JAMESTOWN, Pa. -- The southern end of Pymatuning Reservoir, in Crawford County between the dam and the nearby Ohio state line, is richly contoured with shallow bays that warm faster than the main body of the lake. Like the north end bays, they become prime crappie spawning waters in the spring when subsurface temperatures reach 56 to 64 degrees.
Lobbing spinners or bobber-and-bait near shore will catch them, and 9-inch to 12-inch crappies are not uncommon at Pymatuning.
But Dan Dannenmueller, a pro crappie fisherman from Wetumpka, Ala., had magnum-sized crappies in mind when he rigged up Wednesday during a tourist bureau-sponsored media workshop on the art and craft of catching crappies.
Voted 2011 and 2012 Crappie Masters Angler of the Year, and co-owner of Crappie Now magazine (www.crappienow.com), Dannenmueller showed the Pymatuning panfish something they had probably never seen before: a spider rig -- minnow and tipped jig on a half-dozen giant 14-foot rods slowly trolling in front of his bow.
"The myth is you need small hooks and you'll catch crappies in the spring and maybe in the fall," he said. "But you can catch crappies all year long in numbers. Here, the average would be 1 pound to a pound and a half -- maybe bigger."
At Pymatuning, Conneaut Lake and regional waters where the temperature is 56-58 degrees, black crappies are now in pre-spawn mode, staging before the big biological event.
"This right here is a haven for crappies," he said, reading the water as well as the depth finder. "It's a bay, the shallow water warms up quickly, it's got weeds, it's got stumps, it's got buck brush. It's got everything."
Crappies don't pair up and spawn over redds, the way bass breed. In the pre-spawn, crappie males colonize an area, holding in 4 to 8 feet near shallows protected from wind and current. As the spawn approaches, males move into shallower water with females gathering one contour deeper.
"When the temperature and everything is right, the females swoop through the shallows, laying some eggs in vegetation," Dannenmueller said. "The males follow them, fertilizing the eggs. More than one male fertilizes, strengthening that gene pool. There's no guarding of the eggs, like with bass."
White crappies spawn a short time later at about 58 degrees in 4 to 8 feet, dropping eggs around stumps and other wood.
"These are probably blacks, but I can't tell until I catch them," said Dannenmueller, pointing to dozens of dark blips hovering over colorful plumes on his depth finder -- crappies suspended over structure directly under his boat.
Spider rigging starts with long 12- to 16-foot ultra-light spinning rods with a lot of backbone and extremely light, sensitive tips (some steelhead rods can do the job). The reels are cheap ultra-lights with the drags set tight.
"We always go inexpensive because we're not using the reel except as a line holder," he said.
The line is 10-pound test. For crappies?
"That's sacrilegious for crappie fishermen up here," he said. "But the fish we have to catch to win a tournament average 2 pounds -- an average weight for us is anywhere from 10 to 18 pounds to win a competition of seven fish. So that tells you the quality of the fish we have to catch."
At the end of the high-visibility fluorocarbon-coated line, Dannenmueller ties a three-way swivel. Off an 8- to 12-inch, 8-pound test leader he ties a snelled Tru-Turn hook, red and as big as No. 1 or No. 2. Halfway down a 31-inch, 8-pound test leader (down to 6 pounds in very clear water) he wraps on a half-ounce sinker above a 1/6-ounce jig, often a Roadrunner or Rockport Rattler. The bare hook gets a 1 1/2-inch live minnow; the jig is tipped with the same.
Wednesday, the spider rig trolling configuration consisted of six long rods (three rods per angler is legal in Pennsylvania) mounted to cover 180 degrees off the bow.
"I'm pushing in front instead of pulling out the back," he said. "The problem with trolling out the back is they hear the trolling motor and won't always hit. Even with pushing, you'll get more hits on the rods on the outside than in the middle because they hear the motor coming and move off to the side."
With the screen showing fish suspended at 4 to 6 feet, Dannenmueller let out 2 to 3 feet of line, easing the boat forward at a crawl -- 0.3 mph to 0.4 mph. That heavy sinker kept the lines almost vertical. Those long rods advanced the boat by some 12 feet.
Bass are attack predators that will lunge up or down for prey. But crappies never look down, he said, and approach food more slowly.
"People miss out on big crappies because they're thinking of them like they're bass," he said. "What I'm saying to your readers is don't always think shallows for the big, big crappie. If you're catching crappies of average size, back off into deeper water. You ain't gonna get as many bites, but when you get one, it will be a quality fish."