I am generally of the belief that April is crappie time in Southern Michigan, so when I met up with Jim Horn and Terry Smith for my first crappie sojourn of the spring well into May this year, I was hoping I hadn’t missed it. Both guys—who are good crappie fishermen—assured me that I hadn’t.
Not too many minutes into it, I saw for myself. Smith, who was fishing a tiny (1/32-ounce) chicken-feather jig below a bobber, set the hook on a 12-inch specimen and reeled her in. Her belly was almost rotund—obviously full of spawn—so at least there was one that hadn’t spawned yet.
Horn, who was fishing a slightly larger (1/16-ounce) tube-style jig sans bobber, followed up with a similar fish. A minute later, I added the best one yet: 13-plus inches.
Apparently, I hadn’t missed it.
We were fishing on Klinger Lake in St. Joseph County, a lake I’ve visited a number of times in the past, but always to fish for bass. Smith, however, said he ran into the crappies here a couple of years back and caught good ones, including an honest 17-incher. It’s made Klinger one of his go-to crappie lakes ever since.
Horn and Smith, who are often bass tournament partners, have different approaches to this pre-spawn crappie game. Though they both prefer the same basic pattern (they stay a good cast off of weed clumps in 10 to 12 feet of water and toss their jigs over the top the vegetation), they have different techniques. Smith prefers the bobber, with the jig suspended about half down. Horn likes to swim his bait back, counting it down as it falls and slowly retrieving it, until he locates the appropriate depth to catch ‘em.
As for their baits, well, Smith believes in the chicken-feather jig while Horn is sold on the tube jig. Both see merit in each other’s technique, however.
“Seems like the chicken feather does better when the bite is tough,” Smith said. “But Jim’s made me a believer in that tube jig many a time.”
Said Horn: “When I can’t catch them on the tube, I go to the chicken feathers.”
As to Horn’s decision to use a heavier jig? Well, have you ever tried to cast a 1/32-ounce bait? Enough said.
We fished for about three hours and caught an assortment of fish (largemouths, smallmouths, bluegills, sunfish, and rock bass), but never really got the crappies dialed-in. Horn took a quick tally and found we had 10 in the livewell, so we decided to go elsewhere. We went northwest to Diamond Lake in Cass County, which is among Horn’s favorite crappie haunts.
We pulled up on the first weed bed Horn knew about and all three of us had boated nice crappies within a few minutes. But when the bite died, we went to the next clump. It started a pattern; we’d catch a couple, go a while without a bite, then move on. But as the afternoon continued, Horn began out-fishing us by a wide margin.
Smith removed his bobber and went to a tube-style jig.
“I have some chicken-feather jigs with a heavier head,” Smith said, “but Jim’s made a believer out of me.”
I watched Horn (who is an excellent angler) at work. He was letting his jig sink—more than the five or so seconds it would take to get down to the top of the weeds—then he’d give his rod tip a quick jerk, pick up his slack, and let the jig fall again. He was swimming it a lot less than he had been earlier, and he was catching more fish.
“The fish are down near the bottom,” Horn said. “They’re not really hitting it. It just sort gets heavy and they’re there.”
For my part, I kept lengthening the distance between the jig and the bobber until it was longer than the rod and almost impossible to cast, but I apparently still wasn’t getting deep enough as my offerings went unheeded. If I were to continue with the bobber, I’d have had to get the steelhead rod out to handle the job. Makes you remember why those long cane poles were so popular for so long, doesn’t it?
The fish at Diamond Lake were running slightly smaller than at Klinger, but were still plenty nice. I don’t recall that we ever caught one deemed too small to fillet. Over about a three hours period, we caught around 30 (but the by-catch was far smaller; no sunfish and far fewer bass). The crappie fishing on Diamond was three times as good as the fishing on Klinger.
Why so? It was a hot day; had the water warmed enough that the fish were simply more active than they had been earlier? We’d travelled maybe 20 miles north; were the fish just that much behind in their move into the shallows to spawn that we found more of them on the outer weed beds? Or does Diamond just have that many more crappies than Klinger?
Good questions, which none of us had definitive answers for. We probably won’t get to answer them this year, as several days of good warm weather no doubt pushed the crappies up into the shallows to conduct their business.
But they are questions worth exploring. Maybe next year, eh?
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Bob Gwizdz