Late in the afternoon while on the main section of the lake, I noticed a large tree lying in the water. Obviously the site had potential as a crappie hotspot. As I fished all the way around that fallen tree, I took three 8-inch-long crappie.
Looking to the center of that treetop, I saw a narrow opening about 4 inches wide between two branches. I had to tie my boat against the tree, lean out over a tree limb and swing my pole as far as I possibly could to try and hit the hole in the middle of the treetop. I knew if I caught a fish in that spot I'd have a very difficult time retrieving the crappie.
But just as my quill cork touched the surface of the water, it started descending and never stopped. I set the hook and fought a big slab to the surface. However, because of the extremely tight and narrow place I fished, I had to hold the crappie's head out of the water until the fish turned sideways to allow me to pull it through the two limbs blocking the hole. The crappie weighed 1 3/4 pounds.
After quickly rebaiting, I performed the same gymnastic trick I had used to initially get my bait into that small hole in the center of the downed treetop. Once more my quill sank, and I threaded another large crappie out of the hole in the center of the treetop.
For two hours, I leaned over the limbs and fought slabs through the tree top. I finally completed my limit of 50 crappie, all weighing more than 1 1/2 pounds each, out of that same little spot in the submerged treetop.
I remembered the words of one of my crappie mentors, John Holley, who had told me, "If you're going to catch big crappie, you can't fish where everybody else fishes. You've got to be willing to get hung, break hooks, bust poles and fight bushes to take monster-sized crappie.
"Average anglers catch average-sized crappie. Big crappie are reserved for those willing to fight for them."
Fight the weather
During the early years of professional crappie fishing, I always heard two names at the top of the leader board — Alan Padgett and Bobby Martin, both from Georgia. Even on the worst, windiest, rainiest, coldest days, these two anglers consistently would come to the scales with some of the biggest crappie taken in any tournament.
For years they kept their fishing strategies secret, but finally they told me how they regularly took big crappie, even on bad-weather days.
"I believe you catch some of the biggest crappie in any lake in deep water on main-river points," Padgett said. "Bass fishermen know that you can catch plenty of bass on main river points too.
"On many lakes throughout the nation, one to 10 bass tournaments will be held on any given weekend. To try to develop a honeyhole to catch big bass, often tournament bass anglers will build brush shelters out on the ends of the main-river points.
"Most crappie fishermen, especially on bad, cold, windy, rough days, will retreat to the creeks and coves to fish visible cover out of the wind and weather. The least amount of crappie-fishing pressure in most lakes will be on main river points, where you must contend with boat traffic, heavy winds and often blowing rains.
"However, these are the spots we always try to fish to find the biggest crappie."
Although some crappie fishermen have their doubts about the importance of color in catching crappie, Padgett and Martin believe that on certain days, big crappie will hit specific-colored jigs while little crappie prefer a different color of jigs.
"If we're catching little crappie, we change the color of our jigs and often then will begin taking big crappie, Martin explained.
"Come on down to my restaurant, John, about l p.m.," Danny Wiles told me. "I've been fishing, and I've caught a big mess of slab crappie."
I'd always known Wiles as an excellent fisherman, because he consistently caught large crappie and spotted bass in tailrace areas. But until I talked with him on this particular day, I hadn't realized he'd also lost his sanity.
Our part of the country had the worst floods in the history of the state for the two days prior to his phone call. With rivers about to flow out of their banks all over the state, I knew the spillways below the dams where Wiles fished had opened wide and spewed forth fast-running water. No one in his right mind would have gone fishing the day Wiles went in the wind, rain and muddy water conditions.
But at lunchtime when I sat down to drag some tasty, fried, crappie fillets through a puddle of ketchup, I started picking Wiles' brain about how to catch bad-weather, monster-sized papermouths.
"I only seriously crappie fish for about three to four weeks during the early spring prior to the spawn," Wiles said. "I've found the best crappie fishing to be on the worst days imaginable for several reasons.
"When the weather's bad, lots of water comes over the spillways at the dams, the wind's blowing, the current in the river is strong, and the water is muddy. Rarely will there be another boat below the dam except mine. So I don't have any competition for the fish.
"Also I like to fish on those kinds of days because the current forces the baitfish into eddy holes and pockets downriver behind rocks, below underwater drop-offs and behind trees that have fallen into the river.
"During these flood-water conditions, the baitfish will school-up in these eddy holes, and the big crappie will stack up in these same areas while gorging on shad in preparation for the spawn.
"Usually I can catch all the crappie I want to take in a half-day's fishing. If I have a limit of 35 fish, I'll generally have five to l0 crappie that will weigh 2 pounds or more."
