Then the waiting game begins.

     

When a catfish starts nibbling, the line pulses, and the rod tip jumps.  Sweeney picks up the rod, slowly reels his line tight and waits until the fish takes a big bite.  When the rod tip dips convincingly, he sets back and plays the hooked fish to the boat.

     

In the course of a morning, Sweeney will fish several different spots.  "I don't stay at one place more than 15-20 minutes," he says.  "If catfish are there, they'll usually bite right away.  The normal routine is to catch two or three fish from a spot, then the bites quit coming.  So this is sort of a hit and run method.  I don't wait in one place for very long hoping to get a bite."

     

One nemesis to Sweeney's technique is hangups.  "It's very common to hang and break your rig off, but that's just a drawback that goes with the fun.  I keep the hook and sinker people in business," he notes.

 

Philosophy of Stream Catfishing

     

Joe Sweeney and his methods typify the casual approach that goes along with small streams, catfishing, and lazy summer mornings.  There is none of the hustle of the big lakes, no fast boats, crowded ramps, expensive gadgetry or sophisticated techniques.  Rather, this is old-fashioned fishing-for-dinner and a chance to shift into low gear......

     

"See how the current's eating this field away?" Sweeney observes at one particular turn where a high bank shows five feet of topsoil.  "The river's always changing.  There's something different every year, new trees in the water, old ones gone, a fresh cut, an island washed away."

     

In a way, the river resembles the lives of those who fish it.  They, too, are always changing.  "A lot of people just don't go fishing anymore," Sweeney muses.  "My grandsons used to go with me, but now they're into the two G's:  Girls and golf.  So mostly I fish alone, or sometimes I'll take a neighbor."  He threads a fresh worm on his hook.

     

"There are a lot of canoeists on the river in the summer, and sometimes all the boat traffic interferes with fishermen.  I usually fish early and late and leave the water to the paddlers during the mid-day hours.

     

"And while I'm talking about canoeists, I don't think some of them have as much respect for the river as they should.  They throw cans and Styrofoam cups and other trash in the water.  I hate that."  Sweeney casts his freshly baited rig downstream, waits for the weight to hit bottom, then sets his rod against the gunnels.

     

"I used to raise red worms to sell.  Whenever I'd be away from the house, I'd leave several boxes of worms out where people could find them, and they'd drop their money in a cigar box.  This business ran on the honor system, and I never knew it if anybody beat me out of a cent."

     

In a few minutes Sweeney gets a bite, and he quickly lands a channel catfish the size of a large corncob.  "Big enough to bite, big enough to keep," he judges, dropping the fish into the bucket. 

     

In the next hour, Sweeney talks about whatever enters his mind.  He explains how his father and grandfather built flat-bottomed boats out of poplar planks, then sunk them in the river so they would swell and seal.  He talks about old friends and favorite fishing spots.  He laments the fast pace of life and the fact that modern parents spend so little time with their children.  He says, "My motto is, 'Don't send'em.  Go with'em.'  In this age you've gotta spend time with kids to keep'em out of trouble."

     

That's the way it is with small rivers and catfishing; there's plenty time to think.  You can ponder whatever is important in your life.  You can remember yesterday, reflect on tomorrow, share an opinion or tell a tale. 

     

The only trouble is, all too often a sneaky fish will snatch your bait and steal you away from your meditations.  You have to stop and reel the vagrant in, but putting up with such a "nuisance" is a fair price to pay for the pleasures of this summer sport and setting.

0 Comments »

Overlooked Spring Bass Hotspots

By Don Wirth


In late spring, bass will hang around flooded bushes for a brief period prior to moving out of the shallows
.

Where will you be fishing this spring? You could take the no-brainer approach and get in line with all those other bass fishermen casting to the bank. Or, you could do what pro tournament anglers do, and load your boat with big bass on these key springtime spots that weekend fishermen usually overlook!

 

Hotspot #1: Retaining Wall

     

Description: A sharply vertical man-made structure designed to shore up an earthen bank and protect it from erosion due to wave action. Often associated with shoreline residential developments, retaining walls may be made of cement blocks, wood pilings, or poured concrete.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass moving from deep to shallow water in early spring often stage in open water adjacent to retaining walls in water temperatures ranging from around 48 to 58 degrees. These fish can be found suspending in the water column when inactive, or cruising the structure feeding on shad that are eating algae growing on the wall.

     

Best approach: Go for active bass first by casting a deep-diving crankbait parallel to the wall. If this doesn't produce a strike, move your boat away from the wall and cast a suspending jerkbait directly to the structure. Work the lure very slowly in the coldest part of the temperature range indicated above, a little faster in the upper portion of this range.

     

Inside tip: In clear lakes, bass action on retaining walls is usually best when a stiff breeze is causing waves to crash against the structure.

 

Hotspot #2: Fallen Tree on Deep Bank

     

Description: A tree that has toppled from the bank into the lake; the top portion is laying in water at least 8 feet deep and the trunk is resting on the bank.

     

Importance to spring bass: This structure acts as a bridge from deep to shallow water. Bass swimming along a deep ledge or creek channel will encounter the top of the tree, then follow it up into water shallow enough for spawning. Also serves as a bridge from the shoreline to the water for insects, mice, and other small creatures upon which bass feed.

     

Best approach: Slow-roll a spinnerbait lengthways down the tree, making sure the lure contacts the structure. Or, swim a jig 'n pig through the branches.

     

Inside tip: Make repeated presentations to the tree, taking care to have lure contact where major branches jut off from the trunk - this is where bass are most likely to be holding.

 

Hotspot #3: Ditch in Tributary Arm

     

Description: A shallow depression in the bottom, either natural or man-made, running from the bank out into a feeder creek. Ditches were either formed naturally by rain runoff, or dug to divert water flow, before a reservoir's formation. They often occur on flats and may be lined with stumps or brush.

     

Importance to spring bass: Ditches serve as a route from deep to shallow water. Spring bass will typically stay in the ditch when travelling, then move up to the adjacent flat when feeding.

     

Best approach: Drop marker buoys to delineate the path of the ditch, then back off and cast a medium-diving crankbait or a lipless vibrating crankbait so the lure covers both the ditch and the shallow flat on either side of it. Or, cast a Texas-rigged plastic worm or a jig 'n pig into the ditch.

     

Inside tip:  In spring, large numbers of bass may stage where a ditch makes a sharp bend. These fish are often sluggish, so once you've located the bend, use a worm or jig to catch 'em.

     

Hotspot #4: Flooded Roadbed

     

Description: A flooded road leading into a reservoir. The roadbed surface may be made of asphalt, gravel or earth; asphalt roads were often broken up prior to being flooded. The roadbed may be elevated off the bottom and lined with stumps or chunk rock.

     

Importance to spring bass: Another "highway" which bass follow from deep to shallow water as the water warms. Bass may spawn on some submerged roadbeds.

     

Best approach: Run a deep-diving crankbait parallel to the structure. Hit the top of the road first, then root the lure through the rock rubble or stumps on either side.

     

Inside tip: Unpaved roads such as old logging trails are less obvious than paved roads, and are therefore more likely to be ignored by anglers. Scan the surrounding terrain for indentations indicating an old road leading into the lake.

     


Weeds are considered by most bass pros to be the #1 cover for bass.

Hotspot #5: Warm Run-Off

     

Description: Water entering a lake via tributaries, ditches, culverts, etc. which drain from the surrounding terrain following warm spring rains.

     

Importance to spring bass: The body temperature of a bass matches that of its surroundings. In the cold water typical of early spring, bass are sluggish, but their activity level picks up quickly when the temperature of their surroundings rises following a warm spring deluge. Run-off also flushes worms and insect larvae into the lake, jump-starting the food chain.

     

Best approach: Move to the extreme back-end of an inflowing tributary and fan-cast a spinnerbait or deep-diving crankbait.

     

Inside tip: An unseasonably warm rain in early spring can trigger a mass emergence of crayfish from hibernation. Root a craw-colored crankbait across the bottom in run-off areas.

     

Hotspot #6: Beds Around Boat Docks

     

Description: Spawning nests formed near boat docks located in coves and tributary arms. Beds will appear as light-colored patches in shallow, sunlit areas.

     

Importance to spring bass: Boat docks are usually thought of as fall structures, but bass will spawn around them when the water temperature reaches approximately 65 degrees. Multiple docks help block the wind, creating a calm surface where solar penetration is maximized and the eggs of the bass can be incubated more efficiently.

     

Best approach:  Locate bass beds visually, then cast a weightless plastic worm to the nest.

     

Inside tip: Pre-rig three rods with a floating worm, straight-tail finesse worm on a light jighead, and a tube bait with pegged sinker. Rotate casts to the bed with these three lures, never presenting the same bait twice in a row. This strategy usually invokes a killing response from bedding bass. Note: it's always best to release bedding bass immediately where you caught them!

     

Hotspot #7: Early-Emerging Vegetation

     

Description: The first green aquatic vegetation to appear in spring.

     

Importance to spring bass: Weeds are considered by most bass pros to be the #1 cover for bass. They provide hiding and ambush places, and attract a variety of forage species including shiners, crayfish and bluegills. Weeds also filter impurities from the water and produce oxygen through photosynthesis.

     

Best approach: Look for emerging vegetation in shallow areas of quiet coves and tributary arms, where solar penetration is maximized. Cast a tube bait or plastic worm doused in liquid fish attractant to the thickest past of the grass and work it to the outer perimeter. If the water is clear, try twitching a silver or gold floater/diver minnow around the grass.

     

Inside tip: Weeds usually appear first in the northwest corner of the lake. This is the area most protected from cold north winds, so the water will be warmest here.

     

Hotspot #8: Deep Pocket

     

Description: Indentation in the shoreline, usually oval-shaped, with a depth of at least 10 feet in the middle.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass often suspend in the middle of these structures after making their initial move toward the shoreline from deep water.

     

Best approach: If the water is clear, fan-cast a suspending jerkbait around the pocket.

     

Inside tip: This is a great spot for a 3/4 to 1 ounce spinnerbait. Look for baitfish suspending in the pocket, then slow-roll a heavy spinner at the depth level of the school.

     

Hotspot #9: Flooded Bushes

     

Description: Completely- or partially-submerged willow or buck bushes, commonly found in the back-ends of reservoir tributaries after the water level rises in late spring.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass will spawn in open, sunlit areas around this cover. In late spring, bass will hang around flooded bushes for a brief period prior to moving out of the shallows. Mayflies often hatch out around flooded bushes, attracting bluegills and bass.

     

Best approach: Skip a weightless plastic worm under bushes you can't reach by overhand casting.

     

Inside tip: Both bedding and post-spawn bass often need to be coaxed into biting. "Shake" a soft plastic centipede, finesse worm or tube bait around flooded bushes by squeezing the rod handle repeatedly while the lure is lying on the bottom.

     

Hotspot #10: Crappie Cover

     

Description: Man-made brushpiles or stake beds put out as crappie attractors in coves and tributary arms.

     

Importance to spring bass: Prespawn bass often stage around crappie cover in the 8 to 12 foot zone. Postspawn bass will hold around shallower crappie attractors prior to heading out to deeper water.

     

Best approach: Locate crappie brushpiles visually, then run a spinnerbait past it, taking care to bump the cover. If the water is muddy, flip a jig into the attractor.

     

Inside tip: Large brushpiles intended as crappie attractors are broken up and scattered over a wide area by panfishermen who hang up anchors in the cover. The biggest bass in the area often hold on the outer perimeter of this scattered cover, so when approaching a brushpile, start at least two cast-lengths away from the structure by fan-casting a spinnerbait, then move gradually toward the main concentration of brush.

 

Bonus Tip: Try River Bars for Big Spring Bass

           

Many bass anglers ignore rivers, but they can hold tremendous numbers of quality bass. And right now is your best shot at a big river largemouth or smallmouth. They're prowling gravel, sand, or mud bars in a river or tailrace near you, feeding up heavily prior to spawning.

 

Bars provide river bass with food, cover and an escape from current. The best bars have some form of cover on them - scattered stumps, a big rock, a tree washed in during a flood. In swift rivers, bass hold tight to the down-current side of this cover, and may not move far to strike your lure. A swirling eddy often forms at one end of the bar; baitfish injured by passing through the turbines of the upstream dam are often sucked into this spot, only to be inhaled by bass holding there.

 

Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are usually your best bets on river bars, but if you see bass-busting baitfish on the surface, try a topwater popper. If it doesn't get eaten by a big bass, a hybrid or striper might grab it.

 

 

0 Comments »

Catching Cold-Water Slabs

By Don Wirth

Crappie
Ditches serve as natural migration routes for crappie moving from deep to shallow water.

Winter's an awesome time to fish crappie, especially in the Sun Belt where truly frigid days are few, and ice over is just a bad dream. Fishing pressure is super-light and crappie are usually densely packed and tightly related to well-defined structures. And best of all, no jet skis!

Many winter crappie methods used nationwide were spawned on the mid-South's sprawling reservoirs. We checked with Tennessee's top crappie guides to learn where and how they catch monster slabs from frigid water. Their methods should work for you wherever the water remains open this season. 

Dig Those Ditches!
Billy Hurt, Spring Creek, Tenn. (731/427-7066)

I dig ditches in winter -- ditches on Kentucky Lake where I guide, that is. Ditches are the narrow grooves or indentations formed by runoff; before the reservoir was formed, they drained water from the surrounding hillsides and banks into the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Ditches serve as natural migration routes for crappie moving from deep to shallow water.

In winter, crappie concentrate in ditches in 10 to 12 feet of water. A good place to locate these subtle structures is on a major flat. Idle around the flat, watch your depth finder and use marker buoys to pinpoint ditches.

I'm convinced crappie feel a great sense of security in ditches. The water is typically very murky in winter, and visibility low. Crappie moving along the ditch will swim very close to its walls, like a miner feeling his way through a dark tunnel.

The best ditches always have brushy cover on them. On Kentucky Lake, fishermen have sunk brushpiles for decades, so this cover is plentiful. On your home lake, you may have to put out your own cover, but check with your fisheries agency first to make sure it's legal to do so.

I use a spider rig with multiple crappie poles, each 10 to 12 feet in length. Depending on how many fishermen are aboard, I'll run up to eight poles at a time, all rigged with tube jigs and held in rod holders. The setup is a bit unorthodox: first tie a tube jig rigged on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce leadhead to an 18 inch leader of 6 pound mono. Add a swivel. Then slide a 3/8 to 1/2 ounce egg sinker onto 10 pound main line. Attach your main line to the other end of the swivel.

Use a Palomar knot on the jig. When cinched down real tight, this causes the hook to ride up at an angle, which lets the jig c-r-a-w-l over limbs and branches and helps reduce hangups. Of course, hangups are going to happen eventually, and that light leader lets you break off below the swivel so you can save your sinker. Pre-tie jigs on leader lines and keep 'em handy for quick rerigging. It's no fun tying up rigs when your fingers are numb from the cold.

Once you've located a ditch, use your trolling motor to move the multiple jigs along it at a moderate, steady pace. Keep your lines angled back with no slack or bag, otherwise waves will wash lines into your trolling motor prop and you'll have a real mess on your hands.

Tube-and-Minnow Tactics
Garry Mason, Springville, Tenn. (731/593-5429)

Most guides use either a soft plastic tube jig or a live minnow. I use both in combination to tempt sluggish winter slabs.

Kentucky Lake where I guide usually undergoes a five-foot drawdown beginning in late fall. This pulls crappie tight to cover -- tighter than at any other time of year. Their strike zone also shrinks dramatically, and if you ain't in it, you're gonna haul water.

Crappie plastics
Some days crappie want a jig. When they do, McCadams gives 'em a hollow tube bait rigged on an 1/8 or 1/4 ounce head.

My main targets now are creek channel dropoffs that fall from 12 to 18 feet. The best drops invariably cut close to a submerged bar or island, and have plenty of cover on them.

Now is your chance to get into big schools of megaslabs on an isolated clump of brush or a lone stump. For some reason, crappie really gang up in a big way on this scattered stuff in cold water. Catch one fish and you're likely to catch a zillion more from the same spot.

I use a tight-line presentation with a variation of the Kentucky rig, an old standby for crappie in my neck of the woods. This consists of a 1 ounce bell sinker at the bottom and two tube jigs on 1/16 ounce heads tied at 18-inch intervals above the weight. The tube jigs are tied with a simple cinch knot. This is fished on 12 pound mono using an 8 foot fiberglass spinning rod, one with a whippy tip but a sturdy butt section. I add a live tuffy minnow to the tube jig's hook. The minnow kicks, flutters and activates the tube; the tube in turn adds mass and a dash of color to your presentation, helping crappie to locate it quickly in turbid water.

After pinpointing and marking the creek channel with buoys, use your trolling motor to traverse it slowly, working the jigs vertically. Again, you've got to fish very close to cover now -- the strike zone is tiny, and missing it by an inch is as good as a mile. The Kentucky rig lets you know when you're in cover. The heavy sinker telegraphs a solid tap up your line when it contacts wood; by lowering it into the brush and reeling it slowly upwards through the branches, you can determine where the fish are holding without constantly hanging up. If you do get hung, break your line and rerig. Don't use line heavier than 12 pound -- popping off limbs and branches in an effort to get your rig back will spook the crappie school. Once I lower the rig into the brush, I jiggle the rod tip sideways, not up and down. Think about it: if you use the standard up-and-down jigging stroke, your lure will be out of the strike zone 50% of the time.

Probing Deep Drops
Steve McCadams, Paris, Tenn. (731/642-0360)

To find crappie any time of year, you've first got to find their food source. I believe baitfish are reluctant to move too shallow in winter. Winter weather in the Sun Belt can be extremely volatile -- here on Kentucky Lake, it's liable to be 55 degrees and sunny at noon on Monday, rain two inches Monday afternoon, then drop to 20 degrees by Tuesday morning. Rapid chilling of the surface layer causes massive baitfish kills. You'll go out the morning after one of these monster fronts and see dead shad literally carpeting the lake.

This explains why you can always find a great number of baitfish in deep water in winter. By staying deep, they buffer themselves against the chilling (and potentially lethal) effects of severe frontal passages. And where there's ample bait, there's crappie.

Winter is an ideal time to probe deep ledges. The old creek or river channel seldom falls straight off into deep water, but drops gradually in a series of steps or ledges. In winter, big crappie will relate to ledges between 18 and 25 feet deep. I seldom catch quality fish shallower than 15 feet now.

Stumps and brushpiles located along ledges will attract baitfish and hold crappie. I fish this scattered cover vertically with a heavy version of the popular Kentucky rig:  a 1 ounce bell sinker on the bottom, two  bronze 1/0 snelled hooks 18 inches apart, and a barrel swivel a foot above the top hook. Both hooks are baited with live tuffies.

I use heavy line on my rig -- 20 pound mono for the main line, 17 to 20 for the leader. This is a cover-intensive method, and lighter line simply won't hold up. Besides, we're talking murky water here, so line visibility isn't a factor. I fish the rig on a medium-action spinning or baitcasting outfit. 

Move along the drop and tap that sinker around those deep ledges. Fish it slowly and carefully -- this is a touchy-feely technique. When you feel the rig knock on wood, get ready for a bite. Incidentally, those lightweight bronze hooks team up perfectly with that heavy line. They'll straighten under pressure, so you can get your rig back when you hang up.

Some days they want a jig, and when they do, give 'em a hollow tube bait rigged on a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce head.  The heavy head/light line combination helps keep the lure straight down under the boat, a blessing on rough, windy days. Fish it vertically on 6 pound mono; this setup is especially good for crappie suspending off the drop in open water.

Creek Arm Savvy
Harold Morgan, Nashville, Tenn. (615/227-9337)

Starting sometime before Christmas, crappie get on a dependable ledge pattern at Old Hickory Lake, a flatland reservoir north of Nashville. Now is a fine time to head up into the tributary arms and bump some ledges. Not only will you find plenty of slabs here, you'll have a decent chance of staying out of the wind, which is vital to an effective presentation.

Like Steve McCadams, I target scattered brush along the deeper ledges, 15 to 25 feet. My favorite method is to cast a curly-tail grub on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce head, using an ultralight spinning rig with 4 or 6 pound mono. Cast the grub to the top of the drop and retrieve it with the rod held steady at 10 o'clock. The water will be frigid now -- 38 to 45 degrees in my area -- and the fish won't move far to strike. Fan-cast the twister around the breakline. Crappie will often suspend out over the channel, and this is a good way to locate a school.

