Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Lake Champlain’s deep-water crappies

By Vic Attardo
Contributing Writer

If there is a fish that having a treasure map would be helpful in finding, it’s the black crappie.

Sometimes – I should say, often – the checkered black and silver panfish is such a mover, a migrator, a traveler in response to conditions they’re just hard to locate. 

Black crappies are reputed to be shallow-water fish and in the winter, in the ice season, and in spring, during the spawn, they are often just that. But black crappies adjust to conditions and habitats and so locating them in shallow and deep water is a huge part of the angler’s task. 

What makes the movement even more interesting is the way crappies adopt to specific lakes. For instance, in places where average depths are not more than 12 to 15 feet, black crappies will find every bit of shallower, covered water they can squeeze into. But on lakes with much deeper zones, such as Lake Champlain, they avoid the shallow shoreline in summer and make for much greater depths, and any structure they can locate. On Champlain you can pick just about any letter in the alphabet, from A for ATM machine (yep, I know where an old one lies) and Z for Zamboni (reportedly one from minor league hockey), and it rests somewhere on the bottom of this 514-square mile lake (plus bridge beams, cannons and cannon balls, the list goes on and on).

More commonly, there are sunken boats, abandoned ice shacks and displaced docks, with so many of these structures holding black crappies in water well over 15 feet deep.

Fishing these deep structures takes a special tactic but one that is so universal, and so much fun, you can confidentially approach all these sites with the ploy and catch black crappies.

Getting down to it, the winning tactic begins with a simple jig. A round- or ball-head jig is my first choice but I’ve also used thinner, fish-head shapes with equal success. The only difference is that mass produced round-head jigs are generally cheaper than other styles, particularly those with recessed or ballooned eyes, and here, cheap is good. You’re going to loose a bunch of jigs fishing these intricate structures so why up your costs?

The next consideration is the trailer, an indispensable part of a crappie jig. For the record, a trailer does not have to be a separate add-on. It can also be a fixed trailer, in particular a chenille body with a tuft of marabou. Many regional tackle shops sell the complete jigs with chenille and marabou either on a placard in which you peel them off from the card or in packets of three stapled to the card. If the jig is tied and suitable materials, a white marabou jig will catch deep holding black crappies all day.

That doesn’t mean I use that jig exclusively. When black crappies get tired of reacting to the marabou jig, take a fish head jig and add a soft plastic, specifically a tiny paddle tail. The paddle tail presents the perfect vertical action you’ll need for the swinging pendulum tactic I’ll talk about next. When you think about it, a marabou tuft acts the same way – with a vertical wave – as it falls through the water column.

When anchored or slow-drifting over deep structure, the concept is to toss the jig and allow it to descend on an arc- like the downswing of a pendulum.

Your position should be such that the bottom of the swing glides over the top of the structure, or against its elevated sides.

Picture this: the deep-holding structure is a sunken sailboat, pretty common on Champlain. If the boat is down on its hull the cabin is the highest point. Combine the open enclosure with the high point and the crappies are stacked above the hull. All this is visible on you sonar.

I like to anchor and cast so the jig falls and swings back in my direction. It’s tricky to make the perfect cast over and over, but your strike is likely to occur at the bottom of the glide so be ready with a line that is tight and a rod tip at a level where a quick snap sets the hook. 

Often when I mark the spot for repeated strikes, I’m throwing to an imaginary square in open water knowing just the distance and angle of the cast. That takes some skill, not unlike hitting the bullseye with an arrow, only there’s no bullseye on the water. When you’re in the zone you can frequently predict which cast will produce.

For many of the key locations I find I have to choose between a 1⁄8- to a 1⁄4 ounce jig head. Vary the jig weight until you get the cast that glides smoothly over the sunken structure. 

One year I found a collection of trees at the edge of a Champlain bay in 17 feet of water. As the summer progressed more and more crappies congregated around the area. With daily winds coming from different directions, it took some experimenting on each outing to anchor the boat in an optimal position for the pendulum glide. I hung a lot of jigs on each trip but it was worth the effort finding crappies tight around the wood and having them react to the swinging jig.

I pressed “save” and kept that spot on the sonar, but in two seasons it was gone and with it the crappies. 

Fortunately there are plenty of other spots out there for deep summer crappies and I’m always creating another treasure map. 

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