Zero in on spawning aggregations of black crappie.

Fishing for specks in Okeechobee.

 Fall through spring, specks congregate and tour according to a plan which is not posted legibly. It does include hiding a lot. When the winds of the latest cold front have subsided leaving a warm, calm evening to caress your chosen lake, there may be surface feeding. For the fisherman with a watchful eye, this eliminates the hunt but puts a bend in the rod. Either way, when you find them there is only one appropriate response: “Ah-hah!” signifying the jig is up. It’s usually not that easy.

Every lake is like a universe unto itself, where specks customize behavior to suit the unique contours and flora of their habitat. In Florida this gives us a few thousand games of hide and seek. It’s fun to keep moving on, hoping for another satisfying “Ah-hah. Found you!” moment.

Specks are good sports. They don’t pretend you didn’t find them. One of them is going to fin over and signal “You won!” with a tug on the lure. Of course there is no way to know this. It’s just a feeling I have that specks can’t resist biting—like bluegills.

If you fish one lake every year, the mysteries will reveal themselves.
Here’s what the specks do in my lake. One 50-yard stretch is deeper than the rest of the lake. In the fall the specks hang out 150 feet from shore on the bottom in the left and deepest corner of this dropoff. By January they start bedding against the grass on the left shore, big ones, too, up to two pounds. And that’s the only ones I catch—the fat females. Through winter, they slowly rotate clockwise in the deep end of the pool. I learned this from the shore by casting a ¼-ounce Limpi spoon as far as possible along this arc. By late February the specks hole up in the far shallower right end of the area 50 to 100 feet out. When they cruise in to spawn, this area also has spread right. Their presence over the rest of the lake seems mostly confined to a few rogue specks hanging around lily pads, never lunkers.

So you can ask yourself, “Are they rotating clockwise because it’s clockwise, because it’s deep to shallow or left to right? Or because that’s just the way they do it up Nawth?”

How to begin finding them in your lake?

Even when you know the drill, it’s never exact and you still have to do a little investigating. Best way I know to find them deep is drift or slowly drag bottom with a Missouri minnow on a No. 6 wire hook with a tiny splitshot several inches up the line. Hook size in relation to bait size is more important than the size of your quarry, a light hook allowing the bait to swim better and live longer.

Tiny jigs, some days, work as well as live minnows.

Lacking minnows, a tube lure up to two inches is a good substitute on a 1⁄16-ounce jighead. A splitshot will help it get down. While doing that, it’s good to toss a ¼-ounce spoon all around for exploration purposes and maybe let another tube lure dangle in case you’re looking in the wrong latitude and the specks aren’t even on the bottom.

Look for scattered surface feeding, usually in the evening, splashes too gentle to be bass and too splashy for bluegills. This won’t reveal much about where the base of operations is because they often feed over the entire lake. But it is an opportunity to catch some, some of which will be the smaller males. Whether they’re visibly feeding or not, trolling a medium-size Beetle Spin with a live minnow on the hook is the nearest thing to sure-fire.

You would think once you’ve found specks by trolling, it would be time to stop and cast. Oddly, this often doesn’t work. It seems the finicky fish prefer the lure trolled, at right about rodtip vibration speed. While trolling it’s always good to drag a jig or two at various depths behind the boat.

Where are they going to spawn? Most small lakes have a dropoff. Specks like to focus on a dropoff with an attractive spawning site on the near shore. Unlike bluegills and bass, which will bed practically on the land, specks like a bank with at least a foot or two of water and weeds, a dock, branches, sunken shopping cart—something that says home, sweet home to a speck. Don’t expect to see the beds. I often wonder where the fry go. I’ve spent more time swishing a net through lakes than Carter has liver pills, catching every kind of sunfish under the sun, including sunfish I didn’t even know existed, like blue spotted and pigmy, but never a little specky-poo.

This year I hooked up with an old childhood pal, known in the previous century for his speck fishing, now a guru on the vast and famous Lake Jessup. His usually fruitful technique of trolling and drifting minnows under bobbers yielded him zip in the sinkhole we were fishing. It was my old lake but I was faring no better than Jim. It seemed the specks in there had finally twigged my pattern. They didn’t seem to rotate, just staying on the left side. A victim of habit, at the end of February I had rotated and kept hunting them on the right side of the dropoff, feeling they could not be anywhere else. Turns out they had back-tracked on me and Jim finally found them spawning on the far left under some fallen cattails. We caught a few that ventured out but mostly the only path to success was to locate a hole wide enough to drop a jig straight into at the end of the pole.

For fishing lily pads, good ol’ cane pole is hard to beat. Park the boat or your butt in one spot and you can cover a wide area. Eight-pound line is light yet strong enough to help your fish out of the pads. The long, flexible pole will absorb lots of shock and prevent breakoffs, even with a sizable bass. Minnows are excellent for this but sometimes they wiggle around a pad stem. Splitshots can help prevent this. A jig can actually work as well, even still-fished under a bobber.

If shore-bound, a fun way to search for specks is to walk around the lake tossing a small jig, maybe 1⁄16-ounce with a splitshot for distance at least a foot up the line. The space between jig and splitshot allows the jig to settle more slowly onto the bottom after the splitshot has hit. This gives a wide range of bottom to bounce it along and while you’re waiting expectantly, you might find some bass, bluegills or bullheads. Tandem rig is great for this, doubling your chances and increasing your distance.

Finally, the key to keeping a great speck spot is secrecy. People like to eat specks and too many fishing a small lake can force you to move on in search of another. Of course starting over can be fun.

Black crappie, a.k.a. speck, is a winter specialty in Florida.

Speck Sampler:
Central Florida Lakes

BLACK CRAPPIE range widely throughout Florida. Apparently triggered by dropping water temperature, they start congregating in the fall within casting distance of their eventual spawning site. Usually by January they come in to shore and spawn all winter—often in the same site, year to year. Look in at least a foot of water near grass, lily pads, cattails, a dock or tree limbs. Find these all together and you may be saying, “Ah-hah!”

Central Florida is rich in specks. Every sinkhole more than a block wide is worth a look. Go on a hunt. Throw in your canoe, johnboat or float tube. A great thing about small lakes is, without boat ramps, they are lightly fished, if at all. You can find virgin water even in the city.

Boat ramp lakes are good, too, and since speck season is the cooler months, annoying water sports are at a minimum.

The Orlando area has several boat ramp lakes:

Lake Ivanhoe: plenty of shoreline speck habitat.
Lake Underhill: great habitat, especially on
west shore.
Lake Baldwin: Boat ramp is in Fleet Peeples Park—no big motors allowed.

Winter Park’s chain of lakes has a lot of specks and a lot of area to search for them. They can be reached by the Lake Virginia ramp on Aloma Avenue west of Rollins College.

Lake Jessamine is small for a boat ramp lake and relatively unexploited.
The Conway chain has ramps on Fern Creek Avenue in Orlando and Hoffner Road in Pine Castle. Try the canal mouths.

Central Florida’s most famous speck lakes are wide spots in the St. Johns River: Monroe, Jessup and Harney. Plus of course, Lake Tohopekeliga and Lake Marian in Osceola County. Lake Okeechobee is South Florida’s speck heaven.

Originally published January, 2011 print edition

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