Most fishermen get impatient and fish a twister too fast. Slow way down and you'll catch more crappie! In frigid water, keep the bait moving as slowly as possible while still activating the tail and maintaining a horizontal attitude. 

Vertical-fishing works as well, but don't overdo it. Big jerks won't cut it now. On days with a slight chop on the water, I'll lower a tube jig tied to 6 pound line over the dropoff, watch for the line to go slack as it contacts the ledge, reel up a turn or two and hold the rod dead-still parallel to the surface. The gentle bobbing action of the boat will give the jig all the action it needs. You can also fish vertically with the Kentucky rig. I've got my own version of this favorite: an 11/16 ounce bell sinker on the bottom and 8 pound mono on my main line. Two light wire hooks are attached to 6-inch lengths of 20 or 30 pound "catfish mono," the kind you find in the bargain bin at your friendly neighborhood discount store. These are in turn attached to the main line via loop knots. This cheap line is, as you'd expect, stiff and springy, and holds your baited hooks out at a 90-degree angle from your main line, preventing tangles.

0 Comments »

Advanced Crappie Jigging Tactics

By Don Wirth

Extreme versatility is the reason the jig is such a successful crappie bait.

The lead head jig is unquestionably the deadliest artificial lure ever created for crappie. Extreme versatility is the key to its success. You can fish jigs 12 months of the year in an astounding number of crappie situations by varying jig style, weight, color and presentation. And, you can pack a zillion jigs in your tackle bag and still have plenty of room for a baloney sandwich!

     

Serious crappie anglers are always looking for new wrinkles in jig fishing. Here, some of the top crappie guides in the nation share their secret jigging methods - tactics you can use to score more and bigger crappie on your next outing.

 

#1: Tom Moody's Cold Front Approach

     

Tom Moody, like other veteran Kentucky Lake crappie guides, uses the so-called "Kentucky rig" for probing this sprawling reservoir's ledges, drop-offs and submerged brushpiles. Tom uses a standard double wire crappie rig with a 3/4-ounce bell sinker on the bottom. Moody normally uses the rig with two hooks baited with shiner minnows, but during cold fronts, he replaces one or both hooks with a Charlie Brewer Slider Grub on a 1/16-ounce jighead.

 

You'd think live bait would outperform any artificial lure during a severe cold front, but you'd be wrong, Moody insists. "The Slider Grub can be fished just as slowly and methodically as live shiners, but it gives you the added versatility of using color to your advantage," he says. "By mixing and matching grub and jighead colors, you can achieve exactly the right presentation to trigger bites from non-aggressive fish."

     

Crappie are more color-sensitive than most other freshwater gamefish, including bass, Moody emphasizes. "Often merely changing jig colors provokes an immediate aggressive feeding response. That's why it pays to keep plenty of Slider Grub, tube bait or twister grub color options in your tacklebox, and to experiment with different jighead/lure color combinations. These lures are inexpensive; you can equip a couple of plastic utility boxes with a complete color palette for fewer than twenty bucks. Be sure to stock up on different colored jigheads while you're at it -- sometimes just changing from a white to a chartreuse head will turn the fish on."

     

Cold-front crappie often bury deep inside brushpiles and stake beds; this presents no problem for Moody's modified Kentucky rig. "Simply position the boat directly over the cover, lower the sinker to the bottom, reel your line up slowly, then lower it back into the cover," he instructs. "Determine whether the crappie are striking the top or bottom hook/jig, then adjust your presentation accordingly. For example, if most of your hits are coming on the jig, replace the live bait hook with another Slider Grub. When fishing two jigs, if your hits are coming mostly on the top lure, raise the level of your presentation a foot or so; often this results in two crappies striking the rig at once."

     

Tom's Bonus Tip: "When rigging a soft plastic bait on a jighead, always position the knot on the hook eye so the lure hangs at a 90-degree angle from the rod tip. This gives the jig the natural look of a live minnow swimming horizontally through the water."

 

#2: Garry Mason's Suspending Crappie Technique

     

There's no question that a jig's single hook and compact lead head make it a good choice for probing dense bottom cover. But this lure is also an effective tool for catching crappie suspending in the water column - especially once you master Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason's unusual presentation tactic that is.

 

"The problem most anglers have with jigging suspending crappie is keeping the jig within the depth zone the fish are using," Mason points out. "Many fishermen have experienced the frustration of catching a fat crappie from a suspending school, only to be unable to score repeat strikes because they couldn't put their jig back in front of the fish."

     

Mason's technique revolves around the spinning reels he uses on his crappie rods. "Say I just hooked a crappie 18 feet deep off the side of a creek channel," he explains. "I know I want to get my jig back in that same spot as quickly as possible, and the surest way to do that is to not touch the reel handle while bringing in the fish. So instead of reeling, the instant I feel the fish hit, I squeeze the line closest to my right hand tightly against the rod handle, then I reach down and pull the line above the handle far enough to get the fish up within reach of the landing net. Then I unhook the fish and drop my jig back into the exact same depth zone. This will seem awkward at first, but with practice, it becomes easy, and it's the surest way to jig up a boatload of suspended crappie that I know of."

     

Garry's bonus tip: "When fishing a jig vertically, it's critical to have your line as vertical as possible, not at an extreme angle from the boat. If the wind is blowing hard enough to offset your line angle, go to a heavier jighead, or pinch one or two split shot about 3 inches above your lure."

 

Most jig fishermen rig their soft plastic lures the traditional way: hook up/tail down on both twister grubs and shad-tail baits like the Slider Grub. #3: Todd Miller's Upside-Down Rigging Strategy

     

Most jig fishermen rig their soft plastic lures the traditional way: hook up/tail down on both twister grubs and shad-tail baits like the Slider Grub. Priest Lake, Tenn. crappie guide and tournament angler Todd Miller agrees that's one way to do it, but he'll give the fish a change-up when the bite gets slow. "On a highly-pressured lake like Priest, I try to give my jigs a different look from what the fish are used to seeing," he explains. "One way to do that is by rigging twister and Slider Grubs with their tails facing up instead of down. This not only creates a different visual profile in the water, but it gives the jig a more erratic action, like a wounded minnow. Note that the hook now lies directly in front of the lure's tail, displacing water. This helps contribute to the bait's jerky swimming action and can mean significantly more bites."

     

A tube bait's cylindrical design means there's no tail hanging down or pointing up, but the lure's soft plastic skirt requires the angler's attention to achieve the best action, Miller adds. "Often the skirt strands are stuck together in the molding process, so before you fish a tube, always take a moment to gently pull the strands apart," he suggests. "If the strands are too molded together to pull apart without ripping up the lure, carefully cut the strands apart with a hobby knife. Separating the skirt gives the lure a more fluid, lifelike action, and it'll fan out better when it's falling"

     

Todd's bonus tip: "Crappie are incredibly finicky about lure color, so I like my jig head and grub or tube body colors to be different so I can cover as many bases with a single presentation as possible. A flash of red or chartreuse on the head often turns on sluggish fish."

     

#4: Jim Duckworth's Jig Trolling Method

     

I've learned to count on Tennessee multi-species guide Jim Duckworth to come through with creative fish-catching methods, and this one is ideal for you crappie anglers who get easily bored when sitting on a hole and waiting for the fish to bite. "I've had excellent results over the years trolling crankbaits for white bass, walleye and sauger, and I discovered along the way that crappie would often respond to a trolling presentation as well, especially from post-spawn through summer," Jim noted. "In order to make my trolling presentation more crappie-specific, I came up with a rig that incorporates both a crankbait and a jig."

     

Duckworth ties on a Bandit 200 crankbait, the adds a 1/16-ounce Slider Grub to the trailing hook via a leader line. "This rig is awesome when crappie are suspending in open water over a channel dropoff or hump, or relating loosely to deep submerged brushpiles," he explained. "The crankbait works like a depth planer to get the jig down to the level of the fish and then keeps it at a constant level. I'll locate a school of crappie or a big wad of bait on my graph, and then I'll circle back around and slow-troll through it with my gas outboard or trolling motor."

     

On days when crappie are actively feeding, it's not unusual to hang fish on both lures at the same time, Jim says. "But the jig part of the rig really shines when the bite is slow," he adds. "The Slider Grub is a compact, non-threatening offering that even sluggish crappie can't turn down."

     

Jim's bonus tip: "Even when crappie won't hit the crankbait, it serves as an attractor, getting their attention until the jig swims by. For maximum visibility, change crankbait colors to match water conditions. In murky water, use a bright color such as chartreuse, or hot orange. But in clear water, go for realism and flash with a shad or chrome pattern. Replace the stock front treble hook on your crankbait with a red hook for even more attraction."

     

#5: Harold Morgan's Float 'N Fly Method

     

The so-called float 'n fly is a plastic bobber and small hair jig combination that has taken winter smallmouth bass fishermen by storm. This innocent-looking rig is incredibly deadly on bass suspending in cold, clear water, and although the jigs used with the method are miniscule, it's racked up impressive catches of trophy smallmouths in many cold-weather bass tournaments.

     

Although the float 'n fly has received plenty of national press as a hot new bass technique, it's really a time-tested crappie method, one that famed Nashville guide Harold Morgan has used for decades. "This is the ultimate jigging method for suspending crappie," Harold promised. "Virtually all other jig presentations involve some movement of the lure, either sideways or up and down in the water column. Not this one. The bobber floats the jig in place indefinitely, which is exactly the presentation you want when the water is gin-clear and super-cold."

     

Morgan turns to the float 'n fly when the water temperature dips below 50 degrees in winter, noting, "It really comes into its own in 40- to 45-degree water, when crappie typically refuse to bite even live bait."

     

Harold uses a long, light-action spinning outfit spooled with 6 pound mono -- 4 if the water is extra-clear. He ties a 1/16-ounce hair jig to the end of his line, trims the hair back with scissors so it's about even with the bend of the hook, snaps a small plastic bobber on the line and positions it from 8 to 12 feet above the jig.

     

Morgan fishes the float rig on banks with a rapid slope into deep water, such as a channel bluff. He casts the bobber close to the structure, waits several seconds for the jig to sink, then either lets the bobber sit still, or gently shakes his rod tip to make the bobber (and the jig) quiver in place. If nothing happens after a minute or so, he reels in a couple of feet of line and dangles the jig some more. It usually doesn't take long for the crappie to react. "The tiny jig looks just like a fry minnow, and crappie will attack it without hesitation. It'll also catch bass, trout and walleye. This rig proves that in jig fishing, sometimes less action is more desirable.

0 Comments »

Juglines for Catfish

By Don Wirth

Jugline Catfish

Shiners and small bluegill are great for juglines and especially tempting to flathead. Blue and channel cats can be tempted with chicken livers, raw shrimp or chunks of gizzard shad.

Catfishermen use a variety of esoteric methods besides hook-and-line fishing to catch their quarry, including limblines, yo-yos, even grabbing the fish with their bare hands. According to Clarksville, Tennessee, catfish guide Jim Moyer (931/358-9264), juglining is one of the most popular of these alternative techniques. "It's easy, effective and fun," he claims. "You'll seldom catch a huge catfish on a jugline, but if you're after a mess of fish for the table, juggin' is a great way to catch them."

The genius of the jugline technique lies in its ability to catch suspending catfish. "Most anglers view catfish as bottom-dwellers, but they'll often move up to feed on passing baitfish schools," he claims. "When they do, a jugline is an ideal presentation. As when bobber fishing, bait dangles beneath the jug."

Juglines work especially well in current. You can toss out several baited jugs, then drift along with them, watching for one of them to take off. Which is, Moyer says, an accurate description of what happens when a good-sized catfish takes the bait. "Catfish go berserk on a jugline. They run all over creation, and chasing after them is half the fun!"

Rigging Jugs
Moyer collects plastic 2-liter Pepsi bottles and spray-paints them bright yellow for maximum visibility. "Plastic soda bottles are cylindrical and take up less room in your boat than gallon milk jugs," he says. "Store them in a plastic garbage bag." Jim writes his name and phone number on each bottle with a waterproof marker; he advises readers to check state fishing regulations to see if this or any additional information is required.

Next, Moyer cuts a 10- to 20-foot length of tough nylon trotline cord, wraps one end around the neck of a bottle, then ties a 2/0 O'Shaughnessy trotline hook to the tag end. A sinker is attached from 6 inches to a foot above the hook, weight depending on conditions. It may take a 1-ounce bell sinker to keep the bait down in current, but only a BB-sized split shot in slack water. 

A fat rubber band is used for adjusting the distance of the hook from the jug when fishing, and for corralling the line during storage. Simply peel off the length of line desired and secure the remainder against the jug with the rubber band. "Keep the bait well off bottom," Jim cautions. "Remember, you're going for suspending cats, and you want your jug to drift freely for a wide-ranging presentation." He normally runs his lines from 5 to 15 feet below their respective jugs.

Live baits like shiners and small bluegills are great for juglines, and are especially tempting to flathead catfish. Blue and channel cats can be tempted with chicken livers, raw shrimp or chunks of gizzard shad.

Jug Methods
Juglines are highly effective in both slack and moving water. In lakes, spread out baited jugs in a wide circle in a bay or creek arm with your boat in the middle (this method works especially well after dark for flatheads). In rivers, toss out several jugs about 20 feet apart, letting them drift down rock bluffs, across gravel bars and close to banks with fallen trees and logjams. Jim sets all his jugs out on the same side of the river so he can watch them, then backs his boat a safe distance away and drifts along with them. What a relaxing way to fish!

More jugline tips from Moyer

  • Attach a metal gaff hook to one end of a broom handle for easy jug retrieval. 
  • Don't leave jugs unattended. Stay with your jugs and collect them before you leave the water.
  • Don't set out juglines in high-traffic areas.
  • Never set out more jugs than you can handle. Use fewer jugs in high wind or fast current.
0 Comments »

Seasonal Sauger Strategies

By Don Wirth

By Jim Duckworth as told to Don Wirth
Jim Duckworth is a veteran multi-species fishing guide based in Lebanon, Tennessee. His broad experience as a professional diver for the Army Corps of Engineers and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service gives him a unique perspective on the haunts and habits of a variety of gamefish, including the elusive sauger. Reach him at (615) 444-2283, or visit his website, www.fishingtennessee.com. Don Wirth, Nashville, Tennessee, has been writing about fishing topics for 35 years. When he's not on the water, he plays bass (guitar, not fish) in a rock band.

Seasonal SaugerThe sauger is arguably our most misunderstood gamefish. Most fishermen know (a) it looks like a walleye, and (b) it tastes great, but historically, very little exploration has been done by anglers on new tactics for catching these fish. Even the most sophisticated anglers, including many NAFC members, view only the coldest periods prior to ice-over as sauger season.

Here's a news flash: sauger are highly catchable in large numbers over a surprisingly wide time line -- nearly five months of the year in the Southeast, where I fish for them!

Most anglers target only traditional sauger hotspots, especially the mouths of river tributaries and warm-water discharges, and tend to do very little exploration of new areas that may hold more and bigger fish. This typically results in large numbers of boats crowded together in confined areas, never a pleasant -- or productive -- angling scenario.

Even worse, most sauger fishermen employ a shockingly narrow range of methods to catch these fish. Vertical-fishing a heavy jig tipped with a small minnow is the preferred tactic of 99.9% of the sauger crowd in my area. Believe me, there are more ways to connect with these critters than by bumping lead on the bottom!

Sauger are mysterious and wonderful fish, deserving of a lot more attention from creative anglers. As your area fisheries cool down, try my three-phase approach. I'm positive it'll greatly extend your sauger season.

PHASE 1: LATE FALL TROLLING

I start catching sauger fever in early November, much earlier than most anglers bother fishing for this species. Sauger begin to bunch up in large numbers when the temperature in our area rivers, including the Cumberland and Tennessee, drops below 60 degrees. Last November I got on sauger big-time in 58 degree water.

Sauger stack up directly below dams in late fall. This is perhaps the easiest time of year to locate these fish, yet it's amazing how few fishermen are onto this pattern. Once the temperature in the tailrace has hit 55 degrees, I seldom have to move more than a half-mile below the dam to get on quality fish.
     
Crankbaits Rule
Trolling crankbaits is by far the most productive way to catch sauger during the fall phase. I've had my best results trolling medium-sized bass crankbaits in fairly shallow water -- no deeper than 20 feet. Many of the tailraces I troll have a solid rock bottom with occasional humps and depressions. Invariably, tailrace sauger are dead on the bottom, not suspended in the water column. If your crankbait hammers bottom, your chances of scoring a sauger strike are high. If not, you'll probably haul water.

My favorite cranks for this application are Bandit Crankbaits in the 300 and 400 series. These are exceptionally well-made plugs that run true, have strong, sharp hooks and are an excellent value.  Whatever crankbait you select should run 9 to 12 feet deep on a long cast; slow-trolled on 35 yards of line (I use 14 pound abrasion-resistant mono), it should dive 14 to 16 feet. Whatever crankbait you use, make sure it matches the size and profile of the baitfish that tailrace sauger commonly feed upon.

Sauger are surprisingly finicky about crankbait color. On any given day, it's common for one color to outfish another 10 to 1! Change colors often -- sometimes they'll turn off a color after only one trolling pass. In my area, green/white and red/white are especially good in clear to moderately-stained water. On overcast days and in murky-to-muddy water, I'll often score higher on fire tiger, perch, chartreuse or hot orange. If the water is super-dark, I may switch to a bigger crankbait like the Bandit 600 to increase the visibility of my presentation; a big bait also stands a good chance of catching a trophy walleye. Again, this is what works for me; be sure to experiment with crankbait color and size on your area waters.

Your crankbaits must run straight or they'll not only miss your target, they'll foul your lines and create monumental tangles. Always test-troll your lure close to the boat to make sure it behaves properly before letting out a lot of line.
     
The Sauger Shuffle
I fish from a 21-foot aluminum boat which I built myself. It's powered by an Evinrude FICHT outboard, which trolls beautifully without loading up. A 4-stroke is a good alternative to a DFI engine for trolling.

I troll both upstream and downstream until I determine which direction produces the most fish. On some days it doesn't matter; on other days, sauger want the lure coming from only one direction. (Yeah, these dudes can be finicky!)

Doing the "sauger shuffle" will usually put you on fish in a hurry. Start on one side of the river with the nose of the boat pointing upstream, adjust the engine rpm to the current flow so the boat is barely moving ahead of the current, then head diagonally for the opposite bank, trolling crankbaits behind you. Then turn the nose of the boat downstream and reverse the procedure. When trolling with the current, it's possible to move too fast; I take my outboard out of gear frequently to slow down.

When flatline trolling, I usually run two rods, Berkley 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy-action baitcasters with Ambassadeur 5500Cs. Again, 14 pound low-diameter, abrasion-resistant mono is ideal. Heavier lines won't get your lure to the bottom, and you'll lose too many lures with lighter lines.

In snaggy rivers, either a lure retriever or a friend at the lure company is essential -- you can easily go through two dozen crankbaits a day if you aren't careful. If your graph reveals a big snag on the bottom, immediately stand up and stick the rod as high in the air as you can; this will help elevate your lure enough to clear the obstruction. Before trolling unfamiliar territory (or your usual spots when you first start sauger fishing in fall), make several initial passes with a stout baitcasting outfit spooled 25-pound line to snag and bust off branches and snatch tangles of fishing line. Then once you've cleaned out the area, start sauger trolling.

I keep my rods in a rod holder and troll with the rod tip horizontal to the water or pointed slightly downward rather than up for maximum depth potential. I'll remove the rod from its holder and point the tip skyward when trolling across a shallow bar or hump. Take special care to adjust the reels so the drag will slip some. In cold weather, the drag may lock up; if the lure hangs, the rod could break in the holder before the line parts. Try to maintain about seven pounds of drag pressure -- this will save your equipment, and enable you to fight a good fish in fast current without ripping its face off. When a sauger strikes while trolling, never rear back and jerk -- just reel down tight and maintain steady pressure as you work the fish to the boat.

