By Vic Attardo
Everyone knows that time and tides wait for no man. Well, apparently crappie, the wonderful fish we love to catch and fillet, are as scientifically informed as the human race, maybe even better.
When it comes to estuary crappie — those fish living in brackish backwaters affected by the daily dualistic pull of gravity — are well attuned to the pleasant, and unpleasant, affects of time and tides.
Crappie, of course, don’t wear Fitbits, but they are keenly aware of the nourishment they need to survive and the time and place the kitchen is open, especially those kitchens situated in tidal flows.
You see, when the kitchen is closed in an estuary, it is really closed. No waiter brings food and the table the crappie previously occupied is not even suitable for sitting. Indeed when the tide goes low, the table is totally empty — the plates, napkins, silverware, wine glasses all taken away. I’ve seen tidal locales that during one stretch of the flow were filled with chowing crappie and then, a while later, as the tide made its diurnal low, were nothing but a slick of sand and mud.
That’s the unpleasant affect of time and tides.
But oh, the good times.
When the tide is about half way to high, into the high, and then the first hour or two as it again rushes out, depending on the site, the crappie have a ball. And so can you.
First the brackish water weeds start to stand erect, then they sway in one direction, stand nearly at attention for a bit, then turn and sway in the other direction. All sorts of things move with them. Things so small you and I can’t see them, unless we wore a microscope grade face mask.
It’s amazing how many of those bits of life remained clinging to the weed stalks when the stalks were down and almost dry. Now the stalks swell and the little things go crazy. Soon small fishes follow along, clouds of fishes in parade silver and white.
That’s all it takes to make the crappie come back.
Most were in a deep channel next to the brackish flats. Don’t even try to get them to strike when the tide is low and not moving. Great crappie anglers have been trying to do that for years, with very little success. Yes, there is sometimes a suicidal fish but the suicide rates are low.
Then as the water floods into the flats, swirls around docks, fills the holes left by big engine rumblings, works along shoreline reeds and the other greeneries of the brackish flow, it’s the right time and the right tide, both for crappie and you.
John King and I planned to fish the tidal rivers of the upper Chesapeake Bay. The rivers are a labyrinth, a network, a warren — any way you can think of it — of tidal flows that reach back into the land away from the main bay. Some areas of these rivers never experience the right mixture of salt and fresh water that would make them “brackish” enough to suit crappie. Basically the closer you are to the bay, the least likely this is. But there are areas where the fresh water emitting from tributary creeks, even just run-off, is enough to turn the water chemistry into favorable crappie locations.
King and I have spent years marking those spots and learning when the crappie will make their hungry appearance. Just as tidal bass fishermen have to “keep ahead of the tides” to optimize their catch, when we are looking for a big day we also have to be cognizant of the time, tidal movements and key locations to score. Sometimes we’ll fish a small area hard for an hour, doing a number on the crappie, then we’ll have to move a considerable distance in the same creek, or even to another creek across the bay, to continue catching. And this is not just on the Chesapeake system but also the Delaware River tidal area and a number of tidally influenced water along the Atlantic coast.
And there are a few more variables that make this crappie fishing the most tactically challenging I know.
The amount of water in a creek just isn’t influenced by time changes, it is also influenced by the gravitational forces of the moon. Full and new moons push more water than small moons. It’s the same in the back creeks as it is along the coastal shores. Now don’t get the impression you need the “extra” water of a full or new moon to catch tidal influenced crappie. In fact, large flows can be a determent to good crappie fishing — things like the water is speeding by a creek point or back-creek dock so quickly that it doesn’t suit the fish, or makes presentations difficult. Sometimes a half moon tide is better.
If there is already enough to spin your head consider one other factor in tidal crappie fishing that can change everything — the wind. Not only does the tide move water so does the breeze. If, for instance, a southwest wind sucks water out of the backbays, consider what three days of a strong southwest wind might do. It actually prevents the tides from doing their thing. When you think there should be enough water in the creeks, based on the moon, the tides and whether the Baltimore Ravens won or lost their Sunday game, there is the wind to consider.
One morning when King and I planned to fish, everything was right. (Why take you through a day when it wasn’t?)
We had nailed down the tides. The moon was approaching full. The wind had not been much of a factor for a week. And there hadn’t been much rain to muddy the creeks. (Did I mention the rain? Oh well.)
We launched, rose out to a wide bay with three connecting creeks and waited a short time until the channel markers in the bay tilted in the direction that showed water flowing back to the flats. King turned to me.
“Do you think it safe to get in there yet?”
I looked a covey of mallard ducks feeding along the reedy shoreline. They were weaving in and out of the stalky edge.
“The ducks think so,” I said.
We raised the engine slightly put the boat on plane and zoomed over a sand flat that required crossing before entrance into the creek.
One look down the circuitous path with its mild twists and wooden piers in back spaces told us that nature may have smiled on us. The piers weren’t exposed and they weren’t flooded. The water came up only halfway to the outer pillars and would be rising.
Considering all the other critical essentials involved in tidal crappie fishing, the tackle was the least complex. For this spot, and many others, short five-and-a-half foot rods teamed with a reel with four-pound test, a slip bobber, a 1/16 ounce ball head jig and a soft plastic of minnow or grub shape would do the trick. A dock shooting rod is good. The soft plastic could be silver/blue, rainbow trout, black/white or monkey milk, often it didn’t matter which (unless the water was a little cloudy) and if one color didn’t hit a crappie in a few minutes you simply ran through the best until you hit, or your partner hit and then you were both on it.
One thing I add to my technique years ago, taught me by a wise crappie angler, was to add a fresh cut square of crappie meat to the hook point above the soft plastic. It makes all the difference in have the crappie hang on, instead of just pecking.