Article by Bart Lombardo
When the trees begin to bud and winter finally releases its grip on the landscape, my thoughts start drifting towards springtime crappie fishing. All winter long I have been looking forward to fishing the lakes and ponds around my home.
Although I am a dyed-in-the-wool trout fisherman, the nearest quality trout water is over an hour from where I live. With those commuting times, trout fishing becomes a full day commitment. However, I could be chasing crappies and other panfish at over a dozen lakes and ponds within ten minutes of walking out the front door. That being the case, you are just as likely to find me on a warm water pond, as you are a trout stream. In both cases, a tenkara rod is my weapon of choice.
Where To Find Early Season Crappies
Crappies are one of the first fish to become active in the spring. They will enter the shallows to spawn earlier than other species like bass, bluegill and sunfish. Preferring cooler water, they begin actively feeding before other warm water species. The shallow bays of ponds and lakes will be the first to begin warming up after ice out. You can expect fish to move into these areas first. Crappies will often hold along the edges of weed beds and submerged timber. You can also find them in reed beds, especially early in the season.
If you are a shore based angler, weed lines within casting distance of shore and fallen trees will be your best bet. Those fishing from watercraft will obviously be able to access more water and different fish holding structure. These fish definitely show a preference for feeding early and late in the day. Your chances of finding fish will improve if you can get on the water during the early morning and late afternoon hours. My personal preference is the late afternoon right up to sunset.
The Ideal Tenkara Rod For Crappies
I prefer rods in the 12 to 13-foot length for most of my crappie fishing. The longer rod gives me the reach to access more water, especially when fishing from the shore. I will use the same rods that I use for trout fishing and get great results with them. I usually steer clear of the tenkara rods designed for larger fish like bass or big trout. I prefer the softer rods and lighter tips when targeting crappie. These fish have paper-thin tissue in their mouths and the lighter rods prevent the fish from tearing loose. If you’re blessed to be fishing water with large, slab-like crappies holding in or near heavy cover, then a stiffer rod may be a better option.
Line and Leader Selection
I mainly stick to fluorocarbon level lines when fishing for crappies. Almost all of your fishing will be done subsurface and a level line will help get the fly down quickly. For most fishing conditions a size 3.5 line will be adequate. When using larger, more wind resistant flies or fishing in breezy conditions a size 4 or even 4.5 line may be required.
The length of the line will depend on fishing conditions and the distances you expect to cast to reach the fish. When fishing close I will keep things on the short side. I will fish a line about three feet shorter that the overall length of the rod and add about three feet of tippet material so the overall length of line and leader equals that of the rod.
If I need to cast further, I will increase the length of the level line between one and a half and two times the length of the rod. Ideal conditions must be present to fish a line twice the length of the rod you are using. It requires an open bank with no obstacles that will interfere with the cast if you’re fishing from shore. Regardless of the length of your line, the tippet length remains the same, two to three feet is all you need.
Warm water tenkara fishing offers some unique challenges and hazards. When fishing from the shore, bank side vegetation and overhead tree limbs can make fishing longer tenkara rods difficult. Casts like the bow and arrow casts can make presenting the fly easy, but remember you still have to land the fish. If you hook up and you can’t raise the rod, things are going to interesting.
Another hazard is snagging on underwater debris. If you hang up when fishing from the bank and you can’t collapse the rod and grab hold of the line; you may not be able to exert enough pressure to free the fly or break the tippet without damaging the rod. I will usually fish a 5x tippet to minimize this risk. I’d rather lose the occasional bass that happens to grab a fly, than risk damaging my rod trying to free my fly from an underwater snag. Crappies hold tight to cover in a lot of situations so be prepared to deal with the occasional hang-up.
The Techniques and Flies
Fishing shoreline weed beds can be very productive. During early spring, it is usually fairly easy to locate weed beds. I prefer to present my fly to the deep-water side of the bed and allow it to sink to the bottom. After making your cast, watch the line where it enters the water for any suspicious movement. Crappies are notorious for inhaling the fly as it settles to the bottom. Once the fly has settled on or near the bottom, I lift the rod and swim the fly back over the weed bed staying as close to the tops of the submerged weeds as possible. The fish often appear out of nowhere and grab the fly.
An additional benefit of tenkara equipment is the long rod allows you to present the fly parallel to the bank, opposed to retrieving it towards shore. This can be a very effective technique, depending on the orientation of the structure your fishing. When fishing submerged trees and other structure like docks and bulkheads, casting accuracy is important. You will need to present your fly as close to the structure as possible. Crappies often hang tight to underwater structure waiting to ambush anything that swims by. Fortunately, pinpoint-casting accuracy is just one more benefit of using a tenkara rod.
As far as flies go nymphs, wet flies and small streamers are all effective. My favorites are soft hackles and kebari style flies. I have developed soft hackles and kebari patterns that I tie specifically for crappie. They are flashy and bright and the fish can’t resist them. For standard retrieves, the traditional soft hackle style works better but for presenting the fly on the drop the kebari style will out fish a traditional soft hackle every time. Small streamers can also be very effective, especially when fish are actively feeding on minnows. I like small woolly buggers and hair or feather wing patterns. Just keep them small and light and you’ll have no problems casting them on a tenkara rod.
Let your tenkara rods get a warm water workout this spring. Give tenkara crappie fishing a try, you will not be disappointed!
Bart Lombardo has been an avid fly fisherman and fly tyer for over thirty years. He was an early adopter of tenkara and fishes for both cold and warmwater species in his home state of New Jersey. Bart is the author of the blogs The Jersey Angler and Panfish on the Fly.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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