Story & photos by Greg McCain
Simpler can be better even in the world of crappie fishing. Advanced tactics, advanced electronics, and advanced accessories are the norm among serious crappie fishermen. Yet, more advanced does not always translate to more effective.
Cork-and-minnow fishing has been a staple among crappie fishermen. Pure cork-and-minnow presentations are seldom used in tournament competition. In normal situations, trolling and other strategies more efficiently cover water and catch more fish.
Those occasions arise, however, when one of the oldest forms of crappie fishing finds a place among tournament techniques. Georgia tournament pro Scott Williams practices has used the cork and minnow sparingly but effectively in competition and also regularly for fun fishing with his family and friends.
Williams and his father, Billy, form a highly competitive team, winning the 2015 Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters Angler Team of the Year title and also claiming the top prize at the 2016 Crappie Masters Alabama State Championship on the upper Alabama River and Lake Jordan, the final impoundment on the Coosa. Known for using a wide array of tactics, the team maintains an open mind about oft-ignored tournament techniques.
“A lot of times we over think things,” he said. “We’ve gotten so advanced that we tend to ignore the simpler things. At times, we just need to go back to the old cork and minnow.”
One such occasion takes Williams back to a local tournament on Lake Blackshear near Cordele, GA, in 2013. Because Blackshear is located less than an hour from his home in Cochran, GA, Williams fishes the lake regularly and knows when trolling techniques perform best and when he needs to resort to something else.
“Normally when I cork-and-minnow fish, it’s in the springtime when the fish are bedding,” Williams said. “We actually won a tournament on Lake Blackshear a couple of years ago using this method.”
Blackshear is a Flint River impoundment full of cypress trees. With a shiner-baited hook, split shot, and slip cork, Williams targeted crappie spawning tight against the base of cypress trees.
“I had it set where I could flip underneath those cypress limbs at the exact depth that I wanted to fish, about 2½ foot deep,” he said. “I would flip under those limbs and right up against the base of those trees just like you would flip a jig up under there at times.”
Williams further explained that the cork-and-minnow set-up was far more efficient and effective than attempting to get a jig in just the right place. He used a 10-foot B’n’M Buck’s Graphite Jig Pole to place his bait exactly where it needed to be. The tournament winnings confirmed what he already knew; cork-and-minnow fishing remains one of the best possible approaches to catching slabs if the conditions are right.
“It worked well,” Williams said. “I would flip it under there and let it set. If the fish were there, the cork never settled.” Williams said the positioning of the crappie dictated an exact bait placement.
“It has to be something of a specialized situation,” Williams said. “Especially if the fish are spawning and there are a lot of limbs where I can’t get my spider-rigging rods right up against that tree, that’s when I will revert to a cork and minnow.”
Like the technique, the accessories are rather simple. Williams favors the 10-foot BGJP pole, which also comes in various other lengths up to 16 foot if needed. He attaches Spiderwire 10-pound braid to the tip, slides a bobber stopper and cork up the line, pinches on a #5 split shot about a foot above the hook, and ties on a #2 gold Eagle Claw.
“I want to use as small of a cork as possible that will still float the minnow,” Williams said. “I don’t like plastic corks; I want real cork. I use the braid because I can pull everything free without breaking off.”
He normally baits with shiners 1½ to 2 inches, which Williams said catch more and bigger fish for him than tuffies. The tuffies are at times the only thing available in the summer months, however.
“I don’t know. It might be just in the head, but I feel like I have caught bigger fish and bigger stringers on the shiners,” Williams said. “They will both catch fish. But if I had a choice, I would take the shiners even though the tuffies are a little hardier and live longer in the heat of summer.”
The cork-and-minnow rig can be used around various types of wood structure, including stumps, laydowns, and dock posts. “Aside from a standing tree with extended limbs, probably the best type of wood structure for the cork and minnow is a blowdown,” Williams said. “You can drop that minnow down among the different limbs and work over an area really well, places where you wouldn’t be able to get into with your spider rigging.”
Williams said he also occasionally uses the cork and minnow around bridge pilings but an even better alternative is grass. He takes advantage of crappie’s preference for grassy spawning areas or those places with a combination of grass and wood, areas that can’t be fished properly with other techniques.
Generally, Williams drops the minnow into holes in the grass, much like dropping one in the openings between the limbs of a laydown. But when he fishes a grass lake, Williams makes sure he stows a unique tool in the boat, one probably never referenced in a crappie article.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I will take a potato rake. “Williams said. “I’ve got a long extension handle on it. If there’s a grass mat floating out there, I will dig me a hole with that rake. I’ve done it many times.”
A potato rake is about 6 inches wide with 3 or 4 tines that curve downward. With a handle that extends out to about 10 feet, the tool is ideal for creating just the right amount of space to make a grass mat fishable.
“People will think I’m crazy, that it will spook the fish, but I will dig that hole and drop a minnow in,” Williams said. “It might spook them just for a second, but once everything settles down, they will come right back.
“Sometimes those grass mats are four or five inches thick, but I can dig a hole up to about 10 inches across or at least big enough to slip a minnow through.”
In a normal day, Williams approaches likely locations using his trolling motor. A quiet approach and the length of the pole allow him to avoid spooking the crappie. In the rare times when he detects that he is scaring fish away from their holding area, he replaces the trolling motor with a plastic push pole and exchanges the long B’n’M pole with a spinning rig.
“I can tell if I am spooking them too much because they will short strike or they will pull loose too easily when I catch them,” he said.
His choice of spinning gear is a 6-foot B’n’M Sharphooter rod – the same one he uses to shoot docks – and a reel spooled with 6- or 8-pound clear Stren mono. Otherwise the set-up is the same as used with the longer pole.
“I’ll back off a little bit and cast for them,” Williams said.
“Normally, I do use my trolling motor,” he said. “But I will cut my electronics off; I don’t want any pinging that might possibly spook the fish. I will try not to use the livewell pumps. As crazy as that might sound, that pump puts off a little bit of vibration and those fish can feel it. I truly believe that, especially when I think I’m around big fish.
“I don’t like to move around in the boat, make a lot of waves, or even talk much if I’m fishing a tournament. You’re in shallow water and water amplifies noise. I try not to move or drop anything. In general, I try to be as stealthy as possible.”
Later in the year, Williams said the cork-and-minnow rig remains a tool in his arsenal, especially when he is fun fishing for crappie in deeper brush. The technique is one that he favors when he takes his own family fishing.
“I’ve got little girls, an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old who love to fish,” he said. “When the crappie load up on brush in the summer, I will take them out there, anchor my boat alongside the brushpile, and use the same set up that I use in the spring time except I might set my depth at 8 or 10 feet. I let them pitch that cork up there on top of that brush.”
In similar conditions in a tournament, Williams said he would normally be spider rigging to get more baits in the target area. However, the use of minnows is just another part of the appeal for youngsters who are first learning to fish.
“I don’t know anything better,” he said. “They don’t have to cast. They don’t get hung up that much. It eliminates some of the frustration associated with casting.”
Regardless of the situation, Williams said the cork-and-minnow rig remains a legitimate option, even for advanced tournament anglers. “We live in a technological world. You can’t get away from it, and I’m like anyone else. I use the technology to help my fishing.
“But many times, and especially in the spring when these fish spawn, cork-and-minnow fishing is still one of the best techniques to put fish in the boat. You can’t ignore it. If you do, you will miss out on some of the best fishing available.”