By Vic Attardo
Most crappie anglers are not used to the sight of falling and rising waters. Surely if a dam is pumping and decreasing the level, or if a strong storm adds to the flow, pushing water up a bank — that many have seen.
A portion of a fillet from a fresh crappie cut into tiny sections about the size of the nail on your little finger, make a great attractant to add to a jig.
But on the whole anglers are less familiar with a view of water rising up under dock, to the point where the level is just under the planking, and then six or eight hours later, dropping to a place where there is barely any water under the dock at all. Most anglers have not experienced that.
But Maryland crappie angler, Capt. Jerry Sersen deals with such changes on a daily basis, actually several times within a single day. Fluctuating levels are what happens when the waters you’re fishing — the upper Chesapeake Bay and its assorted tributaries — rise and fall with the tides. Such measurable changes are the essence of tidal water crappie.
To acknowledge that working tidal waters is like nothing else in crappie fishing is only the first step in understanding this sport.
For starters tidal water crappie fishing is both time and place specific. Time in that you don’t think so much of a morning or an evening bite, but time in that it’s important to know when the tides are moving, in which direction they’re moving and when they will “take a break” — meaning the flow is no longer a flow but at a standstill in preparation for turning around and going the opposite direction.
Place, in that, you have to be in the right place at the right time to be successful but that then even if you are near that place, a distance of a few inches or a few feet can mean all the difference between success and failure.
The first time I fished with Sersen many years ago we went into a creek on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay. As it was mid-September we were greeted by a raft of mallards in the process of gathering for migration. As we turned a watery corner, the creek opened wide and I could see that it split halfway back into two distinct arms. The left arm was peppered with large docks holding large elevated boats. It was quite an extensive chain of docks with quite a number of boats.
I noticed Sersen looked at his watch so I asked if he had another appointment that day.
“Nah,” he said, “but I don’t want to get caught back in here when the water drops out.”
Sersen had timed our trip up the creek when the flow in the bay was moving, indeed it would be nearing its highest peak in about 90 minutes. I didn’t know it then but the higher water had allowed us to pass over a sandy bar that would have blocked our passage had the level been lower. I also learned that some of the larger boats in the creek had to wait until the tide was just right before passing through and that many an owner kept their vessels anchored outside the mouth of the creek and went back and forth by dingy. It hadn’t always been this way: gradual siltation was the cause of the present inconveniences.
But that wasn’t our problem now.
We motored up to a long dock on the inner, deepest bank and I saw a current of water bending around two of the outer pilings.
Rigged with a slip bobber and jig on a short five-and-a half foot rods, Sersen deftly flipped his setup back several yards under the dock — getting it to go under about an two-foot space between the boards and the water surface.
Any crappie angler worth their salt (indeed this was brackish water) would recognize a slip bobber with a bobber stopper about 18-inches up and hanging loose under the bobber a colorful 1/8 ounce jig with a plastic body and tail.
There was no magic here — not yet anyway.
What was noteworthy was the place Sersen tossed the bait and where he directed me to throw mine.
The long, horizontal T-dock was a minefield of pilings. Who ever had built this placement, and many others along this creek, had erred on the side of caution. The pilings were placed much closer together if, say, you had built a similar length dock in still water. I didn’t get out and measure the distance between the wooden sticks but I knew they were tighter than normal.
Typically a veteran crappie angler will begin by tossing his offering as far back as he could reasonably go and then begin working the float and jig back to the boat. But Sersen didn’t try for such distance or extra territory. Instead he selected a pillar in the T-connection but only a few feet from the outer edge. And he flipped his bobber so that it landed a few inches from the thick stick. It took me a moment to realize the pillar had a slight wake of water on one side — the result of the current pushing lightly against the wood and creating an eddy on the opposite side. Sersen neatly put his float in the eddy.
Captain Jerry Sersen shows the end results of a good day on the water. Brackish waters can be tricky but picking the right place at the right time produces plenty of action.