Wiles has discovered one of the best-kept secrets for successful pre-spawn crappie fishing for big crappie. He fishes at a time when most other anglers feel they won't have success.
Wiles has learned that he has the most productive crappie fishing of the year and catches the biggest crappie when the rivers flood, and few weekend anglers fish because of the rough weather.
A few years ago, I'd planned a day off to bank fish for papermouths on a small stream near my home. As luck would have it, the weather turned foul two days prior to my trip. The rain came down all night long, just before my off-day.
At first light, the gray sky threatened a shower. But I didn't have to work, and I had a bucket of minnows, a rod, a box of hooks and a few split-shots. Walking down the bank, I stopped at every point where I saw an eddy hole. All day long, I consistently took crappie in the high water with the fast current.
For some reason, those flooding conditions seemed to cause the crappie to go on a feeding spree. To catch them, I found the slack-water areas where the fish could hold out of the current and feed.
But anglers won't just catch high-water, huge crappie in swift current and fast-moving streams. When the spring floods come, and many rivers and lakes back up into woodlots and fields, often the crappie will follow the moving water into the newly inundated lands.
I like to fish along a flood plain on the Tennessee/Tombigbee Waterway near the Mississippi border. Using a flat-bottomed johnboat, I go to the river when the water's up and have made some large catches in freshly flooded woodlots during the early part of the spring.
I particularly enjoy fishing in these conditions around newly inundated briar thickets where baitfish concentrate. The crappie will school-up and feed on these baitfish. Also you'll find standing timber in very shallow water, another strategic structure to home in on when you angle for high-water papermouths.
To take these shallow-water crappie, fish with minnows and jigs, and hold the baits only 1 or 2 inches under the surface. In muddy and rising water, light doesn't penetrate very deeply into the water. Most of the baitfish usually will swim in less than a foot of water. The baitfish will follow the moving water into the shallows to feed off the new plant life and microscopic animals that come into the lake as the water floods. By keeping your bait in that very shallow water, your minnows or jigs will appear more natural to the crappie, and you'll take more fish.
Most anglers' boats draft too much water or have too big a size to move into these shallow-water regions. I prefer to use a small johnboat or a one- or two-man type of boat, which I can easily maneuver and fish from in backwater areas.
Also when the river's up, I'll carry my belly boat or lightweight two-man boat into the woods on my hunting club that's bounded by the river. If I launch the boat in the spring in the woodlots I've hunted in the fall, I'll have no competition for these flood-plain papermouths in many of these inaccessible regions.
Crappie belong to the sunfish family, the same as black bass, and will react to rising flood waters just as bass do. They'll position themselves near the edge of the shore in very shallow water, facing toward the bank where the baitfish will run. The crappie fisherman who understands how and where to find bass when rivers flood also will know where to look for crappie under the same circumstances.
Start of the spawn
A few years ago, I discovered a warm-water discharge feeding out of a factory that ran down a small stream not more than 10 or 15 yards wide. This stream dumped into a major reservoir.
During late February and early March, I found that the big female spawners would come up this small, narrow creek to lay their eggs in the warm water at least a week or two and sometimes three weeks before the other crappie in the lake spawned.
I fished a small bobber with a 1/32-ounce jig suspended about 2 feet under a bobber. I cast out into the current and let the cork wash around a small peninsula of land and into the eddy pool formed on the back side of the peninsula.
For two to three weeks, I consistently caught 1 1/2- to 2-pound crappie from this eddy pool formed by the peninsula in the small creek.
The big sneak
During the spring of the year when crappie begin to run the banks, the dogwoods bloom and the turkeys gobble, I like to go to Portland Landing Lodge near Selma, Ala., and hunt turkeys.
On one of my earliest visits to the lodge, for several consecutive days, lodge manager Joe Champion would come in each afternoon with an ice chest full of big crappie. I got Champion to go into the woods with me one day after I finished turkey hunting to show me how to take these giant crappie.
"I sneak up behind the crappie," he told me.
Champion fished a small embayment off the Alabama River. Just out from the bank lay stumps and stick-ups within easy reach of boat-bound crappie fishermen, but Champion fished these same stumps and stick-ups from the bank.
He would walk down the bank, fighting thick bushes and briars to reach the edge of the water. Then he would swim a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig on the back sides of the wood structure standing in the water.
Although other fishermen fished this same slough from their boats, rarely did they ever catch the size and number of crappie that Champion did by fishing from the back or bank side of the cover. Champion proved to me once again that to catch really big crappie you must fish for them in places most crappie fishermen won't fish.