By Vic Attardo
A wise man once said that there is one thing you can always count on and that is change. No matter what field, no matter what discipline, no matter what the external forces, change is, undeniably, unconditionally and conclusively … inevitable.
And the lives of white crappie are no different. Baring a sudden visit by an asteroid or the eruption of every volcano in Yellowstone National Park, crappie will make changes. And for white crappie this change takes them from their shallow spawning ground to summer’s deeper water.
This is the transitional phase and it is inevitable. Unfortunately there is no road map to document the crappie’s transitional movements. And there can’t be because the route white crappie take is different everywhere because every lake is different. And changes from year-to-year.
Take Lake Champlain where guide Jamie Vladyka plies the fertile waters from the shallow spawning bays to the deepest main-lake waters. After conquering pre-spawn and spawning crappie in the backwaters he moves out in both baby steps and leaps following the crappie wherever they go.
On this fishing day he starts in a wide bay in about ten feet of water. He’s targeting specific locations but where a concentration of crappie will be found is still unknown. Vladyka has been finding structure in this bay, and elsewhere, for years. He has the best spots way-pointed on his GPS so we head directly to one of his preferred places.
This first stopping place is an old and forgotten ice house, sunken of course. Someone once neglected to remove the cozy cabin before the ice melted and for years it has sat on the bottom gathering crappies.
As we anchor up and start casting I’m pleased to be catching fish but, as Vladyka points out, these transitional whites are smaller than he would like. “They’re males,” he said. “The males are the first to transition from the spawning grounds and by the looks of these fish, the females are still on shore or just starting their way to deeper structure.”
So off we go to a series of locations where he believes the larger transitional fish will stage. As we cruise across the water, Vladyka explains the situation we’re facing. “The whole picture begins soon after ice out,” he says — which on Champlain can occur from late March until mid-April. “Crappie start moving towards the shallow backwaters when the water temperature is in the mid-50s but they don’t actually spawn until it reaches 70F.
After the spawn the transition begins.
“Eventually they’ll move out to the basin,” — basin being the local nomenclature for Champlain’s deepest water — “but before that they make stops along the way.”
For white crappie, the transitional phase takes them from their shallow spawning ground to summer’s deeper water.
Vladyka said he looks for transitioning crappie over a range of cover and structure. In no particular order — remember there is no road map — they are: “submerged brush piles and sunken cover” “new, visible cover,” “slight changes in underwater elevation,” “rock piles” and “places where weeds are just starting to grow.”
Getting specific Vladyka says he spends a lot of time looking around emerging weeds. “I’m checking eight to nine feet of water with only two or three inches of weeds. Later in the summer the weeds will be tall and thick but in the cold, post-spawn waters they’re only a few inches high. Even though the weeds are short the crappie hold to them.”
Another place he finds transitional white crappie is around any new piece of visible structure. “If a tree has floated in or some wood comes from somewhere and it’s sitting in eight-to-ten feet of water, this is a good place for transitional crappie.
“I really like the visual stuff you can see just above the waterline. While its new to the scene, it’s amazing how quickly crappie find them.” I recall one outing in which he spotted the curving branches of a moored tree close to the center of a bay. The guide made a beeline for this new structure and because it was in open water and the day was breezy, he tied up on the branches so we could stay in place. The result was some fine crappie that came from the interior and edges of the twisted limbs. The next spring that tree was gone but while it was there it certainly produced.
During the transition time Vladyka also fishes rock piles which he has marked as waypoints. His “log of rocks,” puts him steps above the causal angler but like everyone else he had to first find these rocks by himself.
A hotspot for transitional crappie is around any new piece of visible structure. A tree has floated in and is in 8 to 10 feet of water. It’s a good place to fish.
Another bit of transitional structure that Vladyka believes in, and which anyone can locate with some homework, are slight changes in shoreline contours. “I’ll study the Navionics maps to find shoreline breaks that may only be one or two feet different than the surrounding bottom. These can be magnets for transitional whites. You have to do your homework but anyone can locate these places.”
Now that Vladyka has the locations he wants to check, it then becomes a matter of how to fish these spots. It’ll come as no surprise to crappie anglers but there are techniques specific to the type of structure being targeted.
For locations such as submerged brush piles and hidden structure, Vladyka will anchor near these objects and toss a jig so that it swings across the cover like the arc of a pendulum. For this the angler casts a set distance so that the jig glides just over the cover. First you need to know at what depth the cover is situated, then you start with short casts, gradually lengthening the distance until the pendulum grazes the cover.
As I’ve found on repeated trips, you find yourself aiming to a “spot” in open water so that the line is the proper distance and the jig slides over the cover. You aim for this unmarked X and soon learn that you’ve made the proper cast or gone too short or too far. Too short and you’re chances of getting a strike are greatly diminished, but throwing too long usually results in a snag in the cover.
Where the weeds are just beginning to emerge, Vladyka likes two drifting techniques. The first involves casting and simply reeling the jig over the weeds. If the wind is light he’ll use an ice-size jig, about a 1/64 Lake Fork jig with a soft Maki plastic tail; however if the wind is heavier he’ll go to a 1/8 and even a 1/4 jig.
The second technique, used where the weeds are a bit taller, involves running a float with a dangling jig and plastic. “I like to find the magic depth over slightly taller weeds.” Vladyka said. “You find the magic depth by dropping the jig straight to the bottom. Then reel up the slack until the line is tight. Now you know how deep it is.
“Put a float down on the line and the distance between the rod tip and the float is how far above the bottom the jig will be. If you want it a foot off the bottom, place the float a foot down the line from the rod tip.”
Vladyka recommends this latter approach over emerging weeds because transitional fish in cooler water are still sluggish. “They might chase a bait a little distance before they grab it and having the jig steady beneath a float is great way to get these chasers.” On this day, this is the way we find the biggest fish.
Taken as a whole these transitional locations prove that change is inevitable in the lives of crappie. But when it comes to catching transitional crappie, the rule actually may be broken.
These techniques are, more or less, rock solid.
Maki Plastics, makiplastics.com; Lake Fork Lures, lftlures.com; Navionics, navionics.com