December 05, 2021
Thanksgiving through Easter. November through April. That's peak season for black crappie in Florida. Anglers are at the ramp by 6 a.m. or arriving after lunch. The fish are gathering to spawn in shallow water. Ultralight tackle puts them in the box. Some are slow-trolling, or spider-rigging; others are jigging.
But there are no guarantees.
“Black crappie in Florida tend to be ‘boom or bust' populations from year to year,” said Ryan Hamm, Northeast Regional Fisheries Administrator, division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Hamm is lead administrator on a team that recently developed a black crappie management plan.
“Currently there is a 25 fish bag limit, with no size limit. As you move from 9-inch fish to 10 inches, you see more harvesting,” said Hamm. “The highest harvest tends to be at 12 inches. Surprisingly, our research showed a lower harvest of 13- to 15-inch fish. This may be because anglers believe these are ‘breeder' fish, but that's not necessarily so… at that size, they have already spawned many times, and are likely to die of natural mortality.”
Hamm explained that “spider rigging” is a popular fishing technique in Florida for crappie. “It's hard to do with a lot of vegetation, though—it's usually done in open water. This involves multiple rods in holders, set at varying depths with jigs or minnows, and trolling though open water slowly.”
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MEN
Tom Ference is a seasoned crappie angler familiar with spider-rigging, having lived in Florida since 1973. He targets crappie in lakes off the St. Johns River. He'll spider rig with 12 cane poles, usually. At other times, he likes to cast for crappie or fish heavy vegetation. He ties on 1/16-ounce jigs, and a splitshot sometimes to get it down, using 8-pound-test mono, with no leader. “If one pole is getting all the bites, try to duplicate that setup on the other ones,” he said.
“If you go early, crappie are higher in the water column,” he continued, “Later, they go lower—but never on the bottom. They are looking up. Keep the jig in the right zone, all the time. I constantly adjust the trolling motor, according to wind and turns, to keep the jig from hitting bottom.”
Ference agrees that the quality of crappie fishing changes yearly. He feels overspraying of vegetation may be a factor in that. He looks for good habitat when seeking crappie, believing the fish primarily follow baitfish—even more so than seeking structure.
He's had success trolling when the water level is high, and a favorite time is fishing right after a big thunderstorm. He feels that strong winds hinder crappie fishing for days, and if he goes during high winds he fishes the lee shore. One year, Ference fished Lake Harney in March. He consciously stayed with the same pattern each month after, catching limits in April, May… every month that year. It was then that he decided “There is no ‘season' for crappie! They are always there, and a limit is possible every month of the year in Florida.”
He believes that black crappie primarily follow baitfish—even more so than seeking structure.
Darryl Cole is tournament director and president of the Florida Crappie Fishing Club. He only fishes for crappie, and has done so in Florida since 1996. he club has 120 members, and runs 18 tournaments throughout the year. “Seven fish are weighed per team, and it usually takes a 12- to 14-pound bag to win,” he said. Indeed, the first place spot for a March 2019 tourney went to James Hazelton with 12 pounds, 8.1 ounces.
“Ninety percent of tournaments are won spider-rigging,” continued Cole. He expanded on the seasonal spawning fish scene, stating that it's basically the smaller male “roosters” that anglers catch in the grassy shallows during the spawn. “The big females don't stay in the grass. They come in, lay eggs, and go back out to open water,” he said. He advises fishing about 100 feet away from the “hot spot” (in more open water) and you may find the really big ones.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Everyone I talked to agreed that the St. Johns River system is an excellent crappie fishery, including Dr. Mike Allen, Professor of Fisheries at University of Florida. Allen has studied crappie for over 20 years and also wrote a dissertation on them. “Crappie are typically found in high nutrient lakes, and they like green or tannic water. The green water is good because it means lots of plankton. Generally, there's not large numbers of crappie in very clear lakes,” he said. “The St. Johns is great, all the way from Melbourne to Jacksonville.”
Allen also lent credence to some theories touched upon earlier: “As adults, they spend a lot of time in open water. They forage on small shad and minnows.”
He said it's good to look around each year in different water bodies to see where the heavier populations are, because of the cyclic nature of the fishery. Once the class of fish gets depleted (through natural mortality, not just fishing pressure), the lake will be down for a year or two. “That's just the nature of it. Overall, Florida has an extremely good crappie fishery,” he said.
“LIGHTEN UP, FRANCIS!”
For years, I've had sporadic success with crappie. Occasionally, I've limited out during the spawn using minnows. I've caught a few in summer on jigs. But I haven't successfully targeted them in the “off” months. On a recent Orlando fishing trip with Ryan Hamm (FWC) and Patric McDaniel, a semi-retired fishing guide who keeps meticulous records of fish caught (and he's caught a record amount), the game changed for me.
The three of us set forth on the small but scenic Lawne Lake in Orlando.
McDaniel put us in a 17-foot deep area, with fish visible on the depthfinder at 9 to 11 feet. He anchored up and we proceeded to catch 150 crappie (released), including a 14.25-inch fish (1.12 p That large fish, incidentally, meets the 14-inch requirement to qualify for Florida's “Big Catch” program.
“Everything you feel other than steady retrieve is a bite,” said McDaniel. Every ‘tic' felt was indeed a fish, as we soon realized. I look back and wonder how many crappie I have missed over the years, not knowing it was a strike. In truth, it isn't really a strike—crappie inhale the bait. They have paper thin mouths. Serious speck anglers use super light line, gear and drag settings. How light? For his part, McDaniel uses 7- to 9-foot St. Croix light action spinning rods, spooled up with 1- to 3-pound-test mono on small Okuma spinning reels. He rigs a tandem jig setup, with the top one a 1/32-ounce, the bottom a 1/16-ounce. He will use a 1/8-ounce single jig on a shorter rod when scouting for “only large” crappie. McDaniel is more dedicated than most— he pours his own jig heads, paints them in light fluorescent color, and then adorns them with holographic glitter. He uses size 8 hooks for the jig head, and Bobby Garland jig bodies in colors like white/glow and monkey milk. He attaches these to the jighead with a drop of super glue.
You probably don't need to spend a lot for the highest quality rods, to consistently catch crappie, but I believe you do need to use extremely light line to truly increase your success with crappie. The only addition I make is a 3 ½-foot, 6-pound fluorocarbon leader, tied with a uni-to-uni knot to the mainline. To this I tie two jigs with loop knots, about 1 ½ feet apart. The light line allows for superior casting and sink rate. The leader helps my confidence with larger fish. FS
HOTSPOTS FOR SPECKS
From our experts' input, here's just a small sampling of some good locations to try for black crappie around Florida:
- Lake Talquin
- Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa (Ocala)
- Crescent Lake
- Harris Chain of lakes
- Kissimmee Chain
- Lake George
- Lakes Jessup, Monroe
- Lake Washington (Melbourne)
- Lake Harney
- Econlockhatchee River (Mims)
- St. Johns River
- Lake Istokpoga
- Lake Okeechobee (Per Dr. Allen, the exception to the ‘cyclic' crappie population rule ; it always has crappie due to its immense size!)
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2019