If you ask most any old fisherman how to catch crappie, they will likely tell you to find good, clear water and put the bait right in front of them. This is because crappie are predominantly sight feeders and need to see your bait to take it.
All of this is true, crappie do prefer clearer waters with low turbidity but this isn’t exclusive. Sometimes whole ecosystems become turbid and a crappie can’t leave even if the water looks like bean soup. In this case, the sight feeder will begin to rely on less developed senses if it has to. Sight will still be a factor but we can learn a lot from the other sensory organs of the crappie.
Like most fish, crappie have a lateral line that starts about 45° off the back of their eye and runs to their tail. This line is full of sensory organs that detect movement, vibration, and temperature. This is the next go-to sense for feeding.
In the below image, you can see the lateral line as a series of very small, light dots running from about an inch behind the eye to the center of the tail.
In this same image, just in front of the eye is an organ called the Nare. This is somewhat like a nose but works a little differently. It is a powerful locating organ in most fish. Here is a closeup of the area with the nare highlighted:
This means that the crappie, although predominantly sight feeders, have other tools in their toolbox. How can we exploit them?
Muddy Water Crappie Tactics
Probably the best bet is to stick with what we know about crappie and modify that for the environment. Much of this will depend on how muddy the water is but I have pulled crappie out of water that was crystal clear, water that looked like week old tea, and water like a cup of cocoa.
So, our first rule: Crappie aren’t bass or pike. They won’t come searching long distances for bait. This means we need to be in the ballpark before we start trying to attract them. By this I mean within a few yards on the high end.
We will go ahead and throw out the second rule here too: Let sight do its work but don’t rely solely on sight. This means to use baits that are appropriately colored for the water even if you want sent or vibration to be your major draw. Most likely the crappie is going to try to see what it is eating before it bites. Make this easy on the crappie.
Finding a lure is going to be your biggest challenge. In my area, a black bait with yellow has always been the go-to. When the water is thick and dark, that probably isn’t going to be the best bet.
So, we want lures to be visible and have some other method of attraction. The simple answer is using scented lures. Stick to what crappie like. Lures like a feather-tail jig or grub bait are still effective choices. They should bring in a few fish.
If we want to go with something that attracts via the lateral line organs, we need movement. This makes lure selection a little trickier. Blade baits and similar require a good bit of movement to get the attention of a fish. While you can luck into some decent crappie by pulling this along, it isn’t the most effective method.
Something like a rooster tail with a small blade can get a decent amount of movement just from a jigging motion. Often this will be more successful than scented lures. You can always combine the two for an all-around option that tends to perform quite well.
Bait for Crappie
Hands down when the water is bad, the best way to get a mess of fish is always live bait. Actually, for crappie I have found this to be the best bet overall no matter the water conditions. Sure, it may be less civilized than lures but I get more fish.
Minnows are the all-time crappie slayer in my area. I have pulled in hundreds of times more crappie off a small minnow than any lure I have tried and I think I have tried them all. Hooked through the back or through the nose is optimal but be sure your minnow is alive!
If you get a struggling minnow within the hunting distance of a crappie, he is going to come check it out. Most likely he is going to take a taste and if he likes it, you have a good chance he will bite it. In order for this to happen, the minnow needs to be able to fight and move on its own.
Works are a decent bet. They lack movement but have a scent that is quite good at attracting fish. Maybe it’s just me but a small nightcrawler, the slimmer the better, is a good attractant. While it doesn’t feel as if this does as good as the minnow, it seems to do well.
There are some facts about crappie fishing in general that you need to be acutely aware of in poor water to be most effective. These are worth reiterating here.
Fish small. This doesn’t mean use small baits and lures or to go for small fish. It means to isolate your fishing to a small area. It helps if you have a fish finder or some prior knowledge to get you on the fish. Crappie don’t move much anyway and they will move less when the water is dark. Predation keeps them sedentary.
Use proper hooks. Crappie have a weak jaw and the most common reason for missing crappie is ripping out the hook. Don’t use wire hooks if you can help it and keep your hook sets fairly light. It takes some time to get a feel for crappie but its well worth taking the time to do.
Leave it in the water. You catch more fish in the water than you do in the boat so leave your bait down there. I have watched crappie sit and eye a bait for minutes before taking it in clear water. In dark water this is going to be even worse. Be patient!
Fish more. We all need to fish more but, in this case, I mean fish more rods. Keep several in the water at all times. If you are a little off on your placement, having more food in the water can bring crappie in from a little farther. This is especially true of scent based lures and worms.
Many areas and many bodies of water can spend months turbid and if you don’t want to miss that time or wait it out, get out there and try some of these tactics. There are people catching crappie from the worst possible ponds and streams. You should join them and see what you can do.