Wade fishing nabs spooky, spawning crappie

By Keith Sutton Originally Published April 7, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2013 at 2:12 p.m.
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Keith Sutton

In oxbow lakes like those in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, crappie often spawn in water so shallow it’s difficult to get a boat to them. In this situation, anglers like Patrick Stone of Grenada, Miss., often don some waders and get wet to catch their quarry.

My friend Lewis and I were up to our waists in water. It was March, and the temperature outside was still a little cool. So it didn’t take long for the 58-degree water in the oxbow lake we were fishing to chill us, even through our neoprene waders.

Neither of us really noticed, however. In the shallow, flooded woodlands all around us, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crappie, a fact we knew because we could see swirls from the fish as they moved about.

A flip of the line placed Lew’s jig beside one swirl. A crappie instantly gulped the lure. Lew swung the slab close, removed the hook and placed the fish on a long stringer tied to his belt.

I was using another equally effective tactic: pitching a Crappie Slider rigged on an ultralight spinning outfit. I cast to one fin and got an immediate strike. It was a dandy fish, but when I reached for it, the crappie thrashed and escaped.

Not to worry, though. I would have more chances. I saw crappie in every direction.

An hour later, Lew and I counted the fish weighing down our stringers. He had 30. I had 29.

Why wade?

Wade fishing provides Arkansas anglers an excellent means of slipping up on spooky, spawning crappie in shallow water. In many cases, a boat works just as well. But on some bodies of water, including many oxbow lakes and bottomland impoundments loaded with slab crappie, the fish spawn in sprawling shallow flats in woodlands where a boat just can’t go. Wading is the only way to get to them.


Crappie move shallow, and spawning begins when the water temperature hits 56 degrees or thereabouts. The exact time this happens in Arkansas varies from year to year, from north to south within the state, and from one body of water to another. For example, because they’re extremely shallow and clustered in the southern part of our southern state, the oxbow lakes I like to fish usually see spawning activity sometime in March. In Ozark Mountain lakes north of us, however, crappie don’t move shallow until April or May. It’s important, therefore, that crappie anglers determine when ideal spawning temperatures are most likely to occur and do some on-the-water investigation that leads to a visit during peak nesting time. That’s when wade fishing is best.


If you’re cautious and take care not to trip on logs, rocks and such (a walking staff is helpful in this regard), you can wade anywhere the water is not too deep. To catch crappie, though, focus your efforts where fish typically build and guard their nests. In manmade lakes, target shallow coves protected from wind and wave action. Nests usually are near logs or other large objects on a bottom of sand, fine gravel or interwoven plant roots. Most are in 1 to 5 feet of water, easily accessible to the wading angler.

The best wade-fishing locales, in my experience, are temporarily flooded woodlands. These spots may not exist unless flood conditions create them. They may never exist on some upland impoundments. They regularly occur, however, on oxbow lakes in eastern and southern parts of The Natural State and occasionally on impoundments subject to high water levels during rainy springs.

When high water inundates woodlands, crappie leave traditional spawning sites and nest instead in the shallow, food-filled waters that then exist. There, they are more visible to the astute wade fisherman. Most crappie are in extreme shallows at the edge of the high-water pool where they’re easy to see.

Wade-fishing tips

Wear polarized sunglasses when wade fishing. They reduce glare and enable you to better see the fish. You’ll see twice as many crappie with polarized glasses as you would without them.

Three things may tip you off to the location of each individual fish: the actual fish, the circular nest or water movement — a swirl, splash or wake — made by the fish.

In the former case, you may see only part of the fish — a fin or tail protruding from the water, for example. Or all you may spy is a shadowy figure hovering over a light-colored nest. A motionless crappie is almost invisible, even in clear water. But with time, you’ll learn to discern a crappie from its surroundings.

Typically, you’ll just see signs that a crappie is present: a shallow wake as a male guarding a nest darts out to chase away an intruder, or perhaps a surface disturbance as a crappie rises to gobble some food.

Wade-fishing tactics

Stop when you see the first fish or nest, and scan all around for other crappie or crappie beds. On a good bed, the fins of a dozen or more fish may be visible. Knowing where the fish are helps determine which to target first so you don’t spook some away unnecessarily.

Present your bait or lure right by a fish. Some anglers prefer a long jigging pole to swing a jig or minnow to each crappie they see. Others prefer a spinning or spincast outfit that allows casting from a distance.

One of my favorite setups is a Charlie Brewer Weedless Crappie Slider fished with ultralight tackle. Because it can be rigged for weedless fishing, this lure can be cast and retrieved without worry of hang-ups. I cast the Slider beyond the spot where I see a fish, then bring it back by very close.

Small floating crankbaits also work well using this tactic. My favorites are Rebel’s Super Teeny-R and 1/4-ounce Humpback. In dingy water, I may use a spinner like a Blakemore Road Runner or Johnson’s Beetle-Spin. A flashy blade rarely fails to get a crappie’s attention.

If the water is clear with nests in brushy areas or weed beds, I use a jigging pole to place a minnow or jig on top of fish I see. I look into every cranny in the cover for crappie hovering over their nests, then work the bait back to the fish and lower it quietly into the water. No bait/lure movement is necessary. If the crappie is actively feeding or guarding a nest, a strike comes quickly.

What I especially like about wade fishing is being out there, right among the fish as I’m catching them. There’s something very special about this that makes wading one of the most enjoyable ways I know to catch crappie. Give it a try this season, and see.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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