When trolling rivers, I skip over areas with long stretches of constant depth and instead, hammer holes and high spots. You need a good depth finder to differentiate sauger from bottom trash (I like my Lowrance X75). I also look for big schools of baitfish, either on the bottom or suspended in areas of heavy flow; sauger will sit on the bottom and pick off injured minnows that drift down to them. Typically sauger stack up in large schools, which may shift upstream or downstream throughout the day. Current is always beneficial when trolling, but obviously a huge flow can make your presentation more difficult.

Many fishermen say sauger fishing is boring, but action can be fast and furious when trolling tailraces. Besides sauger, you may pick up walleye, bass, hybrids, drum and catfish. Last year I caught a 10 pound walleye, a 38-pound striper and a 25-pound paddlefish on sauger trolling trips.
     

PHASE II: DEEP JIGGING

As the water temp drops to around 48 degrees, typical of late December/early January in my area, sauger go much deeper, and vertical-jigging is more efficient than trolling.

The key to quality catches now is to fish in and adjacent to super-deep river holes -- 80 feet isn't too deep if it's available! (This is probably three times deeper than you've ever fished for sauger before.) Don't panic if you can't find 80-foot water; just target the deepest holes you can locate. On the Cumberland River just north of Nashville, big sauger often stack up 70-80 feet deep. On the Tennessee River below Pickwick Dam, you won't find anywhere near that depth of water; 30-foot holes are considered deep.

Sauger will be in these holes whenever fishing conditions get a little tough, such as on frigid bluebird days following a frontal passage, when the flow is super-heavy, or when the river jumps up overnight following a heavy rain. These fish can be in either a pre- or post-spawn mode, depending on how severe the winter has been. The spawning habits of sauger have always been a topic of considerable debate, but I'm convinced they'll spawn far earlier than many fishermen realize if the winter is mild and conditions are favorable. Last December we caught sauger from 60 feet of water with mature eggs squirting out of them.

Now is prime time for a huge sauger. I average a half-dozen over 5 pounds every year during this phase; a couple may top 6.
     
Jig Setup
I use locally-made jigs weighing 1 to 1-1/4 ounces. These have a light wire 2/0 or 3/0 hook, and a #5 treble hook as a stinger. Instead of connecting the stinger to the jig hook with monofiliment as most sauger fishermen do, I link two brass swivels together, attaching the lead swivel to the eye of the jig hook and the trailing swivel to the eye of the treble. This gives the presentation a little fish-attracting flash, and sauger can't bite through the swivels as they can mono. Eighty per cent of my fish are hooked on the stinger.

I tip my jigs with either live minnows or soft plastic baitfish imitators. The key to a bigger jig bite is to use bigger bait on your jigs. Instead of the 2-inch minnows most sauger fishermen rely on, I'll routinely use 3- to 5-inchers. Creek minnows are great; shad and shiners will work, too. Soft plastic jerk baits are surprisingly good substitutes for livebait -- my favorite is the Gene Larew Long John minnow.

The right rod is essential for super-deep jigging. I use a medium-heavy 6-foot spinning rod with a reel spooled with 20 to 30 pound Berkeley Fireline. Braided lines are excellent for this application; they have zero stretch, enabling you to feel a deep, lethargic fish bump your bait in heavy current. They're also far more resistant to twisting than mono lines -- even heavy jigs will spin like crazy in current. Attach the jig to the line with a snap; if you get hung up, this will open under pressure and help prevent littering our rivers with non-biodegradable braided line.
     
Vertical Approach
I don't anchor when jigging. Instead, I'll point the bow of my boat upstream and use my 24-volt trolling motor to hold my position while I saturate the bottom with repeated jig presentations. When I'm done working a small area, I'll back off the power so the boat slips downstream a ways, then power back up to hold the boat in place again. The key is to keep your line vertical in the water column. You never want your line to be more than 10 to 15 degrees off vertical when jigging; this will increase your odds of hanging up and decrease sensitivity to light bites.

Current flow is essential now. Put simply, if they're not running water at the dam, stay home -- your chances of success go way down. Last winter we had very little flow in our Middle Tennessee sauger rivers, so I took guide parties south to Pickwick Dam where there was more current. If you have a choice, go for the most flow.

After dropping the jig straight down, trip your reel the instant it hits bottom, lift the rod tip about 8 inches (less in frigid water), then lower the rod just ahead of the jig as it drops. Don't pop the jig -- you'll knock off your minnow. Dropping your rod tip quickly will cause your line to tangle in the jig -- all you want is the slightest bag in your line. Sometimes the bite will be surprisingly aggressive during this phase; sometimes it'll be mushy, like you've hooked a leaf. Sauger often suck in the jig as it's falling back to bottom and swim 4 or 5 feet with it; if you lose touch with the lure at any time, quickly reel up slack and set the hook.

The holes where I catch the most sauger now have a clean gravel bottom with a few big logs. I don't like a mud or boulder bottom. There are lots of sauger in snaggy holes, too, but they're too hard to fish -- you'll hang up constantly, and retying is a pain when you hands are stiff from the cold. Avoid jigging around trees that have recently drifted into a hole; key on older trees whose branches have been broken off by current over time.

Ledges adjacent to deep holes can hold a lot of fish -- sauger will slide on and off these during the day. Watch your graph and saturate each step of the ledge with your jigs. You'll feel the jig tap rock and then tumble down -- that's usually when a sauger whacks it.

PHASE III: CAROLINA RIGGING

When the water drops to around 46 degrees, I switch to an approach more often associated with bass than sauger: Carolina rigging. It's absolutely the best presentation for frigid water conditions.
     
The Carolina Crawl
Carolina-rigging for sauger is an anchoring approach. I again target the deepest river holes I can find, but will pay more attention to the upstream and downstream tapers of the hole than when vertical-jigging. Bluff holes are especially good now -- sauger will stage in these waiting for the water to warm up for spawning. The sweet spot is often where the hole starts tapering shallower on the downstream side. Concentrations of sauger will be on the bottom here, holding around chunk rock, wood or gravel.

Anchoring is essential for an effective Carolina presentation. Drop anchor a good distance ahead of the hole, then when the anchor bites, let out enough rope to allow you to reach the structure with a long cast. In heavy current, it may take an anchor weighing 30 pounds or more to grab bottom.

I use pretty much the same Carolina setup for sauger as I do for bass -- a 1/2 to 1 ounce egg or bullet sinker on 20 to 30 pound braided line, a brass swivel, and a leader of 17 pound mono. But my leader is much shorter for sauger than bass (often only 16 inches) 'cause I don't want my bait floating too high off the bottom. On the business end, I'll rig a creek minnow or a soft plastic baitfish like a Sassy Shad up to 5 inches long on a 1/0 to 3/0 hook. I'll fish this on a 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy baitcaster with a slow-retrieve reel.

Cast downstream into the hole -- the Carolina rig will lay out nicely in current. Then use the reel, not the rod, to slowly c-r-a-w-l the rig back upstream while keeping the rod rock-steady at 10 o'clock. Using the reel to move the rig will let you feel every pebble on the bottom, as well as the lightest bites. When you feel a fish, immediately set the hook.

Holes containing mussel beds are awesome sauger spots. Sauger are a primary carrier of the larvae of the washboard mussel; they attach to the fish like ticks and then drop off when they mature to around 6 weeks. Wherever they settle is where the mussel spends the rest of its life. As a diver, I've spent hundreds of hours doing mussel surveys, and have seen tons of sauger in areas thick with these mollusks.

Your bait must appear lively when Carolina rigging. I like a Sassy Shad over a plastic jerk bait for this application -- current activates the Shad's tail and makes the lure throb and wiggle. Likewise, a creek minnow is livelier in the coldest water than either a shad or a shiner.

The older I get, the less I enjoy suffering. I keep myself and my clients comfortable in bitterly cold weather with a propane heater. I lash a 20-pound bottle of propane with an infrared heating element to the side of my boat's rod locker with a heavy nylon strap; it puts out 12,000 btu's and runs for 30 hours. I also keep a complete change of clothes in a big plastic bag for emergencies, plus several pairs of gloves.

1 Comments »

Hybrid Bass One-Two Punch

By Don Wirth

Some fishermen like the finesse approach -- you know, the "gentle art" of angling?

I'm not among them.

Finicky trout? Moody bass? Gimme a fish with attitude on the end of my line -- something like a big, fat hybrid striper.

Hybrid Bass

Contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids. These bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.

Hybrids, wipers, hybrid stripers, sunshine bass -- whatever you call 'em, these bad boys will put a serious bend in your rod. A laboratory cross between the landlocked striper and the white bass, they're the meanest, hardest-pullin' freshwater gamefish that swims.

By angling standards, hybrid fishing is a brand new sport. These fish are the result of fisheries management, not Mother Nature. Most states didn't even begin their hybrid stocking programs until the Seventies. Little wonder most anglers are just now beginning to figure out how to catch them.

The vast majority of hybrid fishermen use bait, but a growing number love to tempt 'em with artificials. But why be satisfied with just one approach? If you've fished for wipers with live bait in the past, what I'm about to tell you may shock you, and hopefully tempt you to try some revolutionary bait approaches. If you prefer artificials, you're about to learn some exciting topwater techniques that'll have your heart pounding and your adrenaline pumping.
     
Bottom-Fishing Bonanza
Popular bait techniques for hybrids are much like those used for reservoir stripers. The most common presentation involves slow-drifting live shad on weighted "down lines" for suspended fish. A good approach, true, but the catch rate falls off dramatically during frontal passages. Another popular method is to use a bow-mounted trolling motor to pull live baitfish on long lines behind the boat, alternately stopping and speeding up so the bait falls and rises enticingly -- not a bad way to catch a 'brid, but again, it's best in stable weather.

Here's a news flash: contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids -- or even on life support, for that matter! Like northern pike, these bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.

Expert Birmingham, Ala. angler Chris Stephenson was the first to clue me in on bottom-fishing for wipers. An avid hybrid and striper hunter with a degree in fisheries biology, Stephenson has three National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame catch-and-release hybrid line class world records to his credit, including a 31-incher from Pickwick Lake, Ala. on 14 lb. line.

Stephenson stumbled onto what has to be the strangest hybrid pattern of all one morning while drifting live shad for white bass in the swift Tennessee River current below Wilson Dam, Ala. "I noticed another fisherman's boat was anchored on a nearby hump, and every time I'd drift past him, he'd be fighting a big fish and cussing his brains out," Chris told North American Fisherman.  "I finally asked him what was up; he said he was catfishing on the bottom with chicken livers, but big hybrids kept taking his bait -- I saw him boat one that had to be 15 pounds."

Stephenson was back at the Wilson Dam launch ramp before daylight the following morning, but this time, he wasn't gunning for white bass. Motoring to a series of shallow humps washed by fast current, and armed with a box of hooks and sinkers, he dropped anchor and set out two lines baited with chicken livers. Within minutes he was fast into two big hybrids at the same time. "I went through a bucket of livers in less than an hour, and had to run to town and get more," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it -- the hybrids were eating it off the bottom like candy!"

Stephenson began experimenting with his bait menu. He tried beef liver, cut pieces of gizzard shad and skipjack herring, whole dead threadfin shad -- it seemed whatever offering he set out, hybrids gobbled it up eagerly. He caught wipers up to a whopping 17 pounds using dead bait on the bottom, as well as big stripers and chunky catfish.

Citing fisheries studies, Stephenson said, "Hybrids have a huge appetite for their size. When not busting shad on the surface or chasing suspended baitfish schools, they'll often roam close to bottom and gorge themselves on dead fish. This feeding behavior is especially prevalent below dams, where turbines act like a Cuisinart to slice and dice baitfish. Taking advantage of this little-known fact can greatly extend your angling opportunities when hybrids aren't feeding in the upper section of the water column, such as during temperature extremes and frontal passages."
     
Where to Bottom-Fish
"Most anglers think of bottom fishing as being best in deep holes and on dropoffs, but where current is present, hybrids are likely to be surprisingly shallow," Stephenson indicated. "In April and May, for example, I often find them in 10 feet of water. In slack-water lakes, or in tailraces when current is not present, they'll be deeper -- 15 to 25 feet is typical."
Here are some bottom-fishing hotspots Stephenson recommends: 

Big flats  -- "Think of bottom-feeding hybrids like grazing cattle -- they roam big, flat, obstruction-free expanses of bottom with little slope. In a river-run reservoir, look for flats in the 10- to 18-foot zone swept by moderate to strong current. In slack-water fisheries, look for big main-lake flats with 15 to 25 feet of water on their outer edges."

Submerged humps -- "The most productive humps are moderately shallow -- 10 to 12 feet on top is perfect. Look for humps close to a deep creek or river channel; these will pull in hybrids that were suspending in open water."

Slow-tapering points -- "Points are universally appealing to hybrids because wandering baitfish schools often gather there. The points most conducive to bottom-foraging are long, with an extremely slow taper into a deep channel. Flat points at the mouths of inflowing tributaries are especially productive."

Shell mounds -- "I became aware that hybrids forage on areas where shellfish congregate when commercial mussel divers told me of seeing huge concentrations of these fish. Shell mounds are common in river-run reservoirs."

Warm-water discharge areas -- "Excellent cold-water hybrid spots -- often you'll find 65-degree water directly below a 'stream plant' even when the rest of the lake is in the low 50's. The water here is like chowder -- there are zillions of baitfish, and hybrids can get a grand slam breakfast merely by swimming along bottom and sucking in dead shad. Good place to hang a giant striper, too."
     

Stephenson's bottom rig uses a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook at the business end -- perfect for baiting chicken livers, cut skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad. Bottom-Fishing Savvy
Stephenson highly recommends tackle with maximum shock absorption built in to handle scrappy hybrids. "Never use a stiff-action rod like a bass flipping stick!" he cautioned. "These fish pull so hard, with a stiff rod, they'll either break your line or straighten the hook when they make their famous powerhouse run. For bottom fishing, I like medium-action 7-foot baitcasting rods, coupled with wide-spool reels spooled with abrasion-resistant 14-pound mono. Don't use braided line; it lacks the stretch needed for these powerful fish. And although I may use lines up to 50 pounds for river stripers, I find my hybrid catch rate decreases when I use heavier line."

Stephenson's bottom rig is much like the bass angler's Carolina rig. He slides a 1 to 3 ounce egg sinker, depending on the amount of current, over his line, adds a plastic bead for knot protection, then ties a stout swivel to the tag end. He then attaches two feet of 14 pound mono to the opposite end of the swivel as a leader, and ties a stout live bait hook like a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus to the tag end.  After positioning his boat above the structure he wishes to fish and anchoring both ends, he baits up with chicken livers, cut pieces of skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad, and casts his offering onto the structure. "I try to engage the reel spool right before the bait hits the water, to prevent it from being swept too far off the structure as it's sinking," he added. "Once it's on bottom, I adjust the reel drag so it slips under pressure and place the rod in a holder. I don't like to use clicker reels with the spool open; these result in too many hybrids swallowing the hook before you can get the rod out of the holder."

As spring transitions into summer, bottom-fishing becomes more productive -- and tolerable -- at night. "It's just too darn hot where I live to anchor down on a hole on an August day, but it's very comfortable at night. Hybrids are more active after dark in hot weather anyway, and you're liable to hang into a big flathead catfish now as well."
     
Topwater Time
Ready to switch gears and for a bruiser 'brid on top? Veteran Goodlettsville, Tenn. angler Jack Christian's the man with the plan. "I've yet to meet a fishermen who didn't get a rush out of catching schooling hybrids on topwater lures," the former Priest Lake guide insisted. "These fish can feed so ferociously, it can be downright scary. I've seen acres of them boiling the surface to a froth, with shad jumping clear onto the bank trying to escape!"

Topwater action typically begins when the surface temp hits 70 degrees, usually late April or early May in Jack's region. "Hybrids often school by size, and usually the first fish to get 'in the jumps' are smaller, maybe up to 8 pounds," he noted. "The bigger fish are often on a later schedule; you'll start picking up the 10+ pounders a week or two after the smaller ones. The bigger fish are lazier. They instinctively know they can find more abundant forage when the water warms sufficiently for the lake's shad population to complete its spring spawning activity, gang up in massive schools and head out to the main lake. When the surface temp reaches 75 degrees, you'd better make sure the drag on your reel is loose, 'cause you're about to do battle with some major-league fish on the surface!" Jack should know -- he's caught hybrids pushing 18 pounds on surface plugs.
     
Hotspots for Surfacing Hybrids
Surface schooling is often a main-lake phenomenon, Christian emphasized. Wolfpacks of hybrids typically swim under big schools of shad, gradually pushing them toward the surface. Exactly where the feeding frenzy will take place can never be predicted with certainty, but Jack suggests that anglers position themselves near the following areas:

Points at the mouths of tributaries -- "Baitfish schools moving from their spawning grounds in tributaries will eventually gravitate to points at the mouths of creek arms, only to be ambushed by schools of hybrids. Watch for surfacing fish in open water between two opposing points, as well as over the points themselves."

Underwater roadbeds -- "These are major structures in many reservoirs. Hybrids suspend over them, and when a school of shad happens by, they'll force 'em to the surface and put on the feed bag. I like to fish roads because they receive less angling pressure, being less obvious than points."

Submerged humps -- "The best hybrid humps are close to the mouths of feeder creeks. Hybrids hold there when inactive, then force passing shad schools to the surface when feeding. I've seen 'em school on top of humps as shallow as 5 feet."

Smithwick Devil

Anything that pops, spits or sputters will do the trick with schooling hybrids. Smithwick's Devil's Horse is a long-time favorite prop bait among anglers.

Surface feeding can take place in early morning, late evening, or all day long, depending on weather and water conditions. "Generally on calm, sunny days, I do best with topwaters early and late, but on cloudy days with a light chop on the water, I've caught hybrids surfacing throughout the day," Christian said. "Often you'll spot breaking fish just by cruising the lake or watching for schools of birds circling above the water -- they're picking up the scraps from a recent hybrid feeding frenzy. If you don't see fish schooling on top, park around one of the structures mentioned above and hang out for awhile -- you usually won't have to wait long for the action to begin."
     
Topwater Tackle, Lures and Tactics
Christian favors long, shock-absorbing baitcasting rods for topwater fishing; like Chris Stephenson, he's respectful of this species' awesome pulling power. His favorite is a 7-foot fiberglass bass cranking stick; it enables him to make extra-long casts to reach surfacing fish and is very forgiving. He couples this with a slow-retrieve bass baitcasting reel (slow = more winching power) and 12 pound mono.

Jack uses a varied menu of surface offerings, most of which are bass lures: "Hybrids don't have a big mouth, so I avoid large striper plugs like Red Fins and stick to medium-sized bass topwater plugs instead." Poppers, stick baits and prop baits rule. Among his favorites: the Zara Spook, Pop-R, Rattlin' Chug Bug and Devil's Horse. "Hybrids aren't nearly as picky about what you throw at 'em as bass are. Anything that pops, spits or sputters should catch 'em."

Presentation is basic -- remember, surfacing hybrids are out for blood. "Cast a little beyond the fish, then start the retrieve. I like to keep the lure moving pretty aggressively, like a fleeing baitfish. The fish will tell you what to do -- if you aren't getting strikes, try speeding up, slowing down or using a stop-and-go retrieve. Keep your drag loose; it's not uncommon to have two hybrids strike a lure at once."

Christian always keeps a rod rigged with a 3/4-ounce metal jigging spoon handy when chasing after schooling wipers. "When they're surfacing out of topwater plug casting range, you can often reach 'em with a heavy spoon. Cast beyond surfacing fish and immediately start reeling quickly with the rod held high so the spoon skips and tumble over the surface. And once the feeding frenzy stops, let the spoon sink on a tight line -- often a big hybrid will nail it while it's fluttering down like a dying shad."

0 Comments »

Trick Worm Tactics

By Don Wirth

Trick Worm TacticsEver since Nick Creme invented the plastic worm back in 1949, bassers have discovered endless ways of rigging these lures, including on a bare hook with no weight. Weekend bass anglers have been fishing the so-called floating worm for over 50 years, but lately the method has had a resurgence on the professional tournament trail. "Major tournament circuits, including B.A.S.S. and FLW, have revamped their schedules so more events are held in spring and fewer in summer," 2002 B.A.S.S. Masters Classic champ Jay Yelas explained. "The floating worm happens to be especially effective from pre- to post spawn, when bass lurk around shallow cover. This spring-heavy tournament schedule also gives the advantage to pros adept at sight-fishing for bedding bass, and these competitors view the floating worm as one of the deadliest sight-fishing lures."