“There’s no sense tossing all the way under,” Sersen told me. “The tide is coming up so the crappie are on the front edge.”
Sersen jostled his rod tip and I saw the float quiver in the small eddy. I imagine the motion was sending a message down to the jig and plastic tail as well. Unfortunately, no one took the call.
He then reeled in and selected another pillar target. This too was not far back in the dock, but it’s eddy was a bit wider owing to the fact that a crosswalk of pilings was blocking the current’s path. Also while the first stick had a patch of sun shining directly on it, this one was in the shade.
Sersen gave the jig a few ticks of the clock for the jig to stretch the line under the float, and he again jostled the rod tip, quivering the float. This time the float dipped slightly.
“Bet it’s a good one,” Sersen said.
As I heard later, at least in this tidal situation, where the crappie can be quite selective and tentative, it’s often the largest crappie that are the nibblers. Ironically smaller crappie are quite the gulpers.
We didn’t find out what size crappie was pestering his bait — not then anyway — because the float stopped dancing and that was it. We moved on.
“I need some magic,” was all Sersen said.
To get his ‘magic,’ the Maryland captain cut his eight-ounce jig off the line and tied on a size jig more commonly used for ice fishing. He then went to a pillar deep in shade — but still more to the front of the dock — and dropped the line straight in. The bobber straightened up with the taunt line and immediately was pulled under. Sersen lifted and reeled quickly and came up with a dinky seven-inch crappie.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said.
Getting out a fillet knife, he cut into the crappie and scrapped a fillet from one side, purposely leaving on the skin. He then cut a section of fillet and this section he further divided into tiny squares no bigger than the nail of my little finger. He handed me a piece.
“Put this on your hook skin-side down,” he said, cutting off the tiny jig and going back to the original jig and plastic trailer.
I dropped the offering along the eddy-side of a pillar the stern of the boat had drifted towards. No sooner did the bobber lay flat on the water than the bottom end pointed down and float started to vibrate. Then with a silent whoosh, it was pulled down hard and lifting the rod I felt the strong tug of a good crappie. It came in the boat and measured at 14-and a half inches.
Not to be outdone, Sersen circled the boat returning to the pillar where that first “big crappie” might have been. Now with a sweet piece of fresh crappie meat umbrellaed on the hook point, he flipped it back to the targeted pillar. Just like before the bobber danced for a moment then stood straight up and went curving down in that lovely underwater arc is the takedown of a good crappie. The fish headed deeper along the dock but Sersen was all over it with a strong sideways pull of the rod and fast reeling. Indeed this was a big crappie, coming in nearly an inch better than mine, and thick as a juicy porterhouse steak.
I learned a lot on that trip and on many subsequent excursions with Sersen.
I learned that as the tide climbed, it was best to work the outer rungs of the dock. The crappie, Sersen said, moved out with the higher tide. Also as the tide grew stronger it was best to work the lee side of any vertical stick. On sunny days you tried to work in the shade as much as possible but past a certain height in the tide, shade was not as critical a factor.
When the tide stopped running, the first thing thought about was swimming or moving your float and jig across the water. It seems that tidal current had the plastic tail working on its own, but when flow stopped you needed to reel slowly to get some action. A dead tide isn’t so good anyway but you could compensate some to get a few bites.
When the tide turns in creeks and marinas, then you often have to toss your baits to the opposite side — again the eddy or lee side — of the pillars. This isn’t necessary as the tide first turns but as it starts “ripping” this tactic became more and more necessary. Then as the water recedes, and thus the water level drops under a dock, shade on a sunny day becomes more and more important.
Of course, water temperature plays a key role in the crappie just being there. Summer water temperatures in the mid-80s keeps the fish out in the bay in much deeper water. They just aren’t very catchable in this circumstance. But when the cool nights of September roll around and then well into November, that’s when crappie — for a considerable time — rush into the natural creeks and the marinas and are excellent targets.
As a tidal crappie angler might say: time, tide and temperature wait for no man but are certainly friendly to brackish crappie.