BIG BEND – Crappies are among the least significant pan fish in Michigan in the summer. They are popular in the spring, when they move shallow to spawn and signal the arrival of the new season almost as certainly as the first robin. But once the spawn is over and the crappies disperse, most Michigan anglers forget about them until ice fishing arrives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Denny Bouwens, an all-species angler who targets crappie all summer. Crappies, which tend to suspend in the water column making them harder to catch than many other species, don’t disappear. It just takes a methodical approach to find and catch them, Bouwens said.
He showed me. In spades.
I’ve known Bouwens for a number of years and have fished with him a handful of times, mostly on the Muskegon River, where he guides salmon, steelhead and trout fishermen, mostly in the winter and spring. During the summer months, Bouwens fishes for crappies on a number of lakes; he chose Hardy Dam Pond, a reservoir on the Muskegon (above Croton) for our crappie crusade.
Bouwens piloted his bass boat out of the launch ramp and pulled up outside of a weed line in 15 feet of water. He flipped a small jig over the side while he was checking the drag on the spinning reel and a fish intercepted it as it fell. It was a sign of things to come.
Less than four hours later, we were finished, with 50 fish in the live well — 49 crappies and one perch.
The drill was fairly simple: keeping the boat in deep water, we cast toward the weed beds and retrieved the tiny jigs (one-sixteenth ounce heads) as s-l-o-w-l-y as we could.
Sometimes the fish hit the bait on the initial fall. Sometimes they took it off the bottom directly under the boat. And they took it everywhere in between, too.
It was a subtle bite and our tools — slow-action, soft-tipped rods and four-pound test line — were key to our success, Bouwens said. A lot of anglers wouldn’t be able to catch on to the drill, he noted.
“For one thing, they use too heavy of line,” Bouwens said. “And they won’t fish slowly enough. I don’t know if they don’t have confidence in that slow a retrieve or what, but they retrieve it too fast.”
The highest hurdle to success — once you’ve got the retrieve down — is being able to detect a bite. I felt the bite on just a small fraction of the fish I caught and, often, when I did, it was not a crappie, but a bass (we caught both flavors), bluegill, pumpkinseed or perch. Generally, I knew I had a crappie working when I noticed the rod tip shimmy just a bit or saw the line twitch almost imperceptibly.
Generally, I cast toward the weed line, let the lure sink for a few seconds, then slowly reeled it back in, sometimes stopping for a second, sometimes lifting and dropping it. On occasion, we’d see fish working minnows on the surface and, when that happened, I’d start my retrieve (again, s-l-o-w-l-y) as soon as it hit the water. Otherwise, we covered the entire water column.
Often, as the bait neared the boat, I’d simply drop my rod tip and let the bait fall. I caught a number of crappies that I could practically lift straight up into the boat.
That’s a mistake a lot of anglers make when fishing for summer crappie Bouwens said: They give up on the cast too soon.
“Crappie will follow a bait for a long time before they take it sometimes,” Bouwens said. “You don’t want to get in a hurry to take that jig out of the water. A lot of times they’ll take it right at the boat. They don’t care about the boat. They don’t know what it is.”
We fooled around with a variety of trailers — split-trailed grubs (like the bodies on Beetle Spins). Two-inch Gulp smelt, twin curly tails — you name it. The only body that didn’t work well was a swim-bait style (with a tail similar to a Sassy Shad). Everything else worked just fine.
Color didn’t seem to matter much, either, though we mostly used white, pearl and natural baitfish colors. Bouwens said he doesn’t worry about color at all.
Most amazing, Bouwens said, is that it really wasn’t that good of a bite.
“It was good,” he said, “but nothing special. When they’re really on, it’s light out. You can be done in an hour.”
Although Bouwens hasn’t added crappie to his guiding repertoire just yet, he said he’d be glad to take guys out — especially with youngsters — who just want to learn to catch fish.
“It’s a nice relaxing way to fish,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily easy. But you can see that it works.”