I didn’t get into crappie fishing for the sport. But there’s something to catching these tough little slabs of fish that is enticing. And when the crappie action is about all you’re getting, it is rewarding enough just to avoid a skunk.
I often considered crappie fishing a kid’s pastime. I grew up in Ohio where I cut my teeth on local ponds with bobber and worm for bluegill. And when I first picked up a fly rod, panfish were the species of choice as few trout streams reside in this Midwestern area.
It’s been a long time, but recently I’ve developed a newfound respect for the fish. And it’s not because they taste good hot out of a fryer. This realm of fly fishing has a subtle charm to it; a skill and feel that most fly fishers have not experienced.
One day while searching for wiper, we ended up catching 4 different species of fish. Wiper first, walleye second, smallmouth third and finally, as the sun set and the winds died, crappie. All on the same fly and setup, a 150 grain sink-tip and a clouser-type streamer.
We pulled up to a flats area about 10 feet deep gradually sloping to about 6 feet, with an inlet cut winding throughout. With slow strips I felt some taps which I attributed to weeds. But on the same retrieve I got a couple more and, upon inspection, found nothing on my hook. Another cast in the same direction, a few short strips, a little tap-tap, I set the hook and landed my first crappie on a fly rod. We caught a few crappie thereafter, and began to learn the new technique of catching crappie on a fly rod with a streamer.
Since then, whenever I find a crappie school, I don’t hesitate to catch a few. And if it’s the only thing I can find I’ll stay and fish them for a long time. The good news for Colorado fishermen is that the crappie populations in many lakes are thriving, and they can be quite a bit of fun to catch. The state record for crappie in Colorado as of August 2006 is 3 pounds, 4 ounces caught back in 1990 while the state catch-and-release record by length as of June 2006 is 18.5 inches.
If you’re interested in going after them with a fly rod, I’ve got a few tips from my modest experience doing so. There are several ways to catch these fish on a fly rod, including fishing bugs, poppers, and other flies, but my experience and success has been with streamers, and so that is all I will discuss in this article.
First, as in any type of fishing, locate the fish. There’s a lot of information out there on the migration and habits of crappie schools, so I won’t get into this topic much. Our experience in Colorado is that the crappie in the spring and late fall are well within reach of a fly rod and medium sink-rate line. In fact you could probably get away with a floating line if you were still-fishing midges or the like. Think of water 6-20 feet deep, with fish suspending 4-15 feet deep. It is my understanding that the fish move deeper as the water warms, but that is nothing new to those in the know.
The strike zone, which I will use loosely as a term to describe the depth we are fishing and hooking fish, has commonly been in the 4-10 foot realm. On days when the fish are higher in the water column, using a 150-grain, 25-foot sink-tip, simply casting over the school and stripping slowly back will produce fish. When they are deeper we will put a cast over the school, let it sink for 5 seconds, and proceed with the same slow strip retrieve. The casts do not need to be long, just far enough to cover the school.
When I say slow strip I mean it in the most honest sense. I believe you could not be stripping slowly enough. A hand-twist retrieve would be good, but I typically don’t employ this technique simply because I don’t like the feel of it. The only time I use this retrieve is when I’m fishing a damselfly imitation to trout.
I’m a big fan of varying retrieves every day until I find one that is consistent, no matter what type of fish I’m after. With crappie, try starting with tiny thumb-twitch strips. With my left hand I’ll pinch the line between my thumb and forefinger and rotate my hand as quickly and slightly as possible to strip only a few inches of line. I like to leave some slack in between strips so the fly reacts in a sharp manner, much like a twitch-bait fisherman will twitch a minnow bait. This gives the fly an erratic appearance and at the same time it progresses slowly forward.
The next retrieve I will try is a variance of the above, inserting pauses in semi-random order. I will then move to a slower 6-inch strip which has a little more cadence. Next would be the slow-motion retrieve where you grasp the line and make long strips as slow as you can. I make these strips as far as my arm will extend. From there, if there is still no bite, I will just drag the fly, seemingly motionless, letting the drift or some slight rod movement impart motion just enough to entice the fish.
On all these retrieves the key thought to have in your mind is to just keep contact with the fly. If you feel like you’re pulling the fly through the water you’re probably stripping too fast. You just want to keep it moving enough to keep it in the strike zone while maintaining enough contact with it to feel the bite.
Often times we feel a tap-tap but when the bite is hard, the take feels only like you hooked onto a tiny leaf, where there is just enough weight on the line to make you think that something is wrong. Whatever the take feels like, setting the hook and keeping the fish on is probably the most difficult thing to get the hang of. These small-mouthed, paper-thin jawed fish are not all that easy to keep on a hook.
When you feel a take, don’t lift the rod tip. Take a quick and short strip just like you were continuing your retrieve. But this time, if you’ve hooked a fish on the hook-set strip, slightly bend your rod to the side, low to the water, and only ever so slightly to keep a hint of pressure on the fish. Once you’ve got a good hook in the fish, they are not hard to land, but will put up a good fight for their size. You won’t ever have to jerk the rod to get the hooks in, and if you try to you will likely rip or pull the hook out.
We primarily fish clouser-type streamers in most situations. White seems to be a key factor, but I’m not convinced color makes a huge difference. Size, however, does seem to make a difference. From my experience, the smaller the streamer the better. When I say small I mean an inch to two inches is all you need. Any larger and you will probably miss many fish. If you’re feeling the tap-tap and not hooking fish, go smaller.
Fishing “weightless” streamers will work fine as long as you’re getting down into the strike zone. Throwing a split shot on a floating-line system and long leader would suffice in place of a sink-tip system. We’ve fished wooly-bugger patterns, but have not seen a significant rate of success to fish them more often. Again, experiment and find what works.
Although they might not be the kings of the sea, crappie fly fishing can be a heck of a lot of fun. When the weather gets cold in the late fall and when the lakes are just warming up in the spring, crappie may be your savior when you are having a tough time catching other, more temperamental species. Count on finding a decent crappie bite as early as February and as late as November in lower elevation Colorado lakes. This just gives us another reason to get out of the house. Don’t put that boat away yet, get out and pound some slabs!
© 2020 Matt Snider
About the author, Matt Snider:
Matt Snider is a life-long fly fisherman who has turned his attention to the "other species" of Colorado, namely any non-trout species. Having caught multiple warmwater species in Colorado on the fly in Colorado alone, Matt built FishExplorer as a means for anglers to maintain updated lake conditions, an element he finds critical in catching fish and enjoying our resources. An advocate of alternative fly fishing and fisheries preservation, Matt is an avid wiper and muskie fisherman traveling with boat in tow in pursuit of these hard-to-find fish. If a fish is willing to eat something, his bet is that it will eat a fly.