River Readin’

By Ron Presley

The challenge of crappies in current.

Alicia and Jonathan Phillips pull a crappie from the Alabama River. Knowing and reading current is an important part of river fishing.

Alicia and Jonathan Phillips pull a crappie from the Alabama River. Knowing and reading current is an important part of river fishing.

Catching crappie in the nation’s rivers can be a challenge removed with the right information. The strategic difference between crappie fishing in lakes and rivers is current and ever changing conditions it causes in the rivers.

Pro crappie anglers Jonathan and Alicia Phillips describe river waters as a unique fishing experience. “A lot of people are not good at fishing the river because it is ever changing,” explained Jonathan. “The brush pile you find one day may not be there the next. The big tree you found on Friday may not be there on Saturday. Similarly, the brush pile bite that was active at 8:00 am may dry up at 9:00 am because power generation stopped at the dam.”

Successful results like this include paying attention to depth. One side of the boat might be deeper than the other.

Successful results like this include paying attention to depth. One side of the boat might be deeper than the other.

Jonathan and Alicia call the Alabama River their home waters, so they have a lot of experience fishing changing river conditions. “Weather and power generation are important factors in river fishing,” continued Jonathan. “The current changes throughout the day depending on how much rain or how much power is being generated and moving water through the river. The change in the river can also depend on how many feeder creeks and branches there are. Here on the Alabama River there is always some natural current from the numerous creeks and branches.”

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“Brush piles and lay downs in backwaters are usually a good bet to stick around for a while,” offered Jonathan. “The main river, however, can definitely switch gears on you after a period of heavy rain. Lodged trees will stick for a while and get silted in, but a flooding rain can change everything. Even those big trees will move down river.”

“Crappies do not particularly like current, so we look for a hard bend in the river where an eddy backs up naturally off of the current. The swirl of water pulls bait fish in and that pulls the crappie in there with them.”

Hard structure will cause crappie to accumulate too. “Sometimes you can find some good hard structure to fish the backside where it breaks that current,” advised Jonathan. “The crappie will set there behind it, or they will go hide on the bottom to get out of the current. It might be a little hole, a rock or anything on the bottom that will break the river’s flow.”

Proper setup is important. Phillips spider rigging system includes Driftmaster Rodholders.

Proper setup is important. Phillips spider rigging system includes Driftmaster Rodholders.

Jonathan and Alicia are spider riggers at heart and love to push in the river. “I expect fish to be on the down current side of heavy brush, stumps or standing timber,” predicted Jonathan. “The structure breaks the current giving the crappie a slot to sit in for ambushing prey. They tend to point their nose into the current waiting on an easy meal.”

If the current is strong Jonathan and Alicia agree with most other savvy river anglers. “Approaching a brush pile in heavy current should be done against the current,” said Jonathan. “Other wise you will be hung up all day long. I like to tie on a Road Runner lure with a Ziptailz Skirt. Tip it with a minnow, use enough weight to keep the presentation vertical, and push right up to the structure.”

On a sunny day with lighter current that same brush pile can possibly be fished from the topside. “Crappie on the Alabama river are more resistant to the current because they deal with it all the time,” speculated Jonathan. “They will get out in it, but it must be a respectable amount, not anything moving too fast.”

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“On sunny days I look at the angle of the sun and draw an imaginary line into the water,” instructed Jonathan. “The angle of the sun gives me an idea of the direction and length that a shadow on a stick-up or stump would run. I like to fish the shady side of structure. You don’t have to be right next to the stump or standing timber, its just as much about the shade from the structure as the structure its self.”

“The hardest part in the current is keeping your bait where the fish are. Especially if you’re fishing structure, the current will take that bait into the brush and you are hung up all day long. You can’t fish vertically when that current is so strong that it takes your line down stream rapidly.”

“You can add more weight to fish in the current,” continued Jonathan. “Upgrade to a quarter ounce jighead or change weights from a half-ounce to three-quarter ounce. Personally I like single bait rigs, one Road Runner head and a Ziptailz Skirt. The river has tons of structure, but a lot of people will still fish double rigs. Keeping bait in the water is more important to me. I would rather not be hung up as much.”

In another piece of advice Jonathan suggests that anglers may give up too soon.  “Sometimes people don’t catch a fish and they move. A lot of times just keeping that Road Runner in the water and keeping it moving will surprise you.”

Crappies congregate for a reason. “Crappie fishing is not about fishing a hole one time and forgetting it for the rest of the day,” said Jonathan. “They may scatter as you fish through them, but new fish move in all day and you don’t want to forget that.”

Jonathan always looks at a river as having a low side and a high side that actually swaps sides of the boat. “The channel could run along the bank, as evidenced by a high bank, and that deep side is on your right. The shallow side is on your left.”

“In the next bend the deep side may be on your left and the shallow side is on your right,” continued Jonathan. “That plays into how you present the baits. You can be fishing 10 feet deep on one side and 4 feet deep on the other, but it all has to change in the next bend. Depth is one thing that I am constantly adjusting to keep the bait in the strike zone.”

“I like to fish from deep water into shallow as opposed to starting shallow and going out deep,” instructed Jonathan. “You want to pick your fish off going in instead of going in on them first and spooking them. If I see a laydown or a fallen tree I will fish it from the outside before moving into the base near the bank. If you don’t you’re only going to get to fish one part of that tree.”

The next time you crappie fish in a river heed Jonathan’s advice. Crappies are going to be where it is easiest to feed and that’s normally in a current break. Every river takes its own path and develops its own contours, so learn to read the river, understand structure, and find the calmer water. Not only will you have more fun, you’ll take more crappie home for the dinner table.