By CHRIS GINN
|Photo by CHRIS GINN
|According to Bobby Phillips, many anglers make the mistake of thinking that all white perch are done spawning in May.
Webster defines guru as any person who counsels or advises; mentor; a leader in a particular field. By definition, then, Bobby Phillips of West Monroe is a crappie guru.
No, he isn’t some robe-draped Hindu sitting on a mountaintop advising his followers in the ways of religious and spiritual awakening.
Instead, Phillips sits on a stool behind a cash register in his tackle shop, The Honey Hole, extolling the intrinsic worth of his favorite fish — crappie. And if you happen by on any given afternoon, he will advise you in the ways of catching these papermouth fish. You would be wise to listen intently because Phillips is a leader in this particular field.
Phillips is so widely recognized for his white perch prowess he has attracted the television cameras of personalities like Jimmy Houston and those of the Crappie USA organization. He regularly catches ice chests full of fish that would make any angler drool and, more often than not, crappie tournament contestants realize that they are contributing to his retirement fund when they see his name in the field.
Who better, then, to fill us in on how to catch transition crappie during May when they are no longer spawning in shallow water? The fish that were easily caught in 2- or 3-foot depths during March and April turn into silver phantoms that begin migrating back out to the main lake, where they will eventually settle into their summer patterns.
“Actually the first place you can mess up during May is to assume that all the crappie are finished spawning,” said Phillips. “May is definitely the tail end of the spawn on most lakes in North Louisiana, but there may be a few late spawners in shallow water.”
Phillips recognizes that the severity of late winter and early spring cold fronts can affect the white perch spawn by pushing it back a few weeks.
“If that happens,” he says, “don’t give up on the shallow water just yet — especially in early May. It’s worth your time to check the shallow water to see if any easy fish still remain.”
For the most part, however, Phillips concedes that May is a time of transition. Crappies that have completed their annual reproduction duties start making their way back out to deep water. To make things just a little bit tougher, they tend to suspend in 10 to 15 feet of water as they recuperate from all the stress that comes about as a result of the spawn.
Phillips recommended beginning your crappie search near spawning areas.
“As they move off the flats they’ll be closer to them then than they are to the main-lake stuff,” said Phillips. “So if you begin your search near the spawning areas, you’re more likely to make contact with the fish quicker than you would if you started out on the main lake and worked your way back.”
Specifically, Phillips looks for the closest deep water near the spawning flats. Key structure that gets his attention includes sloughs and creeks. If Phillips can’t find one of those two kinds of structure, he looks for the first major drop-off from the flat to deep water.
“I guess structure is what attracts the fish,” said Phillips, “but it’s the cover that concentrates them. When you find the deep-water structure start looking for cover like brushtops and stumps. Anything down there that provides the fish something to get next to will concentrate enough white perch to keep you busy a while.”
|Photo by CHRIS GINN
|When the sun is shining brightly, crappie tend to seek shelter deep in any cover available. Although this makes them tougher to get to, they aren’t any less eager to bite.
Eddie Halbrook guides on Caney Lake, and while he may not have reached guru status yet, he has caught more than his fair share of white perch from his home water. He agrees with Phillips that the fish move out to the closest deep water during May.
“What I’ve discovered on Caney,” he said, “is that they are usually somewhere between the middle of the creeks and the mouths.”
Halbrook went on to say that the creeks that run out the arms on the north side of Caney act as highways for the moving fish.
“They’ll kind of fan out from the spawning flats until they reach the creek,” he said. “Then they’ll follow that creek channel back out to the main lake, making frequent stops at brushtops along the way. They move out along the same route they used to move in.”
Even though Phillips and Halbrook agree that most of the white perch will be on the move back out to deep water during May, Phillips cautions that some may hang out for a while around deeper shorelines.
“One pattern that holds up pretty well during May is the boat houses and piers,” he said. “Look for those in 10 to 12 feet of water that have some brushtops planted around them. You can easily tell if a pier has tops around it by the presence of rod holders, chairs and other signs of property owners that frequently fish from their piers.”
Once you find some good-looking cover along a creek, slough or pier, you can bet the white perch will be close by. Halbrook says that they will typically suspend over the top of the brushtops.
“That’s usually where they hang out during low-light conditions,” he said. “However, if the sun is out strong, they tend to move deeper into the piles, and although they’re aren’t harder to catch when they retreat into the heart of the pile, you will get hung up more since you have to go in after them.”
Halbrook adds that his most-productive method of searching for these phantom fish is to start in about 6 feet of water with a couple of rods out and allow the wind to push him closer to the deep water.
“I take one rod with a shiner and one with a jig and just let the wind carry me down the creek,” he said. “That’s about the fastest way I know to find these transition fish on Caney during May.”