Although there are variations, the basic floating worm setup is a 6- to 8-inch straight-tail plastic worm rigged without a sinker, using only a hook to sink it. Virtually every soft plastic lure manufacturer markets a worm specifically formulated for this technique, with high-grade plastics cooked at exactly the right temperature to achieve the necessary buoyancy. They float on the surface unrigged, sink slowly when hooked, and respond with an erratic, sinuous action to the slightest twitch of the rod tip.

Pros typically rig a floating worm (a) with an offset or extra wide gap worm hook run through the nose and out the body, Texas style, or (b) with a circle hook run sideways through the middle of the worm, "wacky" style. Obviously the bigger the hook, the faster the worm will sink. Most pros fish the lure on a 6 1/2-foot medium-action spinning rod with 10 or 12 pound mono.
     
Outrageous vs. Natural Colors
Color is a hot topic among floating worm aficionados. Should you use a bright-colored worm, or one that's more subdued and realistic?

Many pros (Jay Yelas included) prefer a hot color such as bubble gum, yellow or white with this technique. Not only do bass often react aggressively to these high-viz colors, they're easy for the fisherman to see.

Alabama pro Randy Howell feels the ability to see the worm from a distance gives the angler a tremendous advantage. "If you're fishing a bright-colored worm in clear water, you can easily see it a cast-length away," Howell told Bass Pro's OutdoorSite. "When you spot a bass moving in to inspect the lure, you can either 'kill' the worm (stop the retrieve so it sinks slowly), twitch it gently, or swim it rapidly, all while watching how the bass reacts. This is harder to do with a realistic worm that blends into its surroundings, impossible to accomplish with a deeper presentation using a Texas or Carolina rig. I usually fish a white floating worm; it glows like a neon tube in the water and triggers savage reaction strikes from bass."

But sometimes bass will either fail to respond to a bright-colored worm, or roll on it without striking. This calls for a more natural or subdued color, Howell indicated. "If bass are spooked by bright colors, try to match the prevailing forage. Lime green is a good color choice when fishing around overhanging trees or bushes; it mimics a live caterpillar. Baby water snakes hatch out in spring and are easy targets for bass as they swim along the margins of the lake; a black and yellow striped floating worm is a convincing imitation of a baby snake."
     
We asked Howell, Yelas and Alabama pro Ricky Harp how, when and where they fish the floating worm. Take careful note of their responses, for each of these competitors has won thousands of dollars on these buoyant baits. 
     
Jay's Pointers
"The floating worm is a great lure for clear to moderately stained water," Texas pro Jay Yelas said. "I fish a 6-inch straight-tail worm, pink mostly, on a wide-gap 4/0 hook."

Skipping is the key to catching quality bass on the floating worm, Yelas insisted. "Skipping a worm is like skipping a stone. You want the worm to hit the water in front of your target with enough impact so it skitters into the fish zone. Make a sharp, side-arm snap-cast with a whipcracking stroke of the rod so the lure hits the water hard. Properly executed, it will skip four or five times, scooting under overhanging branches and into spots overhand casters only dream about reaching. Here's where a medium-action rod comes into play: you can't get the desired whipcrack effect with a rod that's too light or too stiff."

Yelas has caught some giant bass on floating worms in tournaments. "It's even more fun than topwater fishing, because you can see everything -- the lure, the approach of the fish, the take. In fact, the floating worm is so exciting to fish, it can entice you into staying with it too long.  I've found bass will turn off this lure as quickly as they turn onto it, so you must be prepared to leave it in favor of another lure once the bite subsides."

Fortunately, it's easy to tell when the floating worm begins to lose its magic -- just watch the way bass react to it, Yelas advised. "If they rushed out of cover to eat it an hour ago, and now only nip its tail or follow it half-heartedly, it's time to switch to a backup bait. Good backup choices include a tube bait, finesse worm, lizard and centipede, all rigged with a pegged worm sinker or on a jighead and fished on the bottom by shaking the rod tip. In bedding season, it's critical to view these backup lures are part and parcel of your floating worm fishing, not as separate lures and presentations."

The floating worm is an integral part of Yelas' sight-fishing arsenal. "I seldom present the same lure to a bedding bass two casts in a row. Instead, I keep rods rigged with all the above-mentioned baits and, to keep the fish agitated, constantly rotate among them. When I spot a big fish on the bed, I'll start by twitching a floating worm. If the bass doesn't bite it immediately, I'll toss one of the other lures onto its bed, then another, and another, until the fish can't stand it anymore and smacks it."

Howell's Hints
"My biggest bass on a floating worm weighed 10 pounds," Randy Howell said. "I use a 7-inch straight-tail worm rigged on a 4/0 offset-shank hook. This hook has enough weight to get the lure down into that 'twilight zone' where you can barely see it and plenty of bite for sticking a lunker bass."

Howell finds a floating worm highly effective in water from 55 to 75 degrees. He fishes it around laydown logs, isolated weed patches, boat docks, brushpiles, weedlines and other shallow bass cover.

"Anybody, even a kid who's just learning to cast, can catch big bass on a floating worm," Howell insisted. "But like Jay said, those who really excel with the bait are adept at skipping it. When bass are pressured, such as during a tournament, they retreat farther back into flooded bushes and other cover, and skipping is the only viable presentation for reaching them."

Howell fishes a floating worm fairly fast, alternatively turning the reel handle, twitching the rod rip and letting the bait sink a spell. "Many anglers fish this lure way too slow. I use it to trigger a reaction strike from bass. I like to keep the worm high enough in the water column so I can see it when standing up in my boat."

As much as Howell loves fishing a floating worm, he likes winning tournaments more. "If bass are rolling or flashing on the lure but not actually eating it, I'll immediately switch to a backup bait," he said.

How-To From Harp
Rickie Harp used a floating worm to win a berth at the 2000 B.A.S.S. Masters Classic. "I won by a B.A.S.S. Federation tournament on Tennessee's Fort Loudon Lake on a yellow 8-inch floater," he said. "This was the only lure I used in three days of competition to catch over 27 pounds of bass. The floating worm is a tremendous tournament lure, for it'll catch quality bass and lots of 'em. Once when prefishing for another tournament, I caught seven bass weighing 41 pounds on a floating worm."

Compared to Yelas and Howell, Harp fishes the floating worm to extremes. "I rely on it in clear or muddy water, both shallow and deep, nearly year-'round. I'll stay with it from early spring through late fall, whenever the water temp is above 55 degrees."

Harp fishes an 8-inch floater on a 6/0 offset worm hook, a larger hook than most anglers use with this bait. "One reason for the heavier hook: I use 6/30 SpiderWire, which has zero stretch," he explained. "This super-tough line lets me put maximum pressure on a big bass in thick cover, which might bend a lighter hook. I also fish the worm on a 6-foot, medium-action baitcasting rod instead of spinning gear."

The Alabama pro uses an underhand roll cast to chunk the worm as far back into cover as possible. Many strikes occur as soon as the worm hits the water, he said. "Braided line helps me stick these long-distance fish, which would probably come unbuttoned on stretchy mono."

Harp lets the bass tell him how to retrieve the worm. "I vary my retrieve from active to very slow, depending on the mood of the fish. When bass are surface-feeding, try fishing the worm on top like a stick bait, making it walk the dog by twitching the rod tip and reeling at the same time. If this doesn't work, twitch it out from the cover quickly, then gradually slow it down as it moves toward the boat, letting it sink to around 6 feet. After bedding season, bass that were hanging around shallow wood and grass move out in front of this cover and suspend in deeper water. Slow-twitching the lure at their level can pay off big."

Changing colors is critical with this lure. "I'll often make a half-dozen loops around a good-looking area, using a different color floating worm on each pass," Rickie said. "On sunny days, dark colors like purple and black seem to work best, while the brighter colors produce better for me on overcast days."

Missed hookset can be avoided by waiting a second or two before hammering the fish, harp stressed. "I've watched big bass swim up and chomp down on the middle of the worm, carry it off a few feet, spit it out, then take it again from the head. If you set the hook immediately when you feel a bite, you'll miss a lot of fish."

The biggest mistake you can make with a floating worm? "Not fishing it," Harp added. "This lure is not only a deadly tool for the serious angler, it puts the fun back into bass fishing. And every serious angler could stand to have a little more fun."

REDUCING LINE TWIST WITH FLOATING WORMS

Line twist is a problem many anglers encounter when fishing floating worms on spinning gear. Here's how top pros overcome those maddening snarls and tangles.

  • Often when you first take a worm out of its package or your tacklebox, there's a bend in its body from sitting in storage. These kinks cause the worm to roll unnaturally when twitched, resulting in line twist. At the start of the fishing day, lay several worms on the deck of your boat. The sun will soften them, making the kinks disappear.
  • Make sure the worm is rigged absolutely straight, not off to one side even slightly, or it'll twist your line.
  • A small swivel rigged 18 inches above the worm can substantially reduce line twist. When fishing around snaggy wood cover, many pros use a leader line from the swivel to the worm that's heavier than their main line.

 

0 Comments »

Fishing Docks for Slab Crappie

By Don Wirth

Slab Crappie from DocksWith its sagging walkway and rotten support pilings, the old dock was in a sad state of disrepair. Yet to Tennessee guide Jim Duckworth, it was a thing of beauty. "Pitch that tube jig so it lands near the inside corner, right in the shadows," he instructed. I did, and as soon as it hit the water, a 2-pound crappie rushed out from beneath the dock and inhaled the lure. I made more pitches, and within minutes a second slab crappie, then a third and a fourth, were flopping in the livewell.

I'd never fished boat docks for crappie prior to that outing. But with results like this, you can bet I'll fish them in the future!

"Most crappie anglers ignore docks," Duckworth said. "They associate crappie only with brushpiles and stake beds, or maybe they've watched those pro bass fishermen on TV fish docks and don't connect these man-made structures with crappie. But docks can deliver some awesome stringers of slabs -- if you fish 'em smart, that is."
 
Background on Docks
"Many docks have all the right ingredients to produce big crappie," veteran Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason told Bass Pro's OutdoorSite. "They provide shade, which allows crappie to conceal themselves from their prey. Shade is especially important in a clear lake, where cover may be sparse and it'd difficult for crappie to keep a low profile. Docks attract tons of minnows -- dock pilings develop a slick coating of algae, which provides food for baitfish and immature gamefish. Insects, too, are abundant around docks. Most docks are lighted, and insects swarm around the lights at night in hot weather, setting up a food chain scenario that includes crappie. And, docks provide a tremendous ambush point for crappie. They can lurk beneath the dock hidden from view, then rush out into the open to grab a quick meal."

"Most docks aren't year-around crappie cover," said Tom Moody, another seasoned Kentucky Lake guide. "Early in the year, docks on most reservoirs may not have enough water around them to hold crappie since the lake may be drawn down to winter pool. I've found that a dock normally needs to be in at least 2 to 3 feet of water to hold crappie, and you may not get that much water around some docks 'til spring rains fill the lake. Once the lake fills to summer pool, docks that were virtually high and dry may have 6 to 8 feet of water surrounding them, and crappie will move in big-time. They'll stay there through summer and early fall, then gradually pull away from the shallower docks as the lake level drops."

Docks are tremendous staging areas for prespawn crappie, Moody added. "The period before the spawn is a tricky time to fish these structures, 'cause you have to ignore the shallow docks and key on the deeper ones, especially those adjacent to creek channels. Crappie will migrate from the main lake toward their shallow spawning grounds in bays and tributaries via these channels and will gang up around docks in large numbers to wait for the water temperature to get right before going on bed."

Evaluating Docks
Not every dock has potential as good crappie habitat, our experts agree. Here are some important factors to look for when evaluating docks:

Bank slope -- "Docks situated on sloping banks are by far my favorites for crappie," said legendary Nashville guide Harold Morgan. "They'll hold fish most of the year, whereas docks on flat banks tend to be more seasonal in attracting fish. A dock on a 45-degree bank may be in 7 or 8 feet of water close to shore, 15 feet or more at the end, so there's no reason for crappie to ever leave it. On the other hand, most docks on flatter banks hold crappie only in late spring through early fall."

Subtle structure -- "I always look for any structural element that might enhance a particular dock," Garry Mason said. "A prime example is a ditch or trench -- these are commonly dug around shallow docks to make it easier for their owners to get their boats in and out. Often the ditch is only a foot or two deeper than the surrounding water, but that's usually all it takes to draw crappie. Always scope out the area around shallow docks with a graph to locate these depressions."

Dock construction -- Docks can be made of wood, metal, even plastic, and may rest either on pilings or on top of some sort of flotation device (floating docks are prevalent on lakes that undergo major fluctuations in water level). Most of our experts indicated a strong preference for wood docks with wood pilings, the older the better. "The submerged parts of an old wood dock are usually thoroughly slimed with algae, and the vertical pilings provide increased cover for suspending crappie and therefore more vantage points from which to ambush prey," Jim Duckworth noted. Harold Morgan expressed a preference for docks resting on Styrofoam blocks instead of pilings: "Ever see a big piece of Styrofoam on the bank and notice how green it looks? That's from algae clinging to it, and algae attracts minnows."  How about metal docks? "We're seeing more and more docks being built with metal pilings or with aluminum flotation pontoons beneath them, because metal doesn't rot like wood or bust up like Styrofoam," noted Garry Mason. "Metal docks provide just as much shade as wood docks, but not as much algae coverage, so you usually won't find as many minnows around them." Plastic flotation is used to support some docks; Tom Moody has caught plenty of nice slabs around this synthetic material, and notes, "These docks don't look as fishy as those old wood docks, but algae adheres well to the plastic, which attracts plenty of minnows."

Covered vs. open -- "A covered dock or boathouse provides nearly 100% shade; I like to fish these on a hot summer day," Tom Moody said. "However, open docks are a lot easier to fish because you can make lure or bait presentations without having that roof impeding your casts."

Wood cover -- "Many dock owners sink brush or tree limbs, or construct stake beds, around their docks for crappie cover," Harold Morgan pointed out. "You can usually tell the docks with submerged cover around them simply by noting which ones have fishing poles stacked up on them, or rod holders attached to them. Likewise, a dock used to tie up a fishing boat is more likely to have cover around it than a dock with a jet ski or a runabout. Use your graph to reveal the exact location of the cover." Morgan quickly bypasses docks utilizing Christmas trees for cover, noting, "As Christmas trees decompose, they give off an odor that repels crappie."

Weed cover -- "Junk weeds like milfoil and hydrilla attract tons of crappie, but these grasses may grow so thick that they hamper boat traffic, so dock owners or the lake's homeowners association usually sprays them," Jim Duckworth pointed out. "Many dock owners like the natural look of emergent grasses such as cattails and maidencane, and these plants will attract insects that crappie feed upon."

Size -- "Big docks provide more of everything: shade, ambush opportunity and forage," Harold Morgan said. "However, a dock's size is less important than its proximity to deep water and cover. The biggest docks are usually those associated with marinas; often the fishing is poor around these because there's little cover around them."

Proximity to other docks -- "Here, the concept of isolated cover comes into play," said Tom Moody. "Often you'll see a whole row of docks along a shoreline or in the back of a cove; the one dock that's farthest from the rest will sometimes hold the most or the biggest crappie."

Recommended Presentations
Our experts fish docks with a variety of artificial lure and live bait presentations.  Easily the most unorthodox of these is known as "dock shooting" -- a version of the classic bow and arrow cast. Jim Duckworth describes how it's done: "I use B 'n' M's new Sharpshooter rods for this application -- these are ultralight spinning rods in 4 1/2-, 5- and 5 1/2-foot lengths designed specifically for this application. Using a small lure like a tube jig or Charlie Brewer Slider Grub, hold the rod parallel to the water with the tip pointed directly at your target. Then flip the reel bail and pinch the line above the reel between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Carefully pinch the lure between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, then pull it back toward you until the rod is completely loaded up. Finally, release both the line and the lure at the same time, and the jig will shoot where you point it -- very handy for reaching spots inside, under and around docks that are impossible to hit with an overhand cast. For safety's sake, I highly recommend practicing this presentation with a lure that has the hook snipped off! Once you've got it down, you should be able to shoot a jig through a knothole."

A less extreme, but still highly effective, dock presentation is pitching. "Since docks provide such great overhead cover, you can usually get close to them without spooking crappie lurking beneath them, and an underhand pitch cast will let you swing your lure beneath the overhang so it drops 'way back in the shadows where the fish are most likely to be," Garry Mason noted. "Since most fish suspend beneath docks, I like to use the lightest jighead I can get away with so the lure drops nice and slow."

"A dock is the perfect place for a minnow-and-bobber rig," Tom Moody indicated. "Unlike a lure, you can let this rig sit around a dock indefinitely until a fish decides to eat the bait. This is my number one presentation in cold front conditions, when you have to really tempt crappie into biting."

Harold Morgan fishes deeper docks with his old favorite, the Kentucky rig: heavy sinker on the bottom, two short leader lines baited with minnows stacked a foot apart above the sinker. "This rig is ideal for thick cover around docks since it's fished vertically and won't hang up as bad as a horizontal presentation," the guide commented. "Position your boat directly over the cover, lower the sinker all the way to the bottom, then just reel it up slowly -- often two fish will load onto the rig at once."

"Swimming a grub is a great presentation when crappie are actively feeding around docks," said Garry Mason. "Shoot or pitch the lure as far under the dock as possible, then reel it steadily at a medium clip back to you. Use your rod to steer the lure close to pilings and shadows were crappie are likely to be holding."

MORE DOCK FISHING TIPS

  • If you own a dock, sinking cover around it can attract crappie, don't overdo it. Docks with a small to moderate amount of cover usually attract more crappie than those with large amounts of cover. Avoid sinking Christmas trees, which many experts feel repel crappie.
  • Lighted docks are great places to fish at night in summer. The lights attract swarms of insects, which in turn sets up a food chain that can trigger a crappie feeding frenzy. 
  • Public docks and fishing piers can provide good crappie action for the non-boating angler. State-owned fishing docks often have fish-attracting cover around them, providing a haven for crappie within easy casting range.
  • Crappie aren't the only fish that live around docks - depending on where you're fishing, you might hook into a big shellcracker, bass, pike or musky. Keep your drag loose!
  • Remember that docks are private property. If you see people fishing or relaxing on them, respect their space and don't fish this spot. Never trespass on docks -- stay in your boat.
0 Comments »

How Water Color Impacts Crappie Patterns

By Don Wirth

Two recent crappie trips to two different lakes near Nashville struck home the fact that crappie are highly adaptable creatures. On one outing, I fished crystal-clear, super-deep Center Hill Lake with guide Jim Duckworth; on another, I tried shallower and murkier Old Hickory Lake with guide Harold Morgan. We caught plenty of quality fish on both trips, but it struck me how, probably more than any other factor, the "color" (clarity) of the water in each lake played a huge role in determining both the location of the fish and the methods we employed to catch them.

Crappie and Water Color

I asked Jim, Harold and other crappie guides to comment on the role of water color in determining crappie patterns. Crappie fans are serious about their sport, and I'm certain the information that follows will (pardon the pun) clear up what may have formerly been a murky area inhibiting your understanding of the habits of our favorite gamefish.

Factors Determining Water Color
Lebanon, Tenn. guide Jim Duckworth is on the lake over 300 days a year, and knows water color is a major factor impacting crappie location and habits. He indicated that certain factors can impact the clarity of the lake you're fishing, including the following:

Run-off from surrounding terrain -- "Lakes lying in lowland agricultural areas tend to get muddy after a hard rain due to run-off from creeks and ditches carrying soil particles into the lake. Lakes lying in upland areas may not be subject to a high level of soil erosion due to the surrounding terrain being more rocky."

Fertility -- "A 'fertile' lake has a high amount of plankton, which gives it a greenish hue. Some waters, especially phosphate pits, are so fertile that the water appears as green as pea soup. An 'infertile' lake has less plankton in the water and is therefore clearer."

