First Impressions  …Into to the St. Johns River

by Ron Presley

The first visit to a new body of water produces feelings of anxiety and hope. The anxiety comes because of the unknown factors at a new location that will impact the fishing. The hope comes from the fact that most crappie anglers are naturally optimistic and start their day with expectations of the best day ever.

When the American Ethanol Team of Terry Richard and Casey Rayner travelled to Deland, FL for their first look at the St. Johns River they not only discovered good fishing, but the beauty of the river as well.

“Within the first hour we had two large black crappies …”

“Traveling the country in chase of the paper lip grey ghost is always an adventure,” said Richard. “You never know what to expect when you approach a new body of water. For Casey Rayner and myself, this was our first time to wet a line on the St. Johns. What a beautiful body of water it is. It has a variety of things to fish. Ledges, flats, creek channels, plenty of lily pads, and miles of beautiful river banks with laydown structure to fish.”

Having the luxury of fishing the same body of water over an extended period of time can pay big dividends in locating fish and identifying what their biting. Richard and Casey were in town for a Crappie Masters event and planned a few days of pre-fishing the river.

The methodical approach that they apply to new waters is a great lesson for other anglers. It includes observation, technology and experimentation. Learning the lesson they offer will help recreational anglers catch more crappie.

Local anglers Toni and Don Collins are well aware to the great single pole jigging available on the St. Johns River.

Local anglers Toni and Don Collins are well aware to the great single pole jigging available on the St. Johns River.

Observation and Technology

One of Yogi Berra’s famous Yogism’s says, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” The statement is true in crappie fishing. Observing and making notes of the opportunities presented by a body of water can help anglers catch more crappie.

“Any time you launch your boat in new water, it is always best to search an area thoroughly before fishing in the blind,” instructed Richard. We do the same thing with any body of water. We spend the first day, using our Humminbird, graphing and observing the areas to fish. On the St. Johns we spent most of our first day graphing and marking creek channels, ledges and brush piles.”

The continuing improvements in sonar technology have changed the game for crappie fisherman. For tournament anglers like Richard and Rayner it has become a necessity to be competitive. For recreational anglers it has improved their ability to put dinner in the boat consistently.

After completing their homework of graphing and observing potential spots, and making notes, Richard and Rayner turn their attention to experimenting with different fishing methods. The St. Johns lends itself to most fishing methods, so the challenge is to find out which one works best on any given day.

“Even though we used longlining to catch the majority of our specs, we also caught an abundance of crappie single pole jigging and spider rigging,” said Richard.

Spider rigging is a very effective method for catching crappie on the St. Johns River, but so is single pole jigging. Note the pads and cover along the shoreline just waiting to be dipped.

Spider rigging is a very effective method for catching crappie on the St. Johns River, but so is single pole jigging. Note the pads and cover along the shoreline just waiting to be dipped.

Experimentation

“We started our St. Johns River fishing with one of our favorite methods,” offered Richard. “Longline trolling. This is a method of pulling jigs from multiple poles behind the boat at speeds from .8 to 1.4 mph. Different weighted jig heads and speed put your bait at different levels in the water column. Colors, speed, and size of jig heads are changed frequently until you dial in to the precise combination that works that day.”

“Within the first hour we had two large black crappies,” reported Richard. “Both tipped the scales at more than 2.5 pounds. We felt good about that area so we moved on to spider rigging.”

Spider rigging, or pushing, is a method that uses multiple poles deployed out the front of the boat. Anglers can easily control speed, depth, lure color and size of the presentation. Most crappie anglers agree, this is the best method available for catching large numbers of crappie. Another option is to tip the jig with minnows. Sometimes the crappies want it with minnows and sometimes they don’t. Some anglers swear by the old reliable minnow and use straight double minnow rigs.

Casey Rayner displays a pair of nice St. John River crappie

Casey Rayner displays a pair of nice St. John River crappie

“We spider rigged the edges of the creek channels,” said Richard. “The baits were pushed in 10-12 feet of water while experimenting with different depths. The method caught good numbers of crappie, but they had no size to them. We spent two days going back and forth between longlining and spider rigging.”

On the third day Richard and Rayner decided they wanted to “feel the thump.” They turned to their self-declared favorite method of catching crappie ─ single pole jigging. The St. Johns offers miles of lily pads, grass and laydowns to fish vertically by dipping jigs extended from long jigging poles.

The length of the pole is a personal choice, but most anglers like to dip with 10 foot or longer poles. It all depends on how far away from the boat you want to fish. A long pole gives the advantage of covering a larger area from a single location.

The crappie will often be in schools and once you find them under the pads you can return to the same location for up to two weeks and find them right there in that same spot.

Some crappie anglers run the boat along the side of the pads and dip baits up in them. Others run the boat right up in the middle of the pads and fish all around the boat. When the crappies are in the cover it is up close and personal fishing. You may only have 2 or 3 feet of line between the rod tip and the lure.

The idea is to find a hole in the cover that you can drop a jig in. For small openings, grasp the line just above the reel and pull the jig all the way up to the tip. Place the tip over the opening and let go of the line. The jig falls vertically through the spot you choose. Carefully raise and lower the jig by hand, always being careful to “feel” the underlying structure and work your way around it to prevent tangles.

When you feel the crappie hit, that’s the thump that crappie anglers talk about, and the signal to set the hook.

“To us, single-poling is the most exciting way to catch crappie,” stated Richard. “We fished lilies and structure up and down the river. Most of our quality fish came in 6 to 7 feet of water on the edges of the pads closest to points.”

 

Final Thoughts

Crappie anglers normally keep a close eye on the weather forecast because a change in weather conditions can change the bite. Richard and Rayner’s week ended with such a change. The hard work they put in pre-fishing the river was altered when colder temperatures and high winds arrived in Deland. Almost like clockwork a weather front arrived just in time for tournament day. As crappie anglers know, that usually changes everything and will likely change the strategy they worked hard to establish.

“Like every Crappie Masters tournament we ever fished, weather threw us a curve ball,” joked Richard. “We felt good going into tournament day until we watched the forecast. Because of the dramatic temperature drop and high winds, our fish moved. We fished all of our methods in all of our good areas and produced nothing but small fish. We struggled through the two-day tournament and we were actually happy to have 14 weigh fish.”

“Florida’s St. Johns River is a fisherman’s dream,” concluded Richard. “Our tournament weights didn’t reflect our week on St. Johns River. We had an amazing fishing adventure experiencing the beauty of the Florida black water. Amazing is actually an understatement.”

“The wildlife, the scenery, the different possibilities to catch a crappie, and the variety of techniques you can use to catch fish, all make the river a bucket list destination. In my opinion, the St. Johns River might hold the most beautiful black crappie in the nation. We are excited about returning in January of 2018.”