Southern Approach to Northern Crappie Spawn

Story & photos by Darl Black

Going by the moniker of Crappie Mates, the husband and wife fishing team of Dan and Sue Dannenmueller participate in national crappie tournaments, and promote crappie fishing through seminars and videos.

Although home is Alabama, Crappie Mates travel across the US and Canada. On a Crappie Mate’s most recent press trip to northwestern Pennsylvania this past May, I had the had the opportunity to quiz the duo following three days fishing Pymatuning Lake in Crawford County and Shenango Lake in Mercer County.  

Crappie Mates at work, spider rigging a Pymatuning stump field.

DARL BLACK: Your visits to this region in May occur during the spawning period for crappies in NW Pennsylvania. Is there anything you do that is different during the pre-spawn/spawn period in the northern tier versus your home waters back in Alabama?

CRAPPIE MATES: Technically, we don’t do anything different. Crappies are crappies – they follow the same spawning rituals in Pennsylvania as they do in Alabama. It’s just a matter of when they do it. In Alabama, the pre-spawn starts as early as late February with majority of spawning occurring during March. On visits to NW Pennsylvania during mid-May, we have found crappies in both the pre-spawn and spawn phases – depending on which lake or lake section we were fishing.

One difference is the size of baits we use. When fishing up north we downsize our baits to around 2 inches on a 1/16-ounce jighead. But back home we use a 3/16-ounce jighead and slightly bigger soft plastic body to create a larger profile bait to mimic the shad in our lakes. The reason is simple: northern crappies feed on smaller minnows in the spring. In Pennsylvania, our best bait has been the 2.25-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad Swim’r, while back in Alabama our favorites are the Garland 3-inch Slab Slay’r and 2.5-inch Stroll’r.

BLACK: What have you uncovered about the location of pre-spawn and spawn crappies (both black and white) in Pennsylvania waters?

CRAPPIE MATES: Crappies will move into the bays and inlets to spawn around wood, rock and gravel when water temperature approaches 60 degrees. Males move first to spawning areas, then the larger females. On Pymatuning, we look for bays and inlets protected from the prevailing wind, which in NW Pennsylvania is a north or northwest wind. Because spawning crappies seek protection from the prevailing northwest wind, when the wind shifts out of the northeast the bite can be screwed up.

On Shenango Lake, the reservoir downstream of Pymatuning, things are a little different because the lake structure and orientation are different. Here crappies will move into any nook and cranny they can find that has some brushpiles or shoreline deadfalls. With dirtier water and lack of vegetation due to the flood control nature of the lake, white crappies appear to be the dominant species. On the other hand, black crappies dominate Pymatuning Lake with its clearer water, vegetation and stable pool level.  

BLACK: Having fished with you on several occasions, I know the technique you use is considerably different from what the majority of Pennsylvania crappie anglers do. Southern anglers refer to it as “spider rigging” or “pushing jigs.” While I occasionally see boats with Ohio tags doing the jig pushing thing on Pymatuning or Shenango, it is extremely rare to see it done elsewhere in this state where the vast majority of crappie anglers either cast jigs, still-fish minnows or drift. Please elaborate on your presentation program.

Crappie Mates enjoy visiting NW PA in May where they always have success by spider-rigging.

CRAPPIE MATES: Spider rigging is an extreme slow-troll presentation utilizing long rods positioned off the front of the boat with heavy egg sinkers keeping each bait almost straight down from the tip of the rod. It works everywhere you find crappies.

The advantages of this presentation are: (1) being able to use multiple rods with baits positioned at different depths to strain the water, (2) having baits constantly in the water without casting and retrieving, and (3) keeping baits out front to be seen by crappies before the passing boat shadow and trolling motor noise spook the fish.

While anglers more readily accept spider rigging as useful when crappies are holding in deeper water, many northern anglers believe it cannot be effective when crappies are spawning in water less than 4 or 5 feet deep. That is a misconception. We routinely spider rig in water as shallow as 2 to 3 feet, having done so in May on both Pymatuning and Shenango.

Our rods are 12- and 14-foot B’n’M BGJP series with an orange tip. Our B’n’M Reels are spooled with hi-vis 10-pound Gamma Panfish Line. Then one arm of a three-way swivel is tied to the end of the line.

To the second arm of three-way, we attach a pre-tied snelled hook with a #1 Tur-Turn hook. When fishing up north, we put a large fathead minnow on the hook

To the third arm of the three-way, we tie a 3-foot leader of 8-pound Gamma Clear Polyflex line. A ½-ounce egg sinker is double wrapped on the leader, leaving approximately an 18-inch leader. When fishing Pymatuning and Shenango, we tie a 1/16-ounce Road Runner head with Bobby Garland Baby Shad Swim’r body to the tag end of the leader.

Dan Dannenmueller giving a seminar at the Pymatuning Lake Sportsman’s Club.

In the slightly dingy water of Pymatuning, crappies seem to favor Monkey Milk, Black Chartreuse, Bluegrass, or any combo with blue. However, in the dirty water of Shenango, we find color patterns in combination with either orange or chartreuse work best.

By having lines with a heavy egg sinker on long rods, the live minnow and 1/16-ounce jig are straight down below the rod tip; yet with enough slack to move for baits to move freely. The ½-ounce egg sinker rig is as effective in 14 feet of water as in 2 feet of water.

We use the trolling motor to creep forward, pushing jigs out in front of the boat. Each rod has bait set a slightly different depth, and we change the depth setting as we move from deeper water to shallower water. We watch the brightly colored rod tip for the slightest hint of a bite, then grab the rod and lift.

In Pennsylvania, you are permitted three rods per person. Therefore, two anglers fishing together can have six rods stick out the bow of the boat. This technique requires a very good rod holder system; we use Driftmaster Rod Holders.

The final piece of equipment we have that brings everything in front of the boat into view, is the new Garmin Panoptix LiveScope transducer with an Echo Map Plus sonar. This absolutely great forward reading sonar helps us see brushpiles, stumps and fish!