Decay -- "Some lakes are moderately clear, but tea-colored. This hue is often due to decaying vegetation or wood."

Weeds -- "Lakes with lots of submerged vegetation tend to be clear, because the weeds filter out suspended particles from the water."

Seasonal factors -- "Algae productivity changes with the seasons. If a lake turns green in midsummer, it's because of an algae bloom. Algae can also be brown or red-orange, which can impact the water color accordingly. Many lakes with a green color in hot weather become significantly clearer in late fall and winter, when algae productivity declines."

Wind & Current -- "Areas of a normally-clear lake can become muddy when winds create waves that wash soil and nutrients into the water. In a river or river-run reservoir, the lower end of the system may be clear until runoff originating in the upper end is carried downstream by current."

Biologists use a device called a Secchi disc to measure water clarity. But as a good ol' boy from Alabama told me, "Crappie fishin' ain't rocket science," so for purposes of this discussion, let's call water with a visibility down to 15 feet "gin clear," 10 feet "clear,", 5 feet "stained," 3 feet "murky" and 1 foot or less "muddy."

"I've fished for crappie in water so clear you could see the date on a dime down to 20 feet, and in lakes muddy enough to plough," Duckworth said. "Crappie can definitely be caught in both of these extremes, but the best populations of fish, and the most active bite, normally occur in lakes with water that's somewhere in the middle of the clarity spectrum -- 'stained' is a good description. Lakes with moderate algae growth usually have a healthy food chain because there's plenty of plankton in the water for small forage fish and gamefish fry to eat."

Crappie, like bass, have excellent eyesight, but are also capable of detecting the vibrations of prey through their lateral lines as the water decreases in clarity, which explains why you can catch them in muddy water, Jim added.
     
Hints From Harold
Legendary Nashville crappie guide Harold Morgan has fished all kinds of crappie water, all over the country. "In gin-clear lakes, I always start out fishing deeper, even though I may sometimes have to adjust my depth presentation shallower as the day progresses," Harold noted. "Light penetration is the key -- if you're fishing a clear lake on a bright, sunny day, the crappie tend to move deeper, not because the sun hurts their eyes as we've so often heard, but because they're ambush predators that rely on concealment from their prey for successful feeding. On cloudy days, crappie in clear lakes often move up in the water column."

Crappie will seek out a shady spot in clear water, Morgan said. "I catch a lot of crappie under boat docks during mid-day on clear lakes. Also, crappie sitting in a big brushpile or submerged tree will alter their position so they can stay in the shadows as the sun shifts. Always target shady cover when fishing a clear lake."

Morgan finds muddy water challenging to fish, especially in a lake that is normally clear. "Often in spring you get muddy runoff entering reservoir tributaries after seasonal rains. Crappie will move ahead of an advancing mudline, and you should, too, if you're serious about catching them. If the entire lake has turned muddy, try targeting the shorelines -- often there's a thin band of clear water right next to the bank, and crappie will retreat into this zone."

Crappie usually position themselves very tight to cover in a muddy environment, Morgan has found. "I feel they're using piece of cover like a brushpile, stump or log as a reference point, something they can relate to when their visibility is reduced. I usually fish vertically in muddy lakes, using the Kentucky rig (heavy sinker on the bottom/minnows or tube jigs above). You've got to put your bait right in the cover to get bit."

Cold, muddy water almost always means an extremely slow crappie bite because both their visibility and their metabolism are low, Morgan noted. "In winter, I'd normally fish deep in a clear or stained lake, but if the lake turns muddy, I'll often turn the tables and fish shallow. I've often loaded the boat in these conditions fishing brushpiles along shallow ledges. I avoid the main channel now because current carries muddy particles downstream, so the channel may be considerably murkier than the rest of the lake."

Muddy water warms much faster than clear water, Morgan points out. "Crappie will often spawn earliest in the muddiest parts of the lake where the water temperature is most conducive to bedding. I think they gravitate to muddy water when spawning so their fry can gorge on algae once they hatch. I use both minnows and tubes in muddy conditions; those inch-and-a-half minnow are especially deadly now."

In lakes with stained-to-murky water, which Morgan describes as his favorite clarity range, crappie will use channel dropoffs to move into the shallows for spawning. "Crappie normally spawn 4 to 7 feet deep in water with some color to it. They can see the flash of a minnow much easier in this color water than in muddy water."
     
Tom's Tips
Kentucky Lake guide Tom Moody believes water clarity is the dominant factor affecting the crappie bite. "They can be extremely closed-mouth in muddy water -- I much prefer clear to slightly stained water for both the most active bite and the best-quality fish," he explained. "But you can't always have ideal water conditions when you're fishing, so you need to learn to be versatile. You might have to try several different locations and presentations before you come up with the right pattern."

The water is usually not the same color all over a lake, Moody finds, so he spends time cruising around to find conditions he feels are most conducive to catching fish. "The creeks should begin to clear a couple days after a hard rain; look for clearer water in the back-ends of the tributaries. Underground springs tend to run very clear as well; be sure to check these out. If the lake is muddy all over, I'll use live shiners, or a bright-colored Slider grub -- something that's easy for them to relate to. Muddy water isn't a good scenario for an off-the-wall presentation that crappie aren't 100% comfortable with."

You'll seldom load the boat fishing in one spot in muddy water, Moody indicated. "Last March, Kentucky Lake was still at winter pool and muddy as could be; we caught fish in the backs of coves in 3 feet of water from stake beds with the sun shining on them. Beds in the shade were devoid of fish. We'd catch two or three fish from each bed, then move to another one, dropping a white and chartreuse jig on 4 pound line right in the middle of the cover and s-l-o-w-l-y jigging it up and down."
     
Mason's Musings
"I've found the clearer the water, the deeper crappie go, and the tighter they hold to cover," Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason indicated. "This is probably because crappie, being predators, have an inborn need to remain undetected until a food source gets close enough to become a meal. Many clear lakes like Center Hill are mainly rocky and have relatively little submerged brush or timber; here, merely moving deeper will help crappie remain concealed from their prey."

As the water gets murkier, crappie tend to be shallower and roam more, Mason said. "You'd think they'd stick tighter to cover when their visibility is reduced, but when runoff is pouring into the lake, crappie often gravitate to it. After all, it's fresh water, even if it's muddy, and fresh water is highly oxygenated and carries lots of food with it. They'll move near inflowing creeks and ditches to dine on worms and bugs flushing into the lake."

Just because the water looks like chocolate milk on he surface doesn't mean it's muddy all the way to the bottom, Mason pointed out. "In most cases, the water is clearer below the surface band, and visibility there may actually be good to excellent, even though you don't see anything but mud from the vantage point of your boat. Use a lure with some flash and sparkle to it, like a Slider grub with a little flake in it, or a small spinner. Watch what happens to the water when you turn on your trolling motor: if it changes color around the prop, the water below the surface is clearer."
 

LURE SELECTION AND WATER COLOR

The clarity of the water you're fishing has an impact on your lure selection, although not always in a way you might expect. Veteran Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason offers these hints for picking the right color for the conditions at hand:

"Generally I prefer lighter colors in muddy water -- white, pearl, silver -- and have better luck with these than either dark or hot colors (like chartreuse)," he noted. 'If it's overcast and muddy, I start adding hot colors to my basic light colors in increments -- a white Slider grub with a chartreuse tail is a good choice now. Also, the cloudier the water, the more I employ sound and vibration in my presentation, such as a twister grub or small spinner. Live bait is always a good bet in murky-to-muddy conditions; I'll often tip a jig with a minnow in low-visibility water."

In stained water, Mason's preference for an active crappie bite, a wider array of colors will catch fish. "I'll often start with chartreuse and have my clients use different colors such as green or silver, then let the fish tell us what they want," he said. As the water clears, colors simulating live baitfish get the nod: "Smoke with silver flake, clear sparkle, light green flake -- anything that looks translucent and has some flash like a live minnow usually works. One thing about crappie jigs, they're cheap, so it pays to keep a wide selection on hand and change colors often."

0 Comments »

Where and How to Catch Shallow Summer Crappie

By Don Wirth

Shallow Summer Crappie

This 2-1/2-pound shallow summer slab was pulled from an undisclosed Iowa reservoir by Dave Weston. 


How hot was it?

Insufferably hot. August-in-Tennessee hot. Fry-eggs-on-the-pavement hot. But not too hot to be catching crappie.

Here it was, the middle of the day with the air temperature right at 100 degrees, yet Harold Morgan's livewell was chock full of slabs. And we hadn't even left the tributary arm where he launched his boat! At the mouth of the creek, jet skis buzzed like swarming gnats. "Most crappie fishermen hate hot weather," the legendary Nashville guide laughed as he reeled in another fish. "I don't know about you, but I can stand a little heat when the fishing's this fast." Just then a ski boat idled past us, and a bikini-clad blonde smiled and waved as Harold held up the crappie. "Besides," he laughed, "you can't complain about the scenery!"

In the mythology of crappie fishing, summertime brings on the dreaded Dog Days, a torturous time when heat and humidity soar and fish lips clamp tightly shut. To the hapless angler, a day on the water now seems like a sentence to hell, with not even an occasional tug on the line to distract him from the sweltering, dripping, unrelenting heat.

But count on Morgan to have aces up his sleeve whenever conditions threaten to slow down the crappie bite. "If you play your cards right, you can score some nice fish in short order in midsummer, and you don't have to fish deep to catch 'em," he'd promised me before we set out on this hot-weather crappie excursion. As usual, he was right on the money.
     
Piece of the Puzzle
"There was a time when I hesitated to even talk about catching crappie in midsummer period, let alone from shallow water," Morgan said. "Whenever I'd tell folks I was slammin' lots of good fish up shallow from June through September, they'd look at me like I was either crazy or lying. I remember mentioning a great July crappie trip to one of my long-time customers when I ran into him at the dock. He laughed and said, "Harold, I didn't fall off the pumpkin truck. Don't feed me that baloney!' After that, I didn't talk about my shallow summer patterns for years."

But today's crappie fishermen are better-skilled and more open-minded than in the past, Morgan added. "There's greater interest in, and awareness of, the seasonal movements of crappie now than before," he said. "The skilled crappie angler now understands that once crappie leave their spring spawning grounds, they don't evaporate into thin air, but rather migrate into areas that suit their needs as the seasons progress. And the shallow summer pattern is a natural part of these seasonal movements, just another piece of the crappie fishing puzzle."

Quest for Knowledge
Morgan is quick to add that he's still learning about shallow summer patterns. "I pick up more tidbits of information every day I fish in summer," he explained. "Some of the things I've discovered lately will surely turn the heads of long-time crappie addicts."

Anyone who's fished for crappie as long as Harold Morgan has, is bound to have plenty of preconceived notions about the haunts and habits of these gamefish, But you'd do well to put these ideas on the shelf once summer rolls around, he insisted. "Like any veteran crappie angler, I have my own way of doing things. I used to figure all the crappie were out in deep water once June arrived and the lake's surface temperature hit the low 80s. For years, my sole summer pattern was to fish isolated stumps, brushpiles and stake beds on creek and river channel dropoffs, deep main-lake flats, long points with a slow taper into deep water, and offshore humps. Here crappie had more current flow from the main river channel and tributary channels, which meant greater levels of dissolved oxygen and plentiful bait. Invariably the fish were deep on this pattern; I found the 17 to 23 foot zone consistently productive for large schools of quality crappie."

But Morgan's quest for total understanding of the crappie's summer movements eventually led him into uncharted territory, including shallow bays, coves and tributary arms. "I often had my afternoons free during the summer months, since most of my guide trips during this period ran from dawn 'til noon due to the heat," he continued. "So once my clients left, I'd nose around shallow areas during the hottest part of the day, and I was astounded at what I found."

One thing Harold quickly discovered: water can't get too hot for crappie. "I've found they'll bite shallow regardless of the surface temperature. I've personally caught 'em in 95-degree water, and I know fishermen down in Mississippi who load the boat all summer long in their shallow lakes, even when the surface temp tops 100 degrees."
     
Shallow Summer Scenarios
Morgan has learned that there are certain scenarios where crappie will move shallow in summer, and when these opportunities present themselves, you can score some unbelievable catches. He listed the following as prime examples:

Trees on dropoffs and sloping banks -- "I call these 'elevator trees' because crappie use 'em to move up and down in the water column," he explained. "Typically the best summer laydown trees have their trunks resting on shore or in shallow water adjacent to a sloping bank, with their branches fanning out across a deep channel, ditch or other major dropoff. The perfect tree has the ends of its longest branches sticking out like extended fingers into deep, open water. The trunk and branches develop a coating of algae, which baitfish feed upon. Crappie schools moving along the channel will encounter the tree and follow the branches and trunk into shallower water to feed. In clear lakes, they'll often position themselves around the 10-foot zone around the tree; they may be only a couple feet deep if the water is murky."

A lone tree may pull in a huge number of crappie from a wide area, Morgan said. "If you don't see any fish on your graph in the 15 to 25 foot zone on open-water structures, move to the nearest fallen tree -- betcha you'll load the boat!"

Harold loves to fish fallen trees with a twist-tail grub or small tube jig. He'll move out to the end of the tree and cast parallel to the trunk. "Start by targeting the shady side of the tree. Let the jig fall until the line goes slack, then instantly turn the reel handle at a slow to moderate pace, swimming the lure down the trunk toward deeper water. If you feel it tick the wood, speed up slightly. Don't hop-and-drop the bait -- you'll hang up for sure."

Windy days -- "Most crappie fishermen try to avoid the wind, but if there's ever a time to fish in a windy spot, it's in midsummer," Morgan insisted. "A stiff breeze will push drifting plankton blooms from the main lake into the shallows, bringing big schools of shad along with it. Crappie are more interested in an easy meal than staying deep, and they'll pull up stakes and follow their forage shallow in a heartbeat. So when you're out there on those deep humps and ledges and the wind starts knockin' you around, move to the nearest wind-blown shallow area for some fast action."

Compared to the fallen tree scenario mentioned above, this is an open-water pattern, one where the crappie are likely to be suspended. Morgan drift-trolls a combination of tube and twister jigs and live minnows weighted down with split shot behind his boat, criss-crossing a shallow bay or tributary cove. "I start about 12 feet deep around a long point or flat and work progressively shallower, alternatively following a depth contour and then cutting across several contours in a lazy S pattern," he said. "Often the fish are loosely scattered on this pattern, so you'll pick 'em up at various depths." Don't be surprised if something considerably larger than a crappie makes a run with your lure or bait, Harold added: "Besides crappie, I've caught big largemouth and smallmouth bass, hybrids and stripers on this pattern."

Low dissolved oxygen -- "On some Sun Belt lakes, dissolved oxygen levels may become extremely low in midsummer," Morgan noted. "Following an extended period of cloudy weather, plankton, which depends on sunlight for survival, often dies and drifts toward the bottom, where it decays --  this phenomenon is known as 'fallout' by biologists. The decay process burns up oxygen, and water below the 8 to 10 foot zone may become dangerously low in dissolved oxygen, forcing baitfish and gamefish shallower."

Unlike the first two patterns mentioned, this one most commonly occurs in open water. "I don't own a dissolved oxygen meter, but I can always tell this pattern has kicked in when I see bait and crappie schools on my graph suspended high in the water column over deep main-lake structures," Morgan indicated. "I vertical-fish these deep spots with a Kentucky rig, which has a heavy bell sinker at the end of the line and live minnows or jigs on short leader lines above the sinker. When I'm not catching any crappie while bumping the sinker along the bottom, I'll reel up to move to another spot, and might catch two crappie at once when the rig enters the 10 foot zone right under my boat. This happened so often at Priest Lake near Nashville that I asked a fisheries biologist about it; he said the lake was suffering from low oxygen levels. So the moral of the story is, if you aren't catching 'em near the bottom on deep structure in summer, reel straight up and you might locate a big school of fish."

Inflowing murky water -- "Often in summer, heat and humidity cause a buildup of thundershowers," Harold said. "These summer storms can be real toad-stranglers, sending a great deal of muddy water into the system via the tributaries. This murky runoff is a veritable chowder of insects, worms and microscopic organisms, and calls in minnows like a dinner bell. Crappie that were in deeper water sense the feeding opportunity and move into the murky runoff for an easy meal."

After heading for the back of a tributary arm, Morgan casts a chartreuse grub, twister or small crappie crankbait into the murky inflow. "I've caught slab crappie as shallow as 1 foot on this pattern," he claimed. "There can be an unbelievable number of fish ganged up in that shallow runoff to put on the feed bag."

0 Comments »

Late-Season Tips for Super Slabs

By Don Wirth

Last weekend saw autumn at its peak, with the trees on the shores of your local lake a riot of red, yellow and orange. Then a major cold front blew in, and the accompanying wind and rain took their toll, leaving behind bare branches, a chill in the air and the certainty that winter is just around the corner.

If you're like most crappie anglers, you're probably thinking it's time to drydock your boat and hang up your poles. But before you do, take time to read what follows. We've gathered a stringer-full of late-season crappie tips from some of the best guides in the country, all geared toward extending your fishing season to the max, and putting you on some of the biggest crappie of the year!

Tip #1: Fish Deep Dropoffs
"Once the lake chills down in late fall, large numbers of crappie pull out to the deeper dropoffs and suspend," says Kentucky Lake guide Tom Moody. "Now is the time to move offshore and hunt for a well-defined creek or river channel drop -- one that makes a rapid descent from around 10 to 12 feet to at least 18 feet. You'll find large schools of quality fish schooled up on these drops, usually adjacent to sunken brushpiles, trees or stake beds."

Moody uses the regionally-popular Kentucky rig to score limit catches when crappie are on this deep pattern. "This rig features a heavy bell sinker on the bottom and two short leaders tied off the main line a foot apart, each with a crappie hook attached," he explained. "The leader hooks are baited with medium-size shiners -- don't use bait that's too small this time of year. I fish the rig on a light-action spinning rod with 8 to 10 pound line."

Moody idles along the dropoff, tossing out several marker buoys to delineate the structure. He then moves slowly along the drop with his electric motor, probing the structure with the Kentucky rig as he goes. "This time of year I always free-line the rig all the way to the bottom, then reel up approximately three turns of the reel handle," he explained. "This puts the lower minnow about 2 feet off bottom, which is a common depth for suspending fish. I pay attention to whether my first couple of fish are caught on the upper or lower hook, then adjust my presentation accordingly. The fish tend to pack tightly together now, and zeroing in on their precise depth is important -- a miss is as good as a mile."

Moody says a crisp 45-degree day with a light breeze out of the south is optimal for this late-season pattern. "Some wind is desirable, because it allows you to use your electric motor sparingly for a more stealthy presentation," he noted. "High winds mean increased wave action, which can cause the water to turn murky. This will usually result in a much slower bite, so move to another area of the lake where the water isn't so rough and roiled."

Tip #2: Target Schools of Small Minnows
"In late fall and winter, size matters when it comes to minnows," believes Priest Lake (Tenn.) crappie guide Jim Duckworth. "Once the water temp drops below 60 degrees, crappie may bypass larger baitfish in favor of immature shad and shiners. These are from the last spawn of the year, and are usually around an inch in length. There are billions of 'em in most reservoirs by mid-November, and they're a primary food source for crappie."

Duckworth finds clouds of these itty-bitty baitfish suspended in the middle of tributary arms, often between 10 and 14 feet deep. Schools of crappie are seldom far away. "This is an open-water pattern, and trolling crankbaits is the most effective way to exploit it," he advised. "I'll troll 200-series Bandit crankbaits in reflective shad patterns at 2 mph with my trolling motor or gas outboard, making multiple passes through a good school of crappie. I'll often pick up two or three fish on every pass."

The guide also trolls creek channel drops, tributary flats with a deep-water access and creek channels with stumps along their edges, again looking for schools of tiny baitfish. "The biggest mistake you can make now is using a lure than runs too deep," he cautioned. "The 200-series Bandit runs 10 feet deep on 8 pound mono; in a clear lake, it'll pull crappie up from as deep as 25 feet."

Tip #3: Don't Overlook Shallow Water
"Surprisingly, many crappie may refuse to move deep late in the year," says legendary Tennessee guide Harold Morgan. "I routinely catch them from 2 to 4 feet deep when the lake temperature is in the mid to upper 50s, a time when most crappie anglers are fishing deep."

