The seemingly endless varieties of crappie fishing presentations produce good fishing in the Prairie State. Here are some to help you boat more crappies this year.
Early season crappie fishing is highly dependent upon weather conditions in Illinois. In the southern areas, water warms sooner on average. Warming water stimulates crappie activity. The unusually warm 2011 surprised anglers when the crappie became more active earlier than normal. A lack of water due to low winter snowfall resulted in reduced levels in lakes.
March’s passing weather fronts also change crappie activity by affecting water temperatures. A few blasts of cold weather can stall normal fish activity this time of year. March crappie anglers need to be aware of the weather to gage fish activity.
Generally the further south you go the more likely you are to find fish moving into shallows and feeding hard prior to spawning. A passing thunderstorm can scatter them making the angler have to work harder. Between storms begin your exploration shallow and move to deeper water. The larger fish will probably be in deeper water.
Fish locating electronics are helpful in finding fish in deeper water. The new side imaging units are popular as they give three-dimensional views of sub-surface water. Structure and suspended fish are visible.
Fickled March crappie activity may require flexibility in technique and tackle. To that end here are some choices.
SLIP BOBBERING is probably the most popular fishing technique for crappie. A small knot is placed on the line above a hook and bobber to prevent the bobber from sliding up the line. It keeps the hook and sinker from moving too deeply in the water. The line goes through the bobber and a hook tied at the end. A split shot sinker aids the bait in sinking to the desired depth.
The bobber slides up and down the line from the knot to the sinker. By moving the knot location, you control the depth of the bait presentation.
DROPSHOTING requires an ultra-light spinning rod that is bendable but still has a stiff backbone. The angler finds a comfortable stance and points his rod at the spot where he believes fish to be hiding. This can be under overhanging limbs or under man-made structure such as a dock or pier.
He holds the lure in one hand and bends the rod down in an arc before letting go. It sounds simple but does require some practice and skill to master.
JIGGERPOLING has its origins in the early history of crappie fishing. Modern fiberglass poles of 12 to 14 feet length have replaced the old cane pole. The trolling motor has replaced sculling the boat along the shore.
Hold the pole in one hand and rest it across the opposite knee. Gently shaking the pole causes the jig to move slightly in the water representing a crippled baitfish. Shake the lure or bait along the edges of weed lines and buck brush as well as in and out of small pockets. It works well in visible wood such as brush tops, lay downs and stumps. It is particularly effective in shallow water.
SPIDER RIGS coupled with crankbaits are deadly for crappie. Their use depends upon how deep the fish are located. One method is to begin by letting out roughly a hundred feet of line. Troll with the trolling motor or big motor at 2 miles per hour. This is “long lining.”
Another use is when the spider rig mounts on the front deck of the boat and holds several rods at a time. The pros stagger their poles with multiple very small crankbaits. The set up includes different colors of crankbaits and lengths of line. At two miles per hour, with six poles, you can cover 12 miles of water. There are many fish approaching those baits in that length of time. It is a very productive way to catch big crappie.
The mini-crankbaits are especially effective in catching spawning fish and those just entering or just exiting the spawn. Keep the bait in the strike zone. The right depth with good boat control puts baits in front of the fish.
As the fish move into their cool water patterns, the spider-rigger plays out shorter amounts of line to jig fish at the same slow speed. The boat and rods can move slowly into shallow water and then back out if necessary.
DIPPIN’ is popular as the water temperatures cool and the fish move shallower. You extend a long crappie pole over the brush or other vegetation. Unlike the popular bass fishing technique of flipping, crappie anglers do not fish past the end of their pole. This way you are fishing a vertical jigging presentation.
You do everything in slow motion including moving into and out of the brush.
The presentation allows you to hold excess line in your hand and to drop in and out with minimal hang-ups. Once a fish is on the hook you lift it straight up so it is free of the brush.
