By Ned Kehde, In-Fisherman
In some lakes and reservoirs across North America, riprap is the biggest draw for crappies during early season. Brad Whitehead, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, guides on Wilson and Pickwick reservoirs on the Tennessee River. Miles of riprap line the industrialized banks of Wilson and Pickwick, but in early spring, with the mighty Tennessee River coursing heavily through the main reservoir, Whitehead fishes the extensive riprap on dams at far smaller Cedar Creek, Little Bear and Bear Creek reservoirs. His favorite time is mid-March through mid-April.
When the wind is moderate, Whitehead favors tightlining, a variation of spider-rigging, to probe dam riprap. It involves trolling with a set of rods protruding from both bow and stern, making the craft resemble a water-striding spider. Spider-rigging is an easy way for guided clients to catch a lot of crappies. It avoids casting, which can be an ordeal with novices aboard wielding lengthy poles and casting jigs to snaggy riprap.
Rigging Up: Whitehead and his clients employ 16 rods—8 on the bow and off the transom, all 12-foot B’n’M PST122 trolling rods with Pflueger Echelon casting reels spooled with 10-pound-test Silver Thread AN40 monofilament. He fishes jigs, often a mixed array of 1/16-ounce Southern Pro heads with a #2 hook and a 2-inch YUM Vibra Tube in shad hues, and Teezur Tackle Jigs with Carolina pumpkin-chartreuse 2-inch YUM Wooly Beavertails.
To keep the jigs directly below the rod tip, Whitehead loops a 3/4-ounce XCalibur Tungsten Barrel Sinker two feet above the jig, threading the line three times to secure it.
Length of line is easily adjusted to match the depth crappies are holding. Whitehead has a marker on his rod 2 feet from the reel, allowing precise line adjustment by his clients. From mid-March to mid-April, crappies along these reservoir dams typically are bottom-oriented and holding in 7 to 19 feet or so, feeding on shad and occasional invertebrates. He speculates that shad are attracted to the algae that flourish on submerged rock when water temperatures range from 58°F to 62°F.
Why It Works: Whitehead’s spread of 16 rods allows him to meticulously cover an 18-foot-wide swath of riprap. Jigs are set to run about 6 to 12 inches off bottom. Starting at one end of the dam, he uses his bowmount electric to slowly troll across it.
On the initial troll, he zigzags, slowly snaking the boat over 8 to 20 feet of water, which requires frequent depth adjustment of the jigs. His serpentine approach allows him to determine the depth of actively feeding crappies, and a 2-foot adjustment often improves the frequency of bites. If he catches more crappies in 8 feet, he sets all rods to that depth until the bite slows or he spots alternate holding depths on sonar. His snakelike maneuvers enable him to relocate groups of fish quickly.
Day in and day out, riprap crappies rarely remain at the same locale. Shad and crappies also may move throughout each day. Whitehead suspects that wind, clouds and other elements that affect light intensity influence the location of the fish and their prey. It’s often necessary to search the entire expanse of riprap on every outing.
Even though fish location can vary from day to day, they often gather along the bottom edges of the riprap. As he experiments with depth, he also observes which jig body works best. If, for example, the Wooly Beavertail draws most strikes, he sets 11 rods with them, leaving just 5 with tubes. “I always offer an option,” he notes, “since crappies can change favorites and you can’t detect it unless you have alternatives down.
He also fine-tunes the presentation with his trolling motor, testing at what speed crappies seem to want jigs moving. “They sometimes bite best when you move at a constant pace. Other times, they want a jig that glides along then hovers,” he says. “And as with their location and lure preferences, optimal speed and action fluctuate from day to day and throughout a given day.”
The Casting Option: Precise tightline presentations can be challenging in wind and waves. “In those situations, we often cast,” Whitehead says. “I stow the long poles and use 61⁄2-foot SP65G B’n’M spinning rods with Pflueger GX-7 Trion reels and 6-pound-test AN40 Silver Thread.” A 1/8-ounce Southern Pro or Teezur jig and 3-inch YUM Walleye Grub are a good match. Chartreuse-pearl works well, though at times a junebug-chartreuse Walleye Grub is better. Again, keep experimenting.
“Cast the grub to the edge of the riprap. As it hits the water, turn the reel handle slowly so the jig glides just above the shallowest rock. After two turns of the reel, pause for a second or two and let it fall a bit deeper, then start reeling again.”
To execute this maneuver, he holds the rod at the 1 o’clock position and reels so the jig-and-grub swims just off bottom, allowing it to follow the contour of the riprap. Occasionally he’s found that in low-light conditions, the jig should ride less than 10 feet deep; when the sun is high, he might have to work it as deep as 14 feet.
This article was contributed by In-Fisherman, a publication of Intermedia Outdoors. Visit In-Fisherman for more useful fishing articles.
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at [email protected].