Think out of the box for fall Louisiana crappie

When it comes to getting bites from crappie, this north Louisiana guide has some ideas that definitely aren’t old-school, especially when it comes to the size and shape of baits.

Everybody knows that there is fishing, and then, there is catching. 

Anybody can fish, but you have to spend some time “hitting the books” to learn how to catch fish, especially when it comes to catching crappie year-round.

Spring isn’t the only time to catch crappie. That’s one of the first lessons that the new generation of anglers has learned. The old-school approach of hitting the shallows and catching crappie in early spring still works, but there’s a growing world of knowledge that is enabling fishermen to be successful in all seasons, and it’s based on the advantages of technology.

Josh Starkey of Minden has learned enough lessons to not only catch more fish for fun, but also to successfully compete in tournaments and even guide part-time as owner of JLT Outdoors. Many anglers are happy just fishing for fun and working their way through Crappie 101, but Starkey, 34, said there’s a whole other level of education out there for the taking. 

Josh Starkey has changed his approach to baits, colors and crappie fishing in general at times other than spring. He’s got a handle on the results.

“Back in the day, we’d change through a hundred colors, it seemed like, before we thought we figured the bite out,” Starkey said. “In all actuality, it’s more likely that the fish just became more active. We also used to think that dead-sticking was the way to go. Now, we are fishing bigger and faster baits. 

Changing jig sizes, styles and profiles can often make a big difference in how crappie will react.

“Recently, I fished a tournament where profile and speed are what helped me end up in the money. Now, I’m stubborn a lot of times, and I will fish a hair jig 99% of the time; it’s my go-to bait. I think we all have tendencies like that, but on this day, after a little while of short strikes and downsizing with the same results — fish just following the bait — I made a switch. I went to casting a pink, ¼-ounce Grenada Tackle jighead with a 3-inch finesse minnow by Chasing The Thump, and the bite was on.”

There’s no doubt in Starkey’s mind that the switch made a difference.

Another lesson he and other anglers using modern depth finders, trolling motors and other accessories have learned is that crappie are more apt to bite as a reaction, not just chasing down an easy meal.

“When I’m approaching fish that I see on the electronics, I’m casting or pitching to that fish before I ever drop vertically to them,” he said. “Swim your bait directly over the face of the fish. I try to stay 6 inches to a foot above them. If you go too low, you will hit and or spook the fish. Do this just right, and bam! You just got thumped.”

To make sure he gets the maximum number of bites, he keeps several rods rigged with baits of different profiles and presentations to find that right combo for a reaction bite.

One thing every fisherman knows is that to find crappie, you have to find baitfish. Locating big balls of shad on your electronics is almost a sure sign that crappie will be nearby. Even if they aren’t actively feeding, if you can get a bait down to where they are hanging out, you’ll catch a few. 

New, high-tech depth finders have enabled fishermen to locate crappie in open water.

But there’s more to it than that. New, sonar-type depth finders are enabling fishermen to find fish in places they didn’t expect to. Crappie have a mind of their own, and anglers are finding that some of those out-of-the-box thinking crappie are the biggest ones you can catch.

“If you’ve ever been running your sonar and saw a fish out in the middle of nowhere, you would think that’s not a crappie, or it must be a blip,” he said. “Now, we are finding out that a lot of the bigger fish are out in the middle of no man’s land. They aren’t relating to anything: structure, cover, bait, etc. That arch you are driving over might be that fish of a lifetime. Older electronics, you weren’t sure if that was a fish, but now with the HD images these units give us, there’s no question.

“With that, we used to think ‘Find the bait, find the fish.’ Well, that’s true to a point. I find now that the majority of the bigger fish I target aren’t near baitfish. I’ve been proving this on just about every lake I fish. What we are learning is, these fish are everywhere, not just in the old seasonal patterns. Those patterns work and are tried and true, but don’t overlook the off-the-book areas. They may just surprise you. Using these high-tech units you can find fish anywhere in just a short period.

Big concentrations of crappie change areas of lakes and depths they’re using as fall progresses, following baitfish. (Photo by Kinny Haddox)

Cliff’s Notes for fall, winter crappie

In early fall, crappie fishing can change from day to day. To remain successful, anglers have to be ready to respond. Here are guide Josh Starkey’s best tips for taking advantage of the bite in fall and winter.

“As summer comes to an end and the water starts to cool, the shad will pull up in shallower water, and the crappie won’t be far behind,” he said, describing shallow water as 5 to 10 feet deep, depending on the lake. 

 “They’ll run there for several weeks, but then the shad will start gathering in the secondary creeks, and as the weather cools, they’ll head out down those creeks toward the deeper water,” he said. “The best ways to find where they are in that process is first, to use your electronics, and second, spend some time fishing. You can locate fish either way. When you find them, stay on them.”

But, Starkey added, be prepared to move with them as anything changes.

“Finding the shad doesn’t mean you are automatically on the fish,” he said. “That confuses some fishermen. The shad may be balled up in an area, but the majority of the crappie may be hanging out 10, 20, even 100 yards away. But when it’s time to eat, they’ll swim over and start feeding — just like we do when we get hungry. We don’t sit in the kitchen all day, but when we are hungry, we know where the food is.”

When the crappie bite isn’t on fire, Josh Starkey focuses on the profile of the bait as much as color selection. (Photo by Kinny Haddox)

‘Profiling’ crappie

Crappie don’t have to be politically correct; they just have to eat. 

So while some people may frown on “profiling” — targeting or suspecting someone or something on the basis of common observation — crappie could care less. And fishermen who know that put more filets in the freezer.

“We all have our favorite lures and types of lures, and sticking with them when they are working is great,” said guide and tournament pro Josh Starkey. “But when the bite slows, I’ve found that changing the profile of the bait — the size, shape or weight — can generate new bites. Basically, if something changes and the fish seem less aggressive to tiny or real big — just do something to get them going. Sometimes crappie are sticklers for a certain profile bait.”

Starkey breaks down his lure selection when he’s trying to give fish what they want: 

“My go-to crappie bait is a 1/16-ounce Mudhole jig in Ouachita gold (color),” he said. “It’s first in the lineup. If fish start short-striking it or won’t bite, I will try something bigger, like a Grenada Lake Tackle 1/4-ounce pink leadhead with a big-body, plastic tail. The razortail ones give off a lot of vibration and sometimes trigger strikes. If I want it to fall slower, I’ll use a 1/16-ounce head.”

When fish may not want as much bulk or movement, he tries smaller, straight tails like Chasing the Thump plastics in black and chartreuse or purple shad. If bigger doesn’t work, he’ll go smaller. Especially in clear water, he loves 1/32- and 1/16-ounce Mudhole hair jigs in white/pink and cotton candy colors. For a little variation, he’ll also try one of those in the wedgehead style, which darts and falls erratically.

There’s one more “profile” that crappie love, and that’s bladed jigs. Several good models are on the market, and the blade gives the bait a little noise and flash that a normal jig doesn’t have. His favorites are the Mudhole mardi gras and gray ghost colors.

“We spend a lot of time trying to pick the right color, but more important, you have to find a bait with the right profile to trigger the strike”, Starkey said. “The key is to not get hung up on what you want to fish, but to go to what the fish wants to bite.”

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About Kinny Haddox 401 Articles
Kinny Haddox has been writing magazine and newspaper articles about the outdoors in Louisiana for 45 years. He publishes a daily website, lakedarbonnelife.com and is a member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Outdoor Legends Hall of Fame. He and his wife, DiAnne, live in West Monroe.

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