VERTICAL JIGGING involves two basic rigs. The most popular is a line with a sinker at the end and an 18-inch drop line about a foot above it. Tie a jig or plain hook, with a minnow attached, to the drop line. The line drops straight below the boat until it hits the bottom. Then raise it into the crappie strike zone. This is usually about 6 inches off the bottom.
The second rig is to tie a jigging spoon to the end of the line. These spoons are usually silver in color and heavier than most spoons. Drop the spoon over the edge of the boat and allow it to sink. Raise it into the strike zone of the fish as with the above rig.
With both of these rigs gently jig them up and down very slowly.
SLAB DADDY RIGS, also known as Reality Shad Buffet rigs, are an adjunct to the new umbrella rigs popular with bass anglers. Slab Daddy rigs present two jigs on a wire rig less than 4 inches in length. It has a similar configuration to the umbrella rig with fewer hooks and lures. The idea is baitfish hide among themselves. Yet it is this safety in numbers that makes them an easy meal according to rig inventor TJ Stallings of TTI Fishing Group.
Stallings refers to the rig as a buffet rig. He has produced a streamlined two pronged rig with minnow-profiled 3/16th ounce Road Runners. The blades add flash, sound and vibration to appeal to crappie senses. There is also a version with two jigs of various colors.
TJ recommends a medium-action rod with light line. Tie the rig directly to the line, then cast, drift, or troll it very slowly. There is no need to set the hook.
FLOAT-N-FLY rigs are popular on colder days when fish suspend in deeper water. A 1/16th ounce hair jig is on a line about 5 feet below a float. Long spinning rods and 4 to 6 pound test monofilament line are used. Lob the rig to areas off of points or current breaks and allow it to settle. Wait 3 minutes. Allow wave action or take action with the rod to jiggle the line. If no response, sweep the rig about 6 feet and allow it to settle again. Repeat the action back to the boat.
When it comes to a good day, two Illinois public fishing areas are a good bet. Located about an hour southwest of St. Louis, Pinkneyville City Lake and the many lakes found in Pyramid State Park provide anglers a chance to fish either from a boat or from shore. Both methods produce good fish and one can hit both lakes in the same day.
The fishing is unbelievable at times. The area yields numerous six and seven pound largemouth bass each year. The lakes have a lot of fish between 3 and 5 pounds in weight.
Another positive is that the lakes have every kind of structure that a bass angler would want to fish. Deep shallows, weeds, lay downs, standing timber are all there. It is perfect habitat for largemouth bass.
The shad forage provides anglers with clues to the whereabouts of bass. When the wind is blowing bass will bust the shad to the surface. Shad will sometimes school up big and the bass action is great.
Pinkneyville Lake is about 220-acres in size with the only boat ramp located on the south end next to a deluxe handicap pier. The lake was once a city reservoir and as a result it has both deep and shallow water areas. There is an old pump house by the dam and a spillway that has just one level. The lake level remains at a constant depth. There are two feeder creeks that empty into the lake and one that exits it at the dam.
The lake is just north of Pinkneyville, Illinois off Illinois Route 149.
You can fish Pinkneyville Lake in the morning and then move down to Pyramid State Park for the afternoon and evening. In the park you can go to four or five different lakes if you desire.
The reclaimed mine acres of Pyramid State Park contains 22 bodies of clear water that have been stocked in a way that gives some species a competitive edge. An information sheet from the park office at the entrance is very helpful in finding the kind of fishing you seek. In addition to largemouth bass there are stripers, walleye, muskies, northern pike, crappie, bluegill, sunfish and channel catfish. The park is open from a half our before sunrise until 10 P.M.
Boating is permitted but no rentals are available. There is a 10-horsepower limit on engines. Not all of the lakes are accessible to boat use. The secluded fishing opportunities on some of the lakes provide a unique fishing experience. Water depths vary from one lake to another with some being as deep as 70 feet.
To reach the park travel south from Pinkneyville (about 10 minutes) on Illinois Route 127 to Route 152 and then west to the park entrance.
