Just guess how deep of water Darin Keim had his boat in when he caught a limit of crappies at Lake of the Ozarks the other day.
If you guessed three or four feet — the shallows the popular panfish often crowd into to spawn at this time of the year —you were way off.
He had his boat in 40 feet of water along the shade of a dock in the Big Niangua arm, and he immediately knew he was in the zone.
“Look at all the fish,” he said, tapping the screen of his electronic fish finder that was full of marks. “They’re in here.
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“These fish are pre-spawn. They haven’t moved to the banks