Speck fishing is easy. Sometimes.
You know the deal; black crappies—“speckled perch” to most Floridians—are about as smart as dodo birds, but fortunately they’re a lot more abundant. Stick a minnow in their face, set the hook and start heating up the fry-pan.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy, particularly in the winter months, just before the major migration to shoreline cover to spawn, typically in February and March.
The fish are out there somewhere, but finding them can take a bit of work, as well as some electronic help. Basically, the search starts with running the deeper waters of any given lake; the fish usually hang near large schools of shad, which are easily spotted on a depthfinder. You can run cross-hatch patterns across the lake at speed until you mark a couple of baitfish schools, then go back to them and start trolling in that area. They’ll typically hang in eight to 25 feet of water at this time of year—shallower in tannin lakes, deeper in clear. Some guys toss a couple of marker buoys to help them map out a trolling route, or if you have a chartplotter, you can simply turn on the tracking function and let that map your trolling course, with waypoints punched in where you’ve spotted baitfish.
The winner of a national championship crappie fishoff this year used a Blakemore Roadrunner with a minnow attached, and a red hook suspended above it with a second minnow. The Roadrunner is a little horse-head jig with a tiny spinner attached below the head. Lots of other jigs and spinners work well, including the Beetle Spin, Hal Fly, Blue Fox, Crappiebuster, Crappie Magic, Crappie Pro, et cetera.
Does the red hook make any difference? Hard to say, but enough people who fish for money believe in them that they’re probably worth a try. Some new models of hooks are made to stand out horizontally from the main line, which acts as sort of a mini-spreader and may help the bite.
John Evertsen of Orlando, a well-known crappie guide, likes these hooks and sometimes uses a couple of them above a weight or a spinner-jig in deep, clear lakes like Conway.
The big difference in jigs is the weight. If you’re fishing 14 feet of water on a day with 15-mph winds, it may take a 1⁄ 4-ounce head to keep the lure down within a couple feet of bottom where the fish are likely to be biting. On a calm day, on the other hand, you’ll catch more fish with a smaller head, down to 1⁄ 64 ounce. Take a selection to match whatever conditions you may face.
Colors are another factor that seems to have an impact on the catch rate. I have had it proven to me, repeatedly, that some color combos work better than others, and that the effective combo varies from lake to lake. It seems illogical, but the fish actually do sometimes want a yellow head, green body, yellow tail feather combo in Lake Crescent, for example, while on Lake George, just a few miles up the St. Johns, they might prefer a red head with gray body and gray tail feather. Considering that jigs don’t really look like minnows, whatever the color, it’s weird that the fish have a color preference, but at times they definitely do.
Whatever the lure choice, you won’t catch nearly as many specks on 20-pound-test as you will on six, and you’ll catch even more fish on four. I suspect the lure sinks deeper on the lighter, thinner lines, so it stays in the strike zone better. The visibility of the line could be a factor, too, as could the flex of thinner mono, giving a better action to the jig. Of course, when that rogue 5-pound largemouth grabs the jig, you will have your hands full with 4-pound-test, but that’s one of life’s more pleasant surprises. A careful hand with four will whip any speck that ever lived.
Speaking of which, they don’t call ’em papermouths for nothing. Actually, I have never heard anybody call ’em that, anyway, except outdoors writers, but it’s not a bad name because the skin around their mouths is a membrane so thin that you can see through it. Naturally, it tears easily if you try to derrick a heavy fish aboard, so a landing net is an essential part of fishing for specks of a pound and up—and you’ll find plenty of them in open water on some lakes.
Hal Barber, inventor of the Hal Fly, taught me the basics of crappie trolling close to 20 years ago, and his tactics still work just as well as ever. Hal said that fish tend to bite best on downwind legs, particularly on days when winds have been strong and consistent for an extended period. It’s possible that the wind creates a slight current, which causes the fish to face into it.
In any case, trolling for specks works best if you choose one of two speeds, slow…or slower. Walking speed is plenty fast enough. Specks are not given to running down fast-moving baits, and also the slow speed assures that your offering stays deep, down where the fish are likely to be when the water is chilly.
Most outboards will not run slowly enough for speck trolling; you’ll probably need to troll with the electric motor, set at its lowest speed—just enough to maintain steerage. Stern mount trollers work a lot better for this than bow mounts; steering is tough with the wind behind you with a bow-mount. On windy days, you don’t even need the troller except for steerage, advises John Evertsen—just let the wind slide you along, and when you get to the bottom of a productive area, start the outboard and motor wide around the school, back to the upwind side for another drift. (Don’t have an electric motor? Take a tip from northern walleye trollers and use the outboard for “back-trolling” which is backing up as you troll. The boat moves much slower, and you catch more crappies—though the motor noise can be a factor if the fish are at depths of less than 10 feet.)
Some experts spread their baits as much as possible, just as if they were trolling for marlin in blue water. They use 8-foot fly rods to reach out to each side of the boat, then add a couple of shorter rods at the transom corners, and maybe even one or two more lines straight behind the outboard. This gives them a better shot at pulling the lures through the school of fish. Hal Barber also liked the long rods because their soft tips were less likely to tear the hook out of a speck’s mouth.
For those who hate trolling, once you locate a school, you can anchor and work on them by drifting minnows to them, casting jigs or even delivering a sinking shrimp or minnow fly on a sinktip 6-weight fly rig. When the fish are tightly schooled, you can actually catch more this way than trolling, but as soon as the bite stops on a school, it’s time to start trolling and find a more cooperative pod of fish.
Offshore speck trolling stays good until the fish head to the shallows to spawn. In a warm winter, this might be the first strong moon period in February, sometimes even in late January. If it’s exceptionally cold, the offshore action may hold on until the first of March—after that, it’s time to head for the bullrushes to load up on a speck dinner.
Finding specks along a shoreline is often a matter of looking for the crowds. Fish stack up, and so do fishermen, and there’s usually room for all. Basically, specks spawn in one to five feet of water over fairly hard bottom with plenty of weedy cover. Canepoled minnows or jigs, dropped into the tiny weed pockets, will catch all you want once you locate the spawning aggregations. F
Top 10 Lakes
Just about every lake in Florida has plenty of specks, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission each year compiles a list of the most productive larger waters that attract lots of anglers. Here’s the lineup for this year:
Lake Marian, 5,739 acres east of Haines City
Lake Trafford, 1,500 acres southeast of Fort Myers
Lake Monroe, 9,400 acres near Sanford
Lake Talquin, 8,800 acres west of Tallahassee
Lake Okeechobee, 650 square miles! You know where this one is.
Tenoroc, 13 managed lakes east of Lakeland
Lake Woodruff, 2,200 acres near DeLeon Springs
Lake Istokpoga, 28,000 acres near Sebring
Lake Kissimmee, 35,000 acres east of Lake Wales
Lake Jessup, 10,000 acres in Seminole County.
Other lakes recommended by FWC biologists include Lake Harris, Weir, Marion (the one in Polk County), George, Griffin and Beauclair. I’d add a few personal favorites to that—Crescent as mentioned above, East Toho and Toho—all very productive and holding some 2-pound slabs that ought to be ready to bite just about now.