Anglers from Missouri and Illinois enjoy a day of bass fishing in this area for a minimum of cost in food, license, fuel and time.
Illinois spring catchable trout program opens in April. It opens in other areas at different dates but the scene is still the same. During the season Illinois anglers have a chance to catch this great tasting cold water species.
Under a program funded by the Inland Trout Stamp required of participants in the program, The IDNR stocks hatchery raised trout in the 10 or 11-inch class.
Rainbow trout prefer water that remains below 72-degrees. Most of our Illinois waters do not stay that cool all year. Trout like to stay within 4 feet of the surface when stocked. Later they move to the bottom except to feed. This cold-water denizen survives in spring-fed lakes and ponds. Baring these conditions, they are stocked in colder waters surviving until late spring.
This hardy fish and aggressive eater eats commercial fish pellets at the hatchery prior to transfer to other waters. On opening day, the rush to catch some trout results in many locations having crowds of anglers elbow to elbow along the shore. After the first day fishing tends to return more to normal levels of anglers.
Once in the water at a site location, trout take a variety of bait, artificial or natural.
In the first few days of survival in stocked ponds, trout attack in-line spinners, casting spoons, chunks of cheese and marshmallows. Even Velveeta cheese spread placed on a very small hook catches fish. Other grocery store baits include corn and shrimp. Place the baits on a hook suspended beneath a bobber about 18 inches.
After the first day it is advisable to switch to live bait. It is then that worm dunking comes into play. Rainbow trout have about 2,500 taste buds. That compares with about 9,000 in us. Trout are one of the least selective feeders. But, they soon turn to only baits that contain tastes commonly found in living tissue. The top of that list contains members of the worm family.
The more acclimated fish prefer live baits such as mealworms, red worms, maggots, minnows and nightcrawlers. A one-inch piece of nightcrawler threaded on a number 10 hook makes a good presentation. This bait is suspended beneath a slip bobber about 18-inches deep to start. The slip bobber is adjustable to place the nightcrawler piece at a specific depth. Ultimately the right depth is where one finds the fish are cruising in search of forage.
Fresh from the hatchery, trout feed in the top 1 to 2 feet of water. They are accustomed to eating pellets thrown to them. Due to the competition from other fish in the raceways, the pellets do not get a chance to sink much deeper. As the trout become use to their new home after stocking they become hold on the bottom in groups except to rise up while feeding. They also take live bait suspended just off the bottom.
Fishing on the lower depths requires a live bait rig. It consists of a hook with live bait at the end of the line. About two feet up the line attach a small split shot. Above that is an egg sinker that slides up and down the line. The split shot keeps it from going all the way to the hook. The egg sinker sits on the bottom. The two feet between it and the hook allows the live bait to float just off the bottom or in the case of minnows to swim around.
Most of the ponds with these 10 to 11-inch fish have relatively featureless bottoms. If there is any structure or vegetation available they soon find it and make it their home. Otherwise it is a good idea to fish facing into the wind. The wind forces indigenous forage toward you.
Watching a big tom turkey approach from some two hundred yards across a field to within a few feet is a thrill in and of itself. Watch Ralph Duren use a call and a turkey wing to get the job done is an honor. When he finally said, “I think you need to shoot this one” I was still marveling at the job he had done.
Ralph is one of the premiere game callers in the country. He has appeared on television and in person from one end of the country to the other. Turkeys are not all he calls. He is an accomplished bird imitator as well as someone who can call all sorts of animals. Having seen his program at a writer’s conference one year, it is an honor to be able to sit in a turkey blind and watch him do his thing. So much so that I forgot some of the basics of shooting.
Calling turkeys is the subject of a lot of articles this time of the year. We tend to forget that all the calling the world is of no use if we can not hit the bird. Turkey hunters in particular are prone to forget the patterning of their weapon prior to going into the field.
It is vital that we know the exact point of impact of the shot. If the bulk of the hot is not going where the gun is pointed, then shooters need to adjust accordingly. It is an easy point that I neglected that day in the Missouri river bottom with Ralph.