Morgan said the key to scoring major-league catches on his shallow pattern is waiting until late afternoon to fish it. "The fish often suspend in deeper water, waiting for the sun to warm up the shallows a degree or two before they move up," he explained. "I've had some of my best early-winter catches between 3 and 4:30 in the afternoon, after most of the other fishermen on the lake have gone home."

Twisters and tubes rigged on lightweight jigheads will provide plenty of action now, Harold promised. "Make a long cast past any shallow submerged wood cover you can locate, then swim the lure back to the boat with a slow, steady retrieve. Don't hop, skip or jump the jig, just reel it straight in. These fish may be shallow, but that doesn't mean they're aggressive -- their metabolism is slow in that cold water, and they're unlikely to chase down a fast-moving bait."
Harold says it's important to experiment with color when crappie are sluggish. "Sometimes you can provoke a reaction strike with a hot-colored bait. If you aren't getting hits on white or green, try red, pink or chartreuse."
     
Tip #4: Fish Remaining Grass
"Most fishermen know that bass, pike and muskies relate to submerged grassbeds, but are surprised to learn that in certain lakes, crappie will hang around weeds as well," claims Dale Hollow Lake guide Fred McClintock. This 27,000-acre highland reservoir on the Tennessee/Kentucky border has little submerged wood cover, but sports lush beds of coontail and milfoil growing down to 30 feet; it's here that the guide scores impressive crappie catches in early winter. "Crappie cover is a relative term," Fred pointed out. "These fish will use whatever cover they can find, and in a rocky lake like Dale Hollow that has few submerged stumps and brushpiles, they won't hesitate to gravitate to grass."

McClintock locates deep grassbeds on his graph, and notes the depth of "hooks" indicating crappie suspending over the cover. He then drift-trolls 1/8- to 1/4-ounce tube or twister jigs on 6 pound mono, using his electric motor to control boat speed and position. Proximity to deep water makes the grass more attractive to crappie now, Fred has found. "This pattern is strongest in early December, when the weeds in 10 feet of water or less are starting to die off," he said. "The deeper weeds remain alive, giving off oxygen and attracting baitfish, and will draw crappie from a wide area."

Keep a light drag when fishing this pattern, McClintock added. " Last winter, besides catching a ton of slab crappie, we caught a 6-pound smallmouth bass and an 18-pound muskie while drifting jigs over deep weeds."

Tip #5: Target Channel Bends
The path to great late-season crappie action can be a crooked one, says Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason. Like some of the other experts we interviewed, Mason keys on dropoffs once autumn transitions into winter, but he invariably catches his biggest fish where the channel makes a sharp bend. "A channel bend is a tremendous crappie concentrator," he remarked. "You may fish a straight creek channel ledge for hours and pick up a few scattered fish, then load the boat where the channel makes a sharp turn. If there's some brush or stumps on top of the drop, so much the better. Crappie will gang up in huge numbers on these spots."

Mason motors halfway back into a tributary arm, then follows the channel out into the main lake with his graph. "Late in the year, I'll start by checking the 8 to 10 foot ledge on top of the drop, then move out over the channel itself, then back on top of the ledge, in a lazy S pattern. I spend a good deal of time looking for the right combination of channel bends, cover and baitfish, because I know once I'm on the right spot, the bite will be awesome."

Mason drops a marker buoy on a productive channel bend and fishes the spot thoroughly, targeting several different depths. " I use a Kentucky rig with jigheads baited with small minnows late, and will add a Berkley Power Bait Crappie Niblet to the hook as an attractor -- these help activate a stronger bite when crappie are a bit sluggish," he said. "I'll drop the rig to the bottom, then s-l-o-w-l-y reel it straight up until I contact fish. Sometimes the fish closest to bottom will be most active; sometimes the shallower fish will bite best."

If you don't see crappie on your graph the first time you check out a channel bend, revisit the spot later in the day, Mason suggested. "Often crappie moving along the dropoff will use the bend as a rest stop. The more fish that congregate here, the better your chances of limiting out, for crappie are highly competitive feeders."

Tip #6: Fish Big Bays & Flats
"Most late-season anglers move out to fast-sloping main lake structures for a crappie fix," Kentucky lake guide Steve McCadams has found. "I like to fish bays and flats instead. These are fairly shallow structures with a gradual slope, not the kinds of spots you'd normally think of as a fall/winter transitional crappie haunt. But believe me, they can hold plenty of fish."

These often-overlooked structures hold mega-quantities of bait, the guide knows. "Once the lake temp has dropped into the 50s, threadfin shad pack into reservoir bays and flats in unbelievable numbers, and crappie head there to put on the feed bag before winter sends them packing for deep water. This is the most consistent, predictable reservoir crappie pattern I've seen during this time of year, and I'm amazed more people aren't fishing it."

Steve targets wood cover in the 6 to 12 foot zone on these mid-depth spots. He'll use a variety of presentations, from vertical-jigging tube baits to slow-trolling spider rigs. "If you find wood, you'll catch fish," he promised. "Crappie may suspend a great deal in summer and early fall, but once the water chills, they like to stick tight to cover."

Tip # 7: Bluffs Hold Big Fish
Nashville crappie guide Donny Hall knows that river and creek channel bluffs are strong magnets for superslabs in late fall. "Crappie transitioning from shallow tributary arms to deep main lake structures use steep rock bluffs like highways," he said. "Besides serving as migration routes, these structures offer forage and cover opportunities that crappie can't pass up."

Rock bluffs develop a slick coating of algae which shad feed upon, Hall indicated: "You'll see huge schools of baitfish swimming right along the bluff, and where there's lots of bait, big crappie aren't far behind. In addition, the base of the bluff is typically littered with rocks of various sizes that have broken off the rocky face, providing great hiding places for crappie. Over the years, I've caught some of my biggest slabs from these structures."

Hall's favorite bluff pattern is trolling 1/8 ounce lipless vibrating crankbaits along ledges that jut out from the base of the bluff. "The best crappie bluffs aren't straight up and down, but have a series of ledges that stairstep from shallow to deep water," he explained. "In late fall, crappie often gang up on 15- to 20-foot ledges, where they sit and wait for baitfish schools to pass by. Troll a small Rat-L-Trap along this ledge on 8 pound line, moving just fast enough to make the lure vibrate -- I guarantee you'll catch fish." 

HOW TO SCORE CRAPPIE DURING FALL DRAWDOWN

Most flood-control reservoirs undergo a major drawdown every fall. The lake level is lowered in anticipation of heavy spring rains, and this can impact crappie location and mood. Here are some tips for scoring more and bigger crappie when they pull the plug on your local waters:

"During drawdown, many crappie will pull out of the shallows and move to main-lake bars and ledges," Kentucky Lake guide Steve McCadams indicated. "They evidently feel more secure in or close to deep water. I catch many fish on 14 to 18 foot bars while drawdown is taking place; they may move shallower once the lake level stabilizes."

"Pay attention to changing lake levels, for crappie definitely orient to deeper water during drawdown," Nashville guide Donny Hall has fond. "The move can take place overnight. If you were catching fish in 4 feet of water around brushpiles on Saturday, then notice the lake level has dropped several inches when you come back on Sunday, back off to the first 10-foot water you can find that has wood cover. You may have to use a slower, more patient presentation during drawdown - it sometimes disorients the fish."

"The juncture of a tributary mouth and the main river cannel is a key spot during drawdown," advised Priest Lake (Tenn.) guide Jim Duckworth. "Position your boat on the downstream side of creek channel brushpiles - crappie will position themselves behind this cover -- and swim a grub slowly through it. If you feel the lure hang up, pop the rod tip gently and it'll usually come through."

 

0 Comments »

Fish Current for Summer Slabs

By Don Wirth

Ever notice that crappie fishing seems to grind to a halt during midsummer? It's not just your imagination -- there are verifiable reasons why the dreaded "dog days" can indeed spell poor fishing. Many lakes suffer oxygen depletion in summer, which causes crappie to become lethargic and, in extreme cases, can lead to fish kills. Some Sun Belt lakes may have surface temperatures approaching 100 degrees, putting crappie into a stupor or sending them into the depths where they're hard to locate and catch.

Fortunately, not every body of water containing crappie is subject to the summer doldrums. Great fishing is typically found on river-run reservoirs, those man-made lakes where current flow is regulated by an upstream dam. As you're about to learn, current breathes life into the ecosystem and can be responsible for a tremendous crappie bite...if you know how to fish it properly. In this Bass Pro Shops' OutdoorSite exclusive, Steve McCadams and Jim Duckworth, two legendary Tennessee crappie guides, explain how they use current to their advantage when targeting summer slabs. Their insights into this seldom-discussed topic can turn those dog days into the most exciting crappie fishing season of the year.

OUTDOORSITE: You seldom hear anglers who fish for anything but trout or catfish say anything good about current. To the contrary, most fishermen find it a nuisance. What can current mean to the serious crappie fisherman?

McCADAMS: Current has a rejuvenating effect on a reservoir that's especially noticeable in summer. When there's generation from the upstream dam, fresh, cool water washes down through the system. This helps keep the summer temperature of a river-run reservoir significantly cooler than that of a slack-water lake. Plus, the tumbling action of current distributes significant amounts of dissolved oxygen throughout the entire water column -- slack-water lakes, on the other hand, are often low in oxygen in hot weather below a certain depth. You also don't get the stratification or "layering" of hot or oxygen-depleted water in a river-run reservoir that you get in lakes with no current. Current also jump-starts the food chain. It stirs up plankton and algae, which stimulates shad and other baitfish to move around and start feeding. Gamefish higher up the food chain, including crappie, sense an increase in forage activity and become more active as well.

DUCKWORTH: Current also positions crappie in predictable places. They'll face upstream in current to feed on minnows that are moving in the direction of the flow. If you know the dam's generation schedule, you can get a good idea of when the best feeding times will be. As Steve indicated, crappie in a river-run environment tend to feed when there's some current moving, because they instinctively know their forage will be most active then.

OUTDOORSITE: Do crappie favor light, moderate or heavy current?

McCADAMS: I find they use current as a food-delivery system, but will do what they can to get out of anything greater than a light flow. If there's light generation, they'll hold right in the current, but when it picks up, they'll move behind objects on the bottom such as rocks, trees, stumps, etc. The water is then flowing over and past them at a good clip, but they're sitting in slack water behind a current break. From this vantage point, they can hold for long periods regardless of the flow, and rush out to grab a passing meal.

DUCKWORTH: It's important to understand that current isn't the same throughout the entire water column -- it tends to be slower on the surface and bottom than in the middle, due to air and bottom friction. Even during a fairly strong flow, irregularities of the bottom contour may slow down the current enough to make it comfortable for crappie.

OUTDOORSITE: Besides sitting on the bottom behind objects, where else do crappie gravitate during current generation?

McCADAMS: They love eddies -- a lot of food concentrates in these areas. They'll also get on the down-current side of a ledge or sand bar, especially if there's some stumps, rocks or brush there.

DUCKWORTH: I also catch 'em on the back sides of humps and islands -- any place trash collects, they'll be there.

OUTDOORSITE: Do you normally catch bigger crappie from river-run reservoirs than slack-water impoundments, and if so, why?

McCADAMS: Definitely! Crappie don't have to move around nearly as much when they have current as a food delivery system. They learn to go into a holding pattern when there's no current running and wait until it cranks up again to feed. They get big, fat and lazy when current brings the food to them.

DUCKWORTH: I actually catch bigger crappie in deep, clear highland reservoirs with no current flow like Tennessee's Center Hill and Dale Hollow lakes, but crappie are far less numerous in these bodies of water than in murky river-run reservoirs. The average size, however, tends to be excellent in current reservoirs.

OUTDOORSITE: How do crappie react to intermittent current generation?

McCADAMS: Generation is often heaviest in a river-run reservoir in summer, when power demands are highest -- it takes lots of juice to keep all those air conditioners running. I find the feeding times of crappie are strongly tied to water movement, and in summer, the same generation schedule often prevails for long periods. The bite tends to be strongest during the first hour or so of generation, probably because of all the plankton that's uprooted during this period. Then after an hour or so, the bite usually stabilizes. If generation kicks in by mid-morning for several days running, the fish will get strongly acclimated to this, and the bite will be predictably good around 10 o'clock or so. They will usually stay on a mid-morning feeding pattern until the schedule changes.

DUCKWORTH: The bite is usually strongest while the current is running, but crappie bite better than either most other species in the lake, including bass or stripers, when the current shuts down. You just have to fish differently for them.

OUTDOORSITE:  How do you mean, Jim?

DUCKWORTH: When generation stops, they move off the bottom and away from cover, and suspend in the water column, usually just above the thermocline. I'll often vertical-jig these fish 20 to 25 feet deep.

McCADAMS: Crappie are a lot more scattered out than when current is running, and usually on deeper structures -- 18 to 25 feet would be a good average depth. Trolling with multiple pole rigs is a good option now. You want to use a shotgun approach instead of a rifle approach, because the fish won't be holding tight to current breaks and eddies.

OUTDOORSITE:  So when current flows, crappie tend to move shallower on structure?

McCADAMS: Right, but remember it's summer, so they won't move too shallow. If they were 25 feet deep with no generation, they might slide up to 15 feet, but not 5. The baitfish will dictate where and how shallow they move, so always watch your graph for schools of shad and concentrate your efforts at that level.

DUCKWORTH: I've caught 'em extremely shallow in weedbeds adjacent to a flowing channel (See Catch Crappie from Grassy Lakes). A ton of bait can pack into the grass now, and crappie will move in to gorge themselves. Then when the current stops, the bait scatters and the crappie go deeper.

OUTDOORSITE: Clarify why baitfish move when current starts flowing.

DUCKWORTH: Many crappie anglers believe the current literally washes the baitfish into an area, just as they believe the wind blows the bait around. Actually, healthy baitfish have little problem dealing with either current or wind. They move because their food source, plankton and algae, are subject to the whims of current.

McCADAMS: True, but out of a big school of shad, you're going to have many sick or injured individuals, and they represent a huge feeding opportunity for crappie. These less healthy baitfish are swept away when current kicks in, and crappie waiting downstream suck 'em up like a vacuum cleaner.

OUTDOORSITE: We've touched on bait and lure presentations in current, but let's get into this subject deeper. What presentation techniques work best when the water is moving?

McCADAMS: I prefer a vertical presentation with a bottom-bumping "Kentucky" rig with multiple hooks. It's critical when current is flowing to use enough weight on the end of your line so you can stay in touch with both the bottom and cover -- I generally use a 1-ounce bell sinker in a light to moderate flow. I tie two hooks 18 inches apart and bait up with live minnows. By slowly dragging and bumping the sinker along the bottom, I'm presenting baits at two different levels in the water column. Very often most of my bites will come on either the lower or higher of the two hooks. This tells me the fish are either holding around the base of the cover, a common scenario when there's a pretty good flow, or suspended right above the cover, which is typical during light generation. I also keep several rods rigged up with different line diameters. Normally I use 14 to 17 pound test on the Kentucky rig in light current, but I'll switch to 12 pound in faster current.

DUCKWORTH: I fish a lot of artificials in moving water. My favorite is the Slider Whirly Bee grub spinner. I'll cast it upstream and retrieve it close to the bottom with a series of light jerks -- this is a fantastic presentation on river bars with brush on the ends. I'll also use a marabou jig set 2 to 4 feet under a bobber and cast into eddies -- the jig suspends and shakes with the motion of the swirling current. I generally stick to 6 pound line when fishing current, because there's less line drag, and so I can break off easily when I get hung up. In murky water, I'll slow-troll a crappie-size crankbait, keeping it just off bottom.

OUTDOORSITE: Summing up, what's your final advice to crappie anglers about fishing current?

McCADAMS: Have several rods pre-rigged so you can get another presentation out there quickly when you get hung up -- it you've only got one rod, by the time you re-tie, you may have drifted 200 yards from your spot. Use your graph and a set of marker buoys to pinpoint offshore ledges and humps that hold baitfish and crappie when current is being generated.

DUCKWORTH: Get a trolling motor that's more powerful than you think you'll ever need -- it'll hold your boat in position when they switch on the current. Keep everything you're going to need -- tacklebox, pliers, water jug -- close by so you don't have to root around in storage boxes looking for them while your boat drifts off crappie-holding structure. And always wear your life jacket.

0 Comments »

Baiting Summer Stripers

By Don Wirth

Baiting Summer StripersStripers move into the headwaters of river-run reservoirs and find near-perfect water temps and plenty of dissolved oxygen -- along with a never-ending supply of forage fish.

My buddy Jack has caught some humongous landlocked stripers -- I was with him when a 48-pounder ate his prop bait one evening, giving an entirely new meaning to that phrase "a loud sucking sound" uttered by former presidential hopeful Ross Perot during a debate about NAFTA. But that fish was a mere minnow compared to the cow he hooked on a foggy morning last August.

We arrived at the river at daybreak, and I promptly caught some gizzard shad in a cast net. As they finned in the cool confines of my bait tank, we made a couple of drifts across a big stump flat where I'd taken many nice stripers in the past, chunking Red Fins in hopes of drawing a surface strike. Anticipation ran high as the big minnow plug sashayed across the surface, throwing a wake that telegraphed its presence. Unfortunately we hauled water, so as the fog began to dissipate, we broke out the heavy artillery: saltwater rods armed with 7000s and 50-pound mono. I ran to the next flat upriver, and started pulling shad behind planer boards.

Jack dipped his arm in the bait tank and pulled out the biggest shad either of us had ever seen, a real toad of a bait that spanned over 14 inches. "This oughta catch one!" he said hopefully as he ran the 9/0 hook through its lips.

We let out three boards and a float line, and on our first drift, Jack's big shad swam to the surface, a sure sign it was being harassed by a striper. Instantly a sloshing wave big enough to surf on closed in on the baitfish, and Jack braced himself for the strike. You could almost see the terror in the shad's eye as it darted this way and that, trying to escape the inevitable. 

There was no explosion, no tell-tale boil. The line simply pulled tight, the rod loaded up, and Jack was hard into the biggest striper either of us had ever encountered. It ran straight up the river, ripping line from the big red reel in short, angry bursts. As I frantically reeled in the other lines, Jack shouted, "Hurry, it's gonna spool me!" He tightened the star drag slightly; this didn't seem to impede the behemoth one bit. With all the lines finally in, I stowed the trolling motor, cranked the outboard, and chased down the fish.

Jack was able to regain most of the line he'd lost, and after 5 minutes, had worked the striper directly under the boat, where it sulked in a 20-foot hole. But when he attempted to move the fish to the surface, it shook its massive head and made a powerhouse run to the bottom.

Ever hear 50-pound mono break on a straight pull? The closest thing I can compare it to is a .38 going off. It's a sound I hope I never hear again. "Damn!" was all Jack could manage to say as the beast disappeared into the depths.

Stripers are seldom thought of as summertime fish, but in the right places, and with the right baits and presentations, you can experience some unbelievable action in hot weather with these monster predators. I'll reveal my summer livebait striper strategies under one condition: that you practice catch and release with these great gamefish.
 
Summer Striper Hotspots

Landlocked stripers crave cool water (temps ranging from 55 to 65 degrees are ideal) with plenty of dissolved oxygen (up to 8 ppm). In summer, they're unlikely to find these conditions in slackwater reservoirs. In a non-current Sun Belt reservoir, where surface temperatures can skyrocket into the 90s by July, stripers typically have to move so deep to find cool water that they run low on oxygen, and in water with dissolved oxygen lower than 4 ppm, they'll become seriously stressed.

Rivers offer far better summer striper habitat than slackwater impoundments. The water below some of the dams near my home port of Nashville, Tennessee may be a bone-chilling 52 degrees even in August. Stripers move into the headwaters of river-run reservoirs and find near-perfect water temps and plenty of dissolved oxygen, along with a never-ending supply of forage fish. Depending on what river you're fishing, stripers will dine on gizzard shad, blueback and skipjack herring, even eels and rainbow trout. And best of all, live release is highly likely in this cool, highly-oxygenated environment, even in midsummer.