Phillips, on the other hand, likes to position his boat right over the top of the brush and drop jigs down to the cover.
“My most productive way to catch May crappie is to swim a gray or gray/chartreuse hair jig just over the top of the cover,” he revealed. “And I pay close attention to my line as the jig is falling because the bites are sometimes hard to feel when they’re biting light.”
Phillips has found a trick to help him catch some of these light-biters. He has switched to the Izorline Platinum in the yellow color.
“That line was developed for saltwater fishing,” he said, “but I’ve found it to work extremely well for crappie fishing. It has a little memory but slides through the rod eyes really well. And the best thing about it is that you can’t miss a bite if you’re watching your line no matter what strength prescription glasses you wear.”
|Photo by CHRIS GINN
|Phillips believes strongly in adding scent and even glitter to his jigs with Berkley Crappie Nibblers.
Phillips typically hangs his jigs underneath the tip of an 11-foot graphite jig pole.
“I’ve settled on the 11-foot length because it will do what you need it to do most of the time, and the graphite makes it a lot easier to feel the light bites.”
If Phillips is having difficulty locating crappie that are willing to bite, he turns to a spider rig.
“It isn’t nearly as much fun as fishing with a single rod, but it will work when nothing else will,” he stated.
After making the decision to turn to the spider rig, Phillips ties jigs or shiners, and sometimes both, to about seven or eight poles that he places in specially designed rod holders mounted at the front and corners of his boat.
“Once you get all those poles positioned, you can set your lures at varying depths to help you move quickly home in on the active zone,” said Phillips. “And once you get all that stuff set out, you can picture in your mind why it’s called a spider rig. Move slowly with your trolling motor, and you can cover a lot of water in a day’s time.”
Phillips believes it is important to use as light a jig head as you can. He believes the lighter heads produce a more natural presentation, but he says you have to let the wind conditions and water depth dictate what size jighead you use.
“On windy days or when I’m trolling with the spider rig, I use a 1/16-ounce head,” says Phillips. “And if it’s calm and I’m swimming jigs over the brushtops, I drop down to a 1/32-ounce head.”
Halbrook agrees that you have to let the wind dictate your jighead size, but he has found an exception to that at Caney during May.
“For some reason those fish like a 1/16-ounce head over a 1/32-ounce no matter what the conditions,” he says. “I don’t really know if they like it better or if it’s because I can fish it quicker thus covering more water. You can experiment a little, but day in and day out I catch more on the heavier head.”
As far as lure choices go, Phillips has narrowed the vast selection and colors of crappie jigs down to one – a gray and chartreuse hair jig.
“It boils down to confidence,” he said. “Just like in bass fishing you’re going to fish a lure you have confidence in more effectively than you will if you are experimenting with colors and styles.
“White perch will bite any number of colors and styles of jigs, but I know if I get my gray and chartreuse hair jig in front of them, they’ll eat it more often than not.”
Phillips does admit that he carries a little jar of secrets along with him when he goes white-perch fishing.
“Berkley makes a product called a Crappie Nibbler that you can press onto the bend of your jig hook,” he said. “They come in a variety of colors and metal flakes, but they all put out a scent that’s said to attract crappie. I normally pinch a chartreuse Nibbler onto my hook, and I wholeheartedly believe it helps me catch more fish.”
Being the advisor and mentor that he is, Phillips wouldn’t be much help if he counseled to use only one color jig.
“Sometimes I’ll change up a bit,” he conceded. “If the water’s really clear, I drop the chartreuse and just use a gray jig. If you stop and think about it a minute, you’ll realize that almost everything that swims in the water has a gray or silver color to it. Grass shrimp, minnows, crawfish, it doesn’t matter — they all have some gray on them.”
After a little more pressing, Phillips conceded that the soft-plastic tube jigs are also productive.
“Some of our most-popular tube jigs here in the store are the Blake Lake jigs, the Slater jigs and Red’s jigs. You might also want to try such offerings as the Bobby Garland Baby Shad, the Bass Assassin and a Crème Lil’ Fishie.”
Crappie fishing during May can be a little unpredictable at times since the fish are no longer spawning in shallow water while also not locking into their summer holes just yet. They’re on the way, and maybe in June and July you can catch all you want on your deep main-lake brushpiles, but for now you’re going to have to remain flexible enough to stay on the move with the fish, keep an open mind and follow the advice of North Louisiana’s resident crappie guru.
It’s not often you can learn from a guru. But now that you’ve had that chance, it’s time to put your lesson to good use. After all, this isn’t Ancient Roman History or Calculus. You can actually use this information in the real world — as long as you get on the water and do your homework. And this is probably some homework you won’t mind doing.