Once one has decided upon a particular gun and shot load to use on a hunt, it is time to pattern the gun. Patterning is very simple and inexpensive way to make sure it shoots where the hunter is aiming. All you need is a gun, shells, a sheet of plywood, some targets with a turkey head on them and ear and eye protection. A bench rest is helpful in being consistent from one shot to another.
Targets, available at sporting goods stores, usually consist of a large white sheet of paper with a turkey head in the middle. Most are about three foot square. Some target makers have lines of head targets that are stuck to any large sheet of paper. They are brighter in color and stand out more. They are realistic in size to the real thing.
In the interest of time, one can put up several targets and use different size shot on each. The mix of pellets from different size shot is different with each gun.
If the shooter is shooting at the center of the target and the bulk of the shot is consistently hitting off to the side, perhaps the stock needs adjustment by a gunsmith.
If the bulk of the shot is just a little off from center, then the hunter can adjust his point of aim to compensate. If he is shooting a shotgun with a scope, then you adjust the sight to compensate. The idea is to deliver at least six pellets to the head and neck area of the bird.
In patterning a shotgun it is wise to use different chokes. Most modern shotguns have the screw-in choke systems that allow the hunter a variety of shot patterns. Most turkey hunters prefer the full choke, but if another one will work more effectively, this is the time to find out.
Once you establish the pattern of the gun at a specific range, it is time to test it at other increments of distance. If the hunter knows where the shot is going at 30 yards, then it would help to know where it will be at 10 or 20 yards as well. Turkey hunters in the Midwest seldom get a shot at birds that are in excess of 30 yards. Additionally, most loads begin to loose their effectiveness beyond such a range.
Patterning a turkey gun goes a long way toward building a familiarity with the weapon. That in turn aids one in putting a bird on the table. It is something forgotten on the eventful day with Ralph. He did his homework and I did not. I saw a bird up close and personal and watched it run away after I shot clean over its head.
Sahara Woods Fish and Wildlife Area has risen from a plated out strip coal mine operation to an interesting outdoor recreational complex despite an unprecedented uphill battle.
First there was the site itself. When first deeded to the state it was in the middle of a law mandated reclamation process. Then there was the legislative atmosphere that saw the budget for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources budget reduced by over 50%. It tightened expenditures for such new projects. Improvements made through a phased development plan now allow use by the public.
Somehow the property has made what looked like a scrap yard for old mining equipment into a habitat for wildlife with the flooded pits now holding game fish.
The plan included grading, covering and planting vegetation on eroded mine refuse piles, reclaiming mine roads, removing dilapidated mine building, tree planting to control erosion and enhance wildlife habitat as well as treatment of ponds damaged by mine refuse runoff.
Today, the Sahara State Fish & Wildlife Area is 4,000-acres on the south side of Illinois Route 13, about 5 miles west of Harrisburg. The fishable waters are composed of the 98-acre Sahara Lake and numerous strip cuts. There is a 35-hp motor limit on the lake and electric motor only limit on the cuts. Two boat ramps are available. On is on the lake and the other on one of the cuts just to the east.
Shore fishing is available on all the cuts and the lake. Anglers wishing to fish from canoes, kayaks and small jon boats have to carry them into the cuts.
The main lake is about 98-acres and does have a handicap accessible boat ramp, parking lot and restroom. Parking is limited in the rest of the park and there are no other facilities.
Fish surveys done by IDNR Fisheries Manager Kurt Daine (618-949-3432) show this area now has a quality bass fishery with most fish in the 8 to 22-inch class. Most of them are in the 15 to 18 inch size. There is a one fish limit that must be over 18-inches in length. Daine rates the fishing for this year as good to excellent.
The majority of bluegills in the area are between 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 inches in length. There is a daily creel limit of 15 fish per day for both bluegills and redear sunfish. The rating for fishing is good to excellent.