I've touched on the tackle I use in rivers. Thirty-pounders are common where I fish; 60s have been taken, and far bigger fish are possible, as my friend Jack can attest. Couple this fact with the abundance of snaggy cover in most rivers, and you can see why this is no place for Mickey Mouse gear. My favorite bait rod is G. Loomis' BR863C Bucara, a 7 foot 2 inch medium-heavy saltwater stick that's perfect for heavy-duty baitfishing in rivers -- incredibly strong, yet light and comfortable to fish with in oppressive heat. I pair this with an Ambassadeur 7000 baitcasting reel spooled with either 50-pound mono or 130-pound braid. Both lines have their good and bad points: mono has more stretch and is therefore a better shock absorber; braid is softer and resists coiling and twisting. Try both to see which works best for you.
 
Planer Board Tactics

Planer boards are most often used by Great Lakes walleye and salmon fishermen, but they're becoming popular with landlocked striper anglers as well. They're used to present your bait to either the left or right of the boat, and are handy tools for coaxing spooky stripers into striking. In big, open water, planer boards are employed to spread out your presentation over a wide area, but in striper rivers, they're used mainly to deliver your baits close to shoreline cover such as downed trees, logs, boulders, etc.

When fishing large gizzard shad, I use a standard offshore planer board, and add a large split ring to the trailing end, one big enough to pass a heavy-duty Gamakatsu Octopus hook through. I then hook the shad upward through both lips, peel off from 6 to 12 feet of mono or braid, and pinch the release to my line. The split ring keeps the board on the line when a striper hits, which doesn't impede a big striper's fight in the least and is a lot more convenient than chasing after a loose board floating downstream in swift current.

For skipjack herring, which can weigh upwards of 2 pounds, I'll use a modified Offshore board with a homemade super-heavy release clip fashioned from a stout spring and plumber's washers. A strip of aluminum stock attached to the bottom of the board acts as a keel to keep the board vertical when using these big, heavy livebaits.

In summer, river stripers prowl shallow bars, shoals and flats early and late in the day, and tend to retreat to holes, undercut banks and submerged trees once the sun gets high. These fish are highly catchable even in mid-day when planer boards are used. The object is to run the board/bait as close to the bank or cover as possible. With two anglers aboard, I'll normally let out three boards, two running tight to the bank or other structure I'm fishing, one on the opposite side of the boat in open water, with the shad or skipjack trailing 6 to 12 feet behind the board. Where there's an abundance of wood cover along the bank, I may shorten the distance from the bait to the board to as little as 3 feet; this helps prevent the bait from swimming down into a tree and constantly tangling your line. "How will I know when I've got a bite?" a first-time striper fisherman asked me on a guide trip several years ago as he fished his shad behind a planer board. As if on cue, a 45-pounder blasted his bait, blowing a hole in the river the size of my truck. Trust me -- you'll know!

Unlike other baitfishing methods, planer boards let you cover a lot of water fairly quickly, a great asset when you're not exactly sure where the stripers are hanging out -- these fish may move several miles overnight. They're an absolute must in clear rivers because they let you keep a safe distance from the places you want to fish. They're not as effective as bottom-fishing in a deep hole, but all things considered, they're the most deadly presentation method I've found in rivers and tailraces.

Float Fishing

Suspending a lively bait beneath a cork bobber or balloon is another deadly summer tactic in rivers, one that works either by itself or in conjunction with planer boards. I generally use a float line as an adjunct to my planer board presentations -- I'll run one line with a large cork float on it directly behind the boat, about a cast and a half back. I find this line most often gets smacked early or late in the day, when stripers are roaming shallow structure and aren't holding tight to cover. But once the sun gets high, I'll use the float line for a totally different kind of presentation, one I call Kamikaze striper fishing.

Often I'll spend the first hour of the fishing day casting topwater plugs, and big stripers, like muskies, have a habit of following a lure to the boat without striking it. When this happens, I'll make a mental note of the stretch of bank, sunken tree or boulder where the fish was, then go back later and cast a big shad dangling beneath a cork to its lair. This is absolutely the most exciting freshwater fishing imaginable, especially in clear rivers where you can see the fish react to the bait. With the boat positioned as far from my target as possible, I'll lob the bait slightly upstream of the target and let the drifting cork pull it downstream. Often the loud, wet splat! of a big shad smacking the surface is enough to trigger one, two, even a dozen big stripers to move in for a look-see. Hookups can be instantaneous, violent and downright scary with this extreme form of striper fishing. However, it also pays to be patient with a float rig when conditions are tough. I've soaked a shad in a submerged tree as long as 20 minutes during a cold front before the hawg striper sulking there finally couldn't stand it any more and ate it.

Don't be afraid to cast a baited float line into any likely-looking striper spot you come to, whether or not you've previously raised a fish from it. High-percentage holding areas include large pockets or indentations in the bank, current eddies and switchbacks, submerged logjams, etc. A submerged tree in the middle of the river is an especially good place to try this technique.

Float lines can also be employed to tempt fish holding around downstream cover or structure in clear rivers. For example, if I know several stripers are prowling a shallow gravel bar downstream, I'll tie my boat to a tree limb and let my float line out so the shad swims downstream into their lair. If the current isn't too swift, I'll engage the reel and let the bait swim back and forth over the bar until it gets plastered.
  
Down Lines

The river-run reservoirs I frequent have many sheer limestone bluffs; these are a popular haunt for stripers in hot weather, especially during high-light periods. Often the old river channel runs along these bluffs, making them the deepest structures available to stripers, and thus a likely haven during a frontal passage. In summer, with the water temp in the low to mid 60s, I'll often find stripers suspending around these bluffs anywhere from 12 to 20 feet deep.

Bluff banks are best fished with downlines, a bread-and-butter striper presentation method that slackwater reservoir anglers use when targeting fish suspended in open water. I'll alter the rig to work in swift current and snaggy cover by using a sliding egg sinker weighing between 1 and 2 ounces, depending on current speed, to keep the baited line as straight down as possible, and 40 to 50 pound mono on both the main and leader lines. Rods are placed in holders with the reel drag adjusted to slip some, but not much. I've had big stripers bust downline rods like matchsticks, so take the time to get that drag adjusted right!

Long-time striper hunters will tell that when fishing downlines, you should keep your bait positioned at the level of the stripers or slightly above them, but never below them. This is a good rule of thumb to follow. Watch your graph for tell-tale hooks indicating stripers, then peel off line a foot at a time from the reel, taking care not to get it too deep.

Stripers often school along bluffs, which can make for some frantic fishing. On more than one occasion I've had four downlines "go off" at once, and the ensuing Chinese fire drill is not to be forgotten.
 
Bottom Fishing

River stripers will actively feed on dead, injured and healthy baitfish on or close to the bottom. They'll also devour bits and pieces of dead fish, especially below dams, where the turbines act like a Cuisinart to chop up shad and herring. These facts make bottom fishing a deadly option.

In summer, most of the river rats I know bottom-fish at night -- it's a good way to escape the heat. Using a Carolina rig with a heavy sinker, they'll anchor above a hole and cast either a live shad or skipjack, or cut-up chunks of these fish (known as "cut bait"), on a stout hook. A leader from 18 inches to 3 feet long is employed; this enables the live bait sufficient freedom of movement to attract the attention of a striper, and allows cut bait to dangle enticingly in the current like so much sushi.

If you crave fast action, bottom fishing isn't for you. I consider it a last-resort method, one to try during cold fronts when the fish have lockjaw. However, I also know that some of the biggest landlocked stripers ever taken have been caught using this tactic. If you know where a big cow hangs out, and you can't get her to bite using the other tactics I've mentioned, try bottom fishing. You just might get your string stretched.

0 Comments »

Canoe and Kayak Trolling Tactics

By Tim Allard

Canoe and Kayak Trolling

Calm conditions are a prime time to troll from a canoe, kayak or rowboat.

 

Paddling a canoe or kayak or rowing a small boat to present a fishing lure is a simple but deadly trolling presentation for most freshwater fish. What's interesting is that many anglers opt for outboards or an electric motor for trolling. On big, choppy water this is likely the safer choice, but on small lakes, rivers and protected bays, manual trolling can often out produce a motor. Here's what you need to know about this tried and true technique.

The Mechanics

The manual propulsion of a rowboat, canoe or kayak makes for a great trolling presentation. The surge-and-drift motion of this trolling approach gives baits a natural looking action in the water. More often than not, once over good structure, I rarely have enough time to set up my line before a fish has usually hit the offering. To unpack this presentation further, I'll discuss a few specific examples that have worked for me over the years.

Wet Fly Trolling for Trout and Bass

For rainbow and brook trout in lakes, it's tough to beat a wet fly slow trolled behind a canoe. The boat offers you a stealthy approach through the shallows, and with enough line out, it's rare you'll spook fish when quietly paddling. Trolling a fly is also an excellent way to get started in fly fishing. The basics of fly casting can be easily learned within a weekend, but mastery can take a lifetime. Trolling flies provides a budding fly fisher the opportunity to test and learn what flies will work in their home waters.

You don't need expensive rods or gear to troll flies. A basic set up will do fine. I recommend a type II or III sinking fly line to get your offering to the right depth. If you only have floating line, you can easily convert it to a trolling line with instant sink tips. These weighted tips are a low-cost option to get your fly to run deeper, without buying sinking line and filling a second spool.

Trolling a fly isn't strenuous either; it's a leisurely paddle with frequent, long pauses to match the pace of a small minnow or aquatic insect swimming through the water. You'll also want to try different speeds and experiment with stop-and-start patterns to determine the best trolling presentation.

I have also had good success trolling large, wet flies from a rowboat for bass. My best luck has come presenting bass flies over the tops, or along the edges, of deep weedbeds for smallmouth and largemouth bass on cottage lakes. Likely conditioned to flipping jigs and big plastics, and less unaccustomed to wet flies, the jerky rowing imparts a natural action to wet flies that bass can't seem to resist. In a later section, I'll expand on smallmouth trolling tactics.

You can troll almost any wet fly. Minnow patterns like a Muddler Minnow or Zonkers are a good start for a quicker troll. Smaller nymph and scud patterns work better on a slower pace. Of course, it's tough to beat the all-round fish-catching abilities of the Wooly Bugger for any freshwater fish.

Minnowbaits for Dusk-Feeding Walleye

I can vividly remember the first time I saw this presentation in action. My family was visiting friends at their cottage, and the owner wandered down to the dock roughly a half hour before the sun hit the tree tops. He had a small tackle box containing a few minnow baits in one hand and a spinning rod in the other. The spinning rod was already rigged with a rubber-core sinker and a snap-swivel, for quick and easy lure changes in the dark. He boarded his solo canoe and slowly began to paddle around the deep weed edge. I was fishing and watching him from the dock. In about 45 minutes, he caught half a dozen walleye using this trolling technique.

Again, the stealth approach to canoeing makes it an excellent presentation during quiet conditions, like a calm summer night. It's critical to keep an eye on your rod tip when trolling around weeds. You want to monitor the action of the lure for proper speed, and also to make sure it's not fouled with weeds. You'll also want to check for strikes frequently.

The above example demonstrates a simple way to take walleye off of weedlines. A variation is trolling shallow running crankbaits and minnowbaits over the tops of emergent weeds is another dynamite way to take night-feeding walleye early in the season. Good baits for both above presentations include Rapala's Jointed Minnow or a Shallow Shad Rap or Smithwick Rogues.

To work rock shoals, you can use deeper diving crankbaits, although I prefer dragging spinner rigs tipped with nightcrawlers, minnows or leeches. To make sure your spinner rig is running right, check it at boat side first. Paddle at various speeds to determine the right pace to keep the blades spinning.

If you do decide to try dusk trolling, make sure you outfit your rig with lights and wear a PFD. It's also a good idea to have a flashlight handy for handing lures, as well as shining it towards any oncoming boats to make sure you're spotted. As walleye often come into the shallows to feed at dusk, try staying close to the shoreline to intercept them, as well as for added safety.

Paddling for Deep-Water Bronzebacks

Over the years, I've taken many smallmouth bass from a canoe and rowboat on a variety of lure types. I've experienced success trolling crankbaits and spinnerbaits at a steady pace over deeper water. This can result in rod-jarring hits, so you'll want to make sure you have your rod secured in a rod holder. Simply paddle at a medium to fast pace to keep baits running properly and wait for smallmouth to hammer your baits.

A slower smallie presentation is trolling topwaters. The only downside to this presentation is you won't get to see as many surface explosions as you do casting, unless you're in a rowboat. The definite bonus, however, is that a canoe passing over deep water on a lake won't likely register with smallies. Good topwater options include prop baits, like the Crazy Shad by Cotton Cordell, or crawlers, like a Jitterbug. Make sure you match the paddling speed for the right action for the bait.

Another deadly smallmouth presentation that works just as well in a canoe as a regular boat is dragging a tube. With a canoe in calm conditions, simply paddle at a sail's pace. Even better is if there's a slight breeze blowing across the lake and all that's required is the odd adjustment to the boat's positioning to maintain the proper drift.

The above presentation works equally as well from a small rowboat, although you loose some stealth (especially if oars squeak, which is a good reason to pack a little oil). The benefit to rowboats over canoes is that you're in a better position to monitor your rod, set the hook and fight a fish.

Consider fishing from a canoe, kayak or rowboat more often. These boats provide a silent means to fish areas, giving you an advantage in pressured waters. Moreover, the movement of these crafts across the water imparts a deadly action on any bait being trolled.

0 Comments »

Targeting Summer Flounder

By Ron Brooks

summer Flounder Fishing

Flounder can be found from estuary creeks to the ocean bottom, depending on the time of year.

Summer flounder are one of the most abundant fish along the Atlantic and Gulf coast of the United States, ranging from North Carolina all the way around to Mexico. Pursued by many anglers -- some of whom have their own special rigs -- these fish can be caught by anyone willing to follow a few simple tips.

Flounder can be found from estuary creeks to the ocean bottom, depending on the time of year. They are migratory fish during the year, moving back and forth from estuaries to ocean. They can thrive in brackish, nursery, estuary waters where small flounder spend their early years. They also thrive in comparatively deep water -- as deep as 200 feet in some cases -- around offshore wrecks and reefs. Depending on the time of year, you can find and catch these flounder wherever they are.

In the spring and early summer, big flounder make their way inshore and head up a variety of rivers, creeks and bays. Amazingly, studies have shown that they will usually return to the same area every year. Larger flounder spend the summer months in the inlets and bays, feeding on the huge variety of baitfish that the summer brings.

In the fall, beginning around October, they will migrate through the inlets and head offshore. An early cold front will hasten the migration and can mean a big flounder bite for anglers willing to fish in the cold weather. Once offshore, the flounder will spawn, often more than ten times, producing tens of thousands of eggs.

As spring approaches, the flounder larvae will drift into the inlets with the currents. They head for brackish water back in the estuaries to feed and grow. As they grow, they will move back to water with a higher salinity level. At the end of one year, they will be almost a foot long, and they will head offshore in the fall.

this information is important to know if you plan to fish for flounder. In the spring, as the larger fish move inshore, you can catch them in the inlets as they migrate in. In the summer you can find them inshore in almost any bay, creek or river. In the fall you can find them migrating back offshore to spawn once again.

Summer Flounder Fishing

In the spring and early summer, big flounder make their way inshore and head up a variety of rivers, creeks and bays.

Wherever you find them, there are some basic tactics that can help you catch more fish. You need only adjust the tactics to fit the water you happen to be fishing.

Flounder rigs for natural bait fishermen consist of the standard hook, leader and sinker arrangement. The sinker or weight is usually a long, thin sinker similar to a trolling sinker, often with a beaded chain. The weight of the sinker will be dependant on the depth of the water and speed of the current. Use only enough weight to get your bait to the bottom.

Leaders need to be relatively heavy -- the flounder has sharp teeth and can cut lighter line and leaders with ease. Kahle hooks are used by most flounder anglers because they work well with live bait, and they act like a circle hook, allowing the flounder to hook itself on most occasions.

When fishing for flounder with live or natural bait, you will have to avoid the urge to set the hook when you first feel a bite. Flounder will grab the bait with their sharp teeth and almost sit with it for a moment before they get the whole bait in their mouth. When you feel a bite, allow the fish to swim with the bait for up to thirty seconds before putting pressure on him. Setting the hook earlier than that will most often result in bringing half of your bait back, bitten off neatly just below the hook.

There are many artificial baits that will take flounder, the most popular of which are soft plastics on a jig head. Plastics like the Offshore Angler XPS Saltwater Series Boss Baitfish work extremely well on a jig head for flounder.

Whether you fish with natural or artificial bait, you need to remember that flounder are ambush feeders. They lie on the bottom, camouflaged by the mud, sand or silt, and wait for their next meal to come by.

Inshore, they will lie in the mouth of small feeder creeks and saltwater marsh runoffs. They will position themselves on the back side of a piling or the edge of an oyster bar, out of the current. They will slowly ease along a shoreline, looking for food.

Offshore Angler XPS Saltwater Series Boss Baitfish

Plastics like the Offshore Angler XPS Saltwater Series Boss Baitfish work extremely well on a jig head for flounder.

Offshore, they will position themselves in the sandy bottom adjacent to a wreck or bottom structure. In the winter, spearfishermen consistently take very large flounder from around the edge of a wreck.

With either live bait or a jig and plastic, anglers need to work the areas that flounder inhabit. On an outgoing tide, find a creek mouth or marsh runoff and gently place your bait up in the mouth. Flounder lie on the bottom in front of these areas, waiting for a meal to come their way. Slowly drag or work your bait back to you, making sure you keep it on the bottom. If a flounder is there, he will eat your bait in short order.

Work from the back side of docks and pilings, pulling or working your bait with the current. An ambushing flounder will nail your bait as it goes by. Working a bait against the current will not produce any fish. It is unnatural for bait to move upstream against the tide. Flounder know this and will generally avoid baits presented to them in that manner.

In the winter, offshore flounder can be caught bottom fishing, although two things need to happen for you to be successful. First, the weather has to allow you to anchor properly, and that means getting the boat off to the side of a wreck or reef so that you can fish the sandy bottom. Second, you have to get you bait down to the bottom before another specie of fish takes it. This second condition is the most difficult, and it is why flounder anglers generally avoid looking offshore during the winter months. They caught fish on the outgoing migration; now they usually await the incoming migration in the spring to fish for them.

Flounder are good eating and fun to catch. Following these few simple rules and knowing the habits of summer flounder can put some of these flatfish on your table.

0 Comments »

Kentucky Stripers in Lake Cumberland

By James O. Fraioli

Kentucky Striper

LakeCumberland and neighboring Cumberland River boast seven coveted striper records, including the state record striper at 58.4 pounds.


"Reel, reel, reel..!" hollers Captain Clayton Oxford as my fishing rod bows into a loop. "I don't think it's a catfish this time."

Having just landed a 12-pound channel cat (considered a trophy on Cumberland), I frantically crank in line while my eyes scan the relaxed emerald water anticipating the telltale signs of a silver torpedo-shaped body accented with long horizontal black stripes. Within moments, the surface explodes and the fish that we've been after since dawn dances in front of us -- a Lake Cumberland striped bass.

For those anglers seeking true stripers, there is really only one place to start: Lake Cumberland. This 63,000-acre impoundment, located in central Kentucky near the Tennessee state line, is one of the top striped bass destinations in the nation. With forty-pound stripers taken here every year, and Lake Cumberland and neighboring Cumberland River retaining seven coveted records (including the state record striper at 58.4 pounds), it is no mystery Lake Cumberland continues to provided exciting game fishing to residents and more than 150,000 out-of-state anglers each year. 

Touching down at the Lexington Airport, I make the scenic two-hour drive through sweet smelling bluegrass and Kentucky's premiere thoroughbred farms en route to sport fish with two of the best striper guides on Lake Cumberland -- Captain Clayton Oxford and Eddie Tallent. Both work out of the family-owned Grider Hill Dock Lodge & Marina, which will also serve as my cozy home for the next several days.

Today, Lake Cumberland is considered the number one house boating destination in the United States. Along with house boating comes skiing, jet skiing, tubing, leisure boating and perhaps one of the best places to boat a trophy striper. In fact, many of the Lake Cumberland guides, including Oxford and Tallent, believe the next world record is still swimming in Cumberland. 

Striper Release

Strict size and creel limits help make Cumberland an outstanding striper fishery. Only two stripers per day may be kept, and there is a minimum size limit of 24 inches. 

Eager to try my luck, I spend my first morning with Oxford, who has been a professional striper guide on Cumberland for 7 years. A former Nebraska cattle rancher who relocated to Kentucky after falling in love with the lake, Oxford -- a hardened yet affable 50 year-old -- tells me the stripers in Cumberland are paying huge dividends. "In 1951, Cumberland was stocked with 20 fingerlings per acre," he says, lighting up a Marlboro Red. "Now these fish average 10 pounds, with fish to 20 pounds being relatively common as well. Fish over 30 pounds, while not common, are not unheard of either."

101 miles long, over 1,200 miles of shoreline (that's nearly as long as the east coast of the United States) and having an average depth of 90 feet, Lake Cumberland is not only the largest man-made body of water east of the Mississippi River, it is situated in the most rugged mountainous part of the state. Twisting like a Chinese dragon, Lake Cumberland is coiled beneath steep hills carpeted with conifer and hardwood forests. Rimmed with scores of coves and hollows, Cumberland, with its sheer rock cliffs and wooded waterfront, offers the ideal habitat for white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcat, Canada geese, waterfowl...and an abundance of striped bass. 

"My favorite locations on Cumberland include the deep jade waters off long, sloping rock points, and the twists and turns in the old channel and open water," says Oxford. "From mid-September on, the lake cools down and the big stripers hug these structures searching for food during early morning and late afternoon hours."

Departing from the Grider Marina at precisely 5:45 am on a brisk overcast morning, we whoosh through ominous mist, heading to one of Oxford's favorite rocky points adjacent to the 258-foot tall Wolf Creek Dam.

Baitfish

Fresh alewives are the bait of coice for most Lake Cumberland guides.

"When the lake was first filled many people in the community did not approve of it," reflects Oxford from the helm. "There were many communities that were going to be put under water. Long Bottom was the first community which had to leave their homes, churches and schools. Shortly following, the other communities evacuated." Oxford goes on to say that after the completion of Wolf Creek Dam in 1951, the lake filled to capacity and quickly proved to be a huge advantage to the county. "Today, Lake Cumberland generates millions of dollars in tourism, attracting approximately eight million vacationers to the region every year," he adds.

Beaching the boat, Oxford kills his 225 hp engine and trudges over the proliferation of broken shale in an effort to secure his 23-foot custom craft to a couple of looming hickory trees. With the vessel steadfast against the shore, Oxford scoops out a live alewife from his gurgling bait well and hooks it through the tail before casting the little baitfish off the stern. Weighted with a 2-ounce sinker and fished on the bottom, Oxford prefers to have the stripers -- and the occasional channel cat -- come to him. Although this stationary method of fishing might not bode well for some anglers, it does produce phenomenal results if you don't mind sitting and waiting.

"True stripers are generally deep-water, nomadic fish," says Oxford, "so I like to focus on vertical presentations in 50 to 60 feet of water." Unlike other states around the country, there are no rod limits when fishing Cumberland so many of the guides like Oxford will set 10 to 12 lines, giving the roving stripers a baitfish banquet.

Although other techniques like jigging spoons and trolling blades are used, live bait fishing, particularly with alewives, is most popular and used by all Cumberland guides. "They do require much more work," admits Oxford who catches his alewives at midnight using lights and a reliable cast net. "They only last about 30-minutes on the line so they must be constantly replaced. When you're fishing 10 rods, re-baiting every half-hour can be quite tedious."

Striper Double

The author displays two respectable double-digit stripers.

Fortunately, re-baiting with fresh alewives pays dividends as a school of patrolling stripers slams our lines and the action suddenly turns feverish! The converted saltwater fish are powerful and relentless and hoisting a dozen into the boat -- often two at a time -- is a riveting moment. Cumberland does impose a strict size and creel limit for stripers, making the striper fishery well-managed on the lake. Only two stripers per day may be kept, and there is a minimum size limit of 24 inches. 

Landing two respectable double-digit stripers -- a 12- and 13-pounder -- Oxford unties as his watch strikes nine and we motor back to Grider Hill for a home-cooked country breakfast in the lodge's old-fashioned restaurant.

The following morning, the stripers are hitting again early -- but this time the method is different. I'm now with long-time resident Eddie Tallent, a local 32 year-old who divides his time between working as a school administrator and striper guiding on the lake. The son of notable guide, Miller Tallent, Eddie grew up fishing Cumberland and has been professionally guiding on the lake for 11 years.

Trolling along the rocky shorelines, Tallent, unlike Captain Oxford, prefers to find his fish. Using his LORAN and a half-dozen planer boards, which help spread the multiple lines and avoid tangle while trolling, Tallent tows his live alewives between 35 to 50 feet, covering as much water as possible in his search for the traveling stripers. "Fishing with live bait definitely has its disadvantages," says the honest guide, agreeing with Oxford when asked about using live striper food. "But the time you spend bating and re-baiting is well worth it when you stumble upon a school of hungry fish."

Just then, Tallent points to a flurry of digital marks flashing on the fish finder. "There's hundreds down there!" he exclaims. Springing into action, Tallent has me horse in the planer boards as the seasoned pro decides he wants to re-rig his bait casters with fresh alewives on a 2-ounce slip sinker just like Oxford had used the previous day. Sinking the baitfish to the bottom and cranking them up several turns, it takes only seconds until our rods bend over and the battles begin!

There's no question striper fishing is fast and furious. You can go from a lethargic wait to a frenetic pace within minutes. After dropping in on the congregated school, Tallent and I boat our limit of stripers in a furious 15-minute period. We even take time out to pose for photographs.
     

IF YOU GO

Professional Striper Guides

Hollarwood Guide Service
Captain Clayton Oxford
Tel: (606) 387-0398
 www.hollarwoodstriperguide.com

Tallent Guide Service
Eddie Tallent
Tel: (606) 387-5069

Accommodations & Services

Grider Hill Dock Lodge & Marina
Route 4, Box 800
Albany, KY 42602
Toll Free: (866) 387-7656
 www.griderhilldock.com

0 Comments »

Deep Drop Fishing

By Ron Brooks

Deep Drop FishingCommercial fishermen had been fishing this way for several years. Deep water, heavy weights and electric reels hauled up fish from the depths. Snowy grouper, golden and blueline tile fish, rosefish and other deep-water species were caught and marketed under a variety of names.

While these fisheries are still active commercially, the deep-water fishing phenomenon has become popular with recreational anglers over the past several years. Did we say deep-water fishing? How does cranking a fifty-pound snowy grouper off the bottom in 800 feet of water sound to you?

Deep drop fishing, as this technique has become known, is not for everyone. It takes some special knowledge, a lot of specialized equipment and a very good sonar unit.

up and down the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, deep-water varieties of fish can be found. They live in depths of anywhere from 200 to 3000 feet. The water is cold and dark at these depths, and we have only recently begun studying the habits, lifespan and biology of some of these fish.

The tackle is heavy. Because of the extreme depths, electric reels are the only choice. A high line capacity, 80-pound class electric reel spooled with braided line is the only option. The reel is coupled with a 130-pound class heavy-action rod.

Monofilament line is totally out of the question at these depths. Monofilament stretches, and the deeper the water, the more the stretch. Take the line stretch and add a couple of knots of current, and it is literally impossible to first see or feel a bite, and second, to set a hook. One-hundred-pound-test braided line has the diameter of 20-pound monofilament, and most brands have virtually zero stretch.

Deep Drop Fishing Electric Reel
Electric reels are the only sensible option when cranking fifty-pound snowy grouper off the bottom in 800 feet of water.

Once we have the rod, reel and line, we need terminal tackle. Think big and think deep. A sinker or weight will take your bait to the bottom. With deep drop fishing, these weights are measured in pounds, not ounces. An eight-pound window sash is a very common deep-drop weight. In high current areas, even heavier weights are used.

Terminal tackle usually consists of several yards of a heavy fluorocarbon or monofilament leader. A 400-pound-test leader is a good starting place. The heavy leader is required because we use multiple hooks on a deep drop rig. The weight is tied to the bottom of the leader, and 18-inch drop loops with 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks are spaced up the leader. Sometimes as many as 5 or more hooks will be used on one leader. Think of a giant, oversized Sabiki rig, and you'll get the picture. The leader is attached to the braided line with a 200-pound-test swivel.

Almost any fresh bottom bait will work. Cut bait is the preference, and it needs to be tough enough to stay on the hook. The long drop will tear a soft bait from the hooks before it ever reaches the bottom. Find fresh bait. Frozen bait will be very soft when it thaws.

The fish that live at these depths live in total darkness, and they find their food just fine in the wild. But many anglers will tie a light stick to the swivel above the leader. The jury is still out on whether or not the light stick provides an extra edge in catching a big grouper. Only time will tell.

With the tackle and bait ready, we can head for the deep water. That deep water would be the continental shelf.

Find a good chart of the coastal area you are fishing. Find the edge of the shelf, somewhere around 1000-feet deep. Then, using the chart and your sonar, begin to look for relief on the bottom.

Deep Drop Grouper Rig
Common deep-drop rigs for grouper have multiple circle hooks and are constructed using a minimum of 400-pound-test monofilament.

The shelf at this depth is a series of ledges and ridges. Underwater hills and mountains may come up 100 to 200 feet. The idea is to locate one of these humps, watch the sonar carefully, and look for any returns that are not a part of the bottom structure. The better your sonar unit, the more likely you are to catch fish. However, the lack of a return does not necessarily mean a lack of fish. Remember, these are ledges and ridges, and these fish will be in, out and under the structure.

You will need to judge the current speed and direction in order to set your boat up for a drift over the area you choose to fish. Anchoring is obviously out of the question, so the drift has to be right.

Most anglers will tell you to use only enough weight to get your bait to the bottom. That's good advice in shallow water. But, out here, heavier is usually better. You want your line going straight down. A lighter weight will put a big bow in your line in a heavy current situation, and you may never reach the bottom. The heavy weight coupled with the braided line will take your line down straight to the bottom where it will remain without bowing.

Your bait's trip to the bottom can take a full minute or longer, even with an eight-pound weight. When the weight hits the bottom, you want to keep the weight just bouncing up off the bottom and the whole rig straight down under the boat.

If you set the drift up correctly, you and your bait will be moving together in the same direction, covering the selected area. In our example, that would be the top of one of those humps. Watch the sonar, and when the drift takes you off the hump, reel up, move the boat, and start the process again.

The rod will be in the rod holder the entire time. When the rod tip indicates a bite -- and the braided line will surprisingly telegraph that bite quite nicely -- simply throw the electric reel in gear and let the rod and reel do the work. Fighting the fish becomes a matter of pushing a button.

About half way up, the fight is really over on a snowy grouper. Their air bladder will expand and send them to the surface like a balloon. Before they reach the surface, it will pop, sending telltale air bubbles.

Deep drop fishing is a very specialized method to catch some very special fish. These cold-water fish are prized for table fare. Mild, white, flaky meat coming from cold-water depths makes them a choice for any angler.

Off of South Florida and the Florida Keys, the continental shelf is much closer to the mainland, and many boats are set up to make those drops. The farther up the Atlantic coast you move, the farther the shelf is from shore.

There are some hardy souls who make deep drops with conventional tackle. And, yes, they catch fish. But power-assisted equipment is by far the choice of most anglers. Whichever way you try, you can be assured of finding fish that have never seen a bait or a hook, and those fish will readily take whatever you offer them. The trick with conventional tackle is cranking them to the surface from 1000 feet below!

Gear List

0 Comments »

Chumming for Tarpon

By Ron Brooks

Chumming for TarponThroughout August, up and down the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, the tarpon frenzy moves into high gear. Late summer is the time that tarpon roam the beaches and inlets, following huge schools of baitfish. Even small boaters have a chance at a huge silver king this time of year.

Baitfish, including mullet and menhaden shad, are at their northern most reaches during hot weather. They have migrated north, and right along with them the predator fish have moved as well. Bull red drum, cobia, sharks, and the mighty tarpon all follow the food.

The method is really quite simple. We call it chum fishing. The tackle needs to be a bit heavier than one might normally use close to shore, because a 150-pound tarpon can ruin a small reel in a hurry.

Tarpon can be found and caught this time of year one of two ways, both of which include the use of chum.

The first method, although it is the easiest, requires moving and looking for shrimp boats. Shrimpers always have by-catch when they bring in their nets. They dump the net on deck and separate the shrimp from the by-catch. When they start pushing the by-catch over the side, magical things begin happening. It is amazing how fish have learned to follow a shrimper and wait to be fed. But these predator fish have learned that by following the drone of a shrimper's engine, they will have a feeding party if they simply wait.

When you locate a shrimper, remember two things. The crew is making a living catching shrimp. Never, ever interfere with their operation. Stay well back and to the side of the shrimp boat when it has nets down in the water. Only when you see the by-catch coming overboard should you begin to fish. At that point, simply move into the area of that chum, and free line a live bait in the area. It won't take long, and you'll probably have more than a couple of fishing boats doing the same thing.

Chumming for TarponThe live bait might be a menhaden shad (more below) or a live mullet. Either way, the bait needs to be alive. Fish will normally feed on live bait before they go after anything dead.

The second method requires a bit more work and the ability to throw a big cast net. Menhaden shad are the target of opportunity with this method.

Locate a school of menhaden in water 20 feet deep or less along the beach. It is tough to catch the shad in water deeper than that because they will run out from under the net as it drops to the bottom. A 3/8-inch mesh casting net with an 8- to 10-foot radius is ideal for catching menhaden -- if you know how to use the net!

Catch a large quantity of menhaden. When you think you have enough, catch some more. Many anglers fill a 120-quart cooler with bait that they will use for chum. Then they put thirty or forty good, lively menhaden in a round live well.

With bait in the box, boats anchor right in the area of the bait schools and begin chumming. Chumming consists of cutting up shad and pitching them overboard. This is where the cooler full of shad are used. A steady stream of shad pieces will set up a slick in the current behind the boat. It won't take very long for predator fish to appear. Tarpon will be visible behind the boat in the chum, rolling and eating. Sharks will also be in the mix, so be prepared for anything.

The rigs most anglers use consist of high capacity conventional reels and 6'6' or 7' rods. Thirty- to fifty-pound test monofilament line is used with an 80 to 100 pound test fluorocarbon leader. The hook is a circle hook in the 10/0 size range.

While more than one rod is used in most cases, using only one rod will still catch fish. But, the more live bait you have in the water, the better your chances of a hook-up.

The "spread" of bait generally has two lines fished on the bottom in the chum behind the boat and two lines on the surface. Use an egg sinker above the leader that weighs just enough to get the bait to the bottom. The lines on the surface have no weight. They allow the live bait to swim relatively freely in the chum. All four of these rigs need to have a lighter than normal drag set on them. This allows a striking fish to run with the bait. Running away from the boat, the fish will be hooked in the side of that jaw as that circle hook does its job. Once a hook-up is made, the drag can be adjusted as necessary.

Chumming for TarponOnce the lines are out, it is a matter of sitting back, keeping a flow of chum in the water, and waiting for a fish to strike. This time of year, it doesn't take very long!

Boats that anchor to chum fish usually have their anchor rope tied to an inflatable anchor buoy. When a fish is hooked, one person's job is to release the anchor and buoy so that they can chase the fish. Even of fifty-pound line, a big tarpon can easily spool most reels. The fight will require running after the fish. The buoy makes for a quick anchor release, and allows you to return right to the same are when the fight is over.

The weather is very hot this time of year, and fish have a harder time surviving a long fight. Tarpon are not good table fare and are almost always released. When the fight looks like it is going to be a long one, please consider tightening the drag to reduce the fighting time. You may break a fish off that way, but you will help insure its survival.

If you want a trophy from your catch, pluck a scale or two from the side of the fish before you release it. Let it live to fight again another day!

0 Comments »

Winging It For River Catfish

By Keith Sutton

Wing Dike River Catfish

Veteran catfish guide James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee, often catches trophy catfish such as this monster blue cat, in the swirling waters around Mississippi River wing dikes like the one visible in the background.

The long rock wall jutted from the bank into the Mississippi River. At the wall's end, the river rolled around on itself to create a huge vortex. It looked like someone had pulled a huge plug from the river bottom, and all the water was going down an enormous drain.

"Suckholes," we called such maelstroms when I was a youngster catfishing the river with older relatives. Some call them "whirlpools." James Patterson of the Mississippi River Guide Service prefers the term "eddy."

"Drop your bait right at the edge of that eddy," Patterson said, "and free-spool it all the way to the bottom." I did as he suggested, and to my surprise, the big chunk of shad went straight down. The instant the bait touched bottom, before I was quite prepared, something huge grabbed it. And when it did, that "something huge" nearly snatched the rod from my hands.

I never saw that something huge. It got the best of me, as the big ones often do. I'm quite certain, however, it was a catfish -- probably a sizeable blue. And I learned that day that catfish fans who often fish large navigable waterways should study and understand both structures Patterson and I were fishing -- wing dikes and eddies.

Eddy

An eddy or "whirlpool" forms at the end of a wing dike. A bait dropped adjacent to this swirling bit of water will sink quickly to the bottom where it's sure to entice any nearby cat.

The rock walls known as wing dikes (or wing dams) are placed in strategic locations to help maintain ship channel depth and lessen shoreline erosion. They are most numerous in hydropower and navigation dam tailwaters but may be scattered along the entire length of a big river. They fulfill their intended functions by diverting current. They usually lay perpendicular to shore, and when moving water strikes one, it swirls back on itself. The force of the current then moves outward, toward the middle of the river. The water velocity slows, allowing suspended sediments to fall and accumulate on the river bottom. Over a period of years, the spaces between wing dikes will fill with these sediments. This narrows the river, creating more forceful current in the main channel that sweeps the bottom clean so little dredging is needed to maintain adequate depth for barge traffic.

Inactive catfish typically stay on a wing dike's downstream side, lying on bottom, usually near inshore reaches. Current is minimal here so rest is possible.

Most feeding catfish, especially the more numerous small cats, hold near the river's bottom on a wing dike's upstream side. The reason for this is three-fold. First, water hydraulics here create a "tube" of reduced current near bottom running the length of the dike. Hungry cats can feed here without using excess energy. Also, this is an abundant food zone-crayfish and mussels in the rocks; shad, herring and other baitfish holding in the slower cylinder of water. Finally, when the river is high and the wing dike is submerged, catfish can feed on addled or injured forage animals easily captured in the boil-line directly above the rocks and immediately downstream.

Wing Dikes

Many wing dikes can be seen in this aerial view of the Arkansas River in Arkansas. These catfish-attracting structures are particularly common near big river dams.

You should now understand the basics of wing-dike catfishing: to catch lots of eating-size cats, fish the upstream side. Downstream is rarely as productive.

There is another lesson, however, perhaps even more important: trophy catfish -- blues, channels and flatheads -- are best targeted around the eddies near the ends of wing dikes. This I learned from James Patterson, who often fishes around these "whirlpools" with his clients, and who frequently catches monster cats when doing so.

"I don't fish the eddy part of this rotation," Patterson told me the day I hooked something huge. "Instead, I fish the current along the edges. I have found that catfish in eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges, so that's where I want to anchor and fish."

Like most ardent blue-cat anglers, Patterson relies on two primary baits to entice his quarry. "I use live shad a lot, even though they're hard to find," he says. "Cut skipjack herrings also are good bait."

A simple three-way-swivel rig is Patterson's standard. The 2-foot hook leader is tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The 8-inch weight leader is tied to a 3-ounce sinker. His fishing gear consists of "a heavy-action casting rod with a light tip and a lot of butt strength" and a bait-casting reel that holds at least 200 yards of 20-pound-test line.

Wing Dike Catfish

The author displays a 64-pound blue cat caught on a wing dike in the Missouri River. Fishing right, wing dikes produce lots of eating-sized cats, too.

"I anchor above the hole I intend to fish," Patterson says, "then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Sometimes I'll have out 200 feet of line. Blues usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold."

It would seem that a bait tossed to the edge of one of these huge suckholes would swirl round and round. But when done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, and then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole.

Strikes usually come quick and hard, so use heavy tackle, and keep a firm grip on your rod at all times. One moment of inattention could cost you the catfish of lifetime. I learned that lesson the hard way when my "something huge" got away.

0 Comments »