Vertical Jigging Shallow Water Crappie
By Outdoor Writer and Tournament Pro Josh Gowan
If you start at the Mason-Dixon Line and drive north, checking every crappie fisherman’s tackle box on the way, you will find an increasing number on bobbers (floats, corks, etc…) as you approach the Canadian border. While much of this can be attributed to the amount of clear water lakes in the northern half of the country, it is still a regional tactic that is only seen in popular crappie fishing destinations in the south when northern tourists arrive.
While “casting to the shallows” can be an effective method during the spawn, if crystal-clear water clarity doesn’t necessitate it, there is nothing more challenging, exciting, and productive than vertical jigging. The idea is simple. Drop your bait straight down into a crappie’s home, entice him to bite, set the hook hard, and pull him out. It sounds easy enough, however, as with most “simple” ideas, there can be a bit more to it. The first step is having the right rod. This style of fishing requires a long rod, and 7’ does not constitute “long”! The best way to determine what length of rod you need is by looking at your equipment. “Shallow water” in this case is 5’ or less, and stealth is key. With a 12’ boat and a 30 lb. trolling motor, a 9’ rod is adequate. As you increase boat size, i.e. increasing trolling motor thrust, water disturbance, the effect of the wind and so on, a longer rod is necessary. A 18’ boat with a 70 lb. trolling motor, and anything above, is best served with a 12’ pole. The idea is to sneak up on a crappie and put the tip of your pole directly over its head, and the bigger and louder you are, the further away you need to be! Rod strength is the next variable. An ultra-light pole allows easier handling for longer hours on the water, as well as increased sensitivity. If after a few hours of holding, reaching, and yanking with a rod you become fatigued and compensate by holding the rod differently, you will not be as quick on the hook-set which will result in lost fish. The downside to an ultra-light rod is the lack of strength. If thick cover such as buck brush or saw grass is the target, then a rod with more backbone is necessary. This also holds true if you’re fishing for big, aggressive fish. The key is finding the balance between sensitivity and comfort, and strength. Choice of line is another important factor. Hi-vis, 6 lb. monofilament is a standard in vertical jigging and will be more than adequate for most situations. Braided line allows you to downsize the diameter and increase the strength and sensitivity, which is an advantage for pulling big fish through thick cover, however, braided line does not stretch at all and is tough on equipment, and can also be difficult to work with when using smaller weights as the line is more limp. Hi-vis line, regardless of its makeup, is key. While “feeling the thump” is what drives most vertical jig fishermen, there are many instances when the line just “swims off” or goes slack, and without being able to see these variances getting a quick hook-set is impossible.
The best reel for vertical jigging is always a topic of heavy debate. While many people insist that all you need is a “line holder”, cheap reels do not last, nor can they deal with the other fish you will inevitably catch while jigging. Using a light rod and small diameter line are necessities when fishing in close proximity of your target, but the reel is the anchor that makes it possible. Regardless of your taste in reels, a smooth drag and solid gears are always advantageous to the angler, and allow you to concentrate on putting the bait where it needs to be and getting the fish to the boat, rather than looking for washers and digging line out of the side of the reel. Bait size and style is the next factor. A small, 1/32 ounce hair or feather jig tipped with a waxworm, nibble, or some other attractant will almost always trigger a strike when the right color combination is presented. Black, dark green, and chartreuse are always good starting points, and will usually do the trick. However, if fishing 4-5 ft. deep for aggressive fish, up-sizing your bait will allow you to fish faster and put more fish in the live-well. Another reason to use larger baits is water clarity. If fishing extremely muddy water, a larger profile will increase the chances of crappie seeing the bait and is more conducive to fishing in areas with bigger baitfish. It is also important to consider the type of crappie you’re fishing for, as white crappie are more apt to eat small fish and minnows, and black crappie feed more on invertebrates or bugs. The ideal location to vertical jig fish is around any shallow structure where crappie spawn, stage, or hide. Brush, fallen trees, lily pads, grass, standing trees, etc… Anything that can provide cover for the fish. Ease up on the structure and start from the outside working your way in, and remember, stealth is key. The final factor to vertical jigging for crappie is the presentation. Starting out with a small bait and an extremely slow fall is best, and will help determine what the crappie want. If your bait is getting hammered 18 inches under the water, then you can up-size and drop directly to that depth and cover more area. If you are getting a very light bite, staying small or getting smaller, as well as switching colors in some cases, will trigger more fish. Think of it like this, even after Thanksgiving dinner, when you are very full, you will still take a bite of mini-cupcake or a small cookie, and fish are no different. Even when they are not “biting”, they will still indulge in a small treat dropped right on their nose! While the long pole and methodical tactics can present a learning curve, easing into a crappie’s home is the most personal type of fishing. It is hand-to-hand combat, and the lessons you learn hooking slabs from right beneath your rod tip will serve you well in all other tactics, as well as being a lot of fun!
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