Anglers report good crappie fishing. Both black and white crappie are present with a total daily creel limit of 15 per day.
Kurt reports good fishing for channel catfish between 16 and 18 inches in length. The daily limit is six fish.
The past week was spent attending the annual conference of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA) in Knoxville, TN and touring some of the area waters trying to catch a few fish.
This conference is a national gathering of most of the hook and bullet writers as well as major manufacturers of outdoor equipment and outdoor destinations. It is an chance for all of us to gain hands-on information and experience. In addition it is a networking experience. The latest digital information and photographic presentations are presented.
My day to day activity is chronicled in my Facebook journal at http://www.facebook.com/DonsJournal/
If you are interested in the life of an outdoor writer check it out.
Biologists tell us that bluegills prefer water that is deep and clean with a pH of 7.2. Most of the lakes, ponds and unused strip pits of southern Illinois fit that description.
The need for such an environment has resulted in bluegills becoming to the war on terrorism what the canary was to early coal miners.
The miners would take the birds down in the ground. If there were a gas leak, the birds would be the first to succumb and their death would alert the miners to the danger.
When it comes to eating habits, bluegills are about as selective as a junkyard dog in what they will or will not bite. They eat: worms, crickets, aquatic nymphs, larvae, shrimp, crayfish tails and small fish. Their eating habits make them such a sucker for artificial baits like spinners and plastic grubs. But, when it comes to their environment there is another story.
Bluegills are known for thriving in clean water as well as a fighter on the end of a fishing line. Now they have a new job in the front lines of the war on terrorism.
Several major cities across the country have employed this member of the sunfish family in protecting water reservoirs. The fish are kept in tanks with constantly replenished water from the city supplies. Their sensors register change in their breathing, heartbeat and swimming patterns. These changes are known to take effect when the fish is exposed to such pollutants as: cyanide, diesel fuel, mercury and pesticides.
As long as the fish are stress free the water supply is OK. When minute toxins enter the water the fish become stressed and alert humans monitoring the water supply.
A member of the sunfish family, bluegills are sometimes referred to in southern Illinois as bream or brim. They are a flat, muscular fish with a dark olive green back and dark-blue vertical stripes on the sides. The breast of a male fish is bright red-orange while the females display a dull yellow color. The chin and lower portion of the gill cover is blue, giving rise to the name bluegill.
The long growing season and abundance of desirable clear water in southern Illinois has produced the healthy populations of these fish. Their aggressive feeding behavior is an indication that the bluegill does not flourish due to it intellect. They will attack an artificial lure twice their size and are often caught by bass anglers using spinner baits.
Bluegills are often seen as forage fish for larger predators such as catfish, bass and Muskie. It is only their ability to reproduce faster than other fish can eat them that maintains this fishery. Bluegills will begin reproducing at age l and a female lays about 18,000 eggs per year. The spawn begins about the time of the first full moon in May and can continue through the summer with the eggs being hatched in four to seven days after they are laid. The most active spawning takes place during the period of three to four days either side of the full moon.
During the period after the spawn, bluegills seek comfort in the shallow water early in the morning and late in the evening. During the day they will seek deeper water structure or suspend in open water. Usually, they will be schooled up. If an angler catches one he will catch many in the same spot or very close to it.
Bluegills do best in lakes with simple populations of fish without common carp or gizzard shad. For this reason they tend to be stocked into lakes with only bass. Biologists find that they can better control the populations of both species with just the two with which to work.
Ultra light tackle is best for bluegill fishing. The light rod and reel spooled with two to 4 pound line will produce a challenging fishing experience for beginner and expert alike. Fine wire hooks in number six or eight sizes are ample to catch these scrappy characters. The wire hooks can be pulled free when snagged in some underwater vegetation. They straighten out and can be just bent back into shape with the fingers.
Bluegill fishing is popular with children because they are so easily hooked and tug aggressively on the line. They are popular with adults because they provide an excellent meal at the end of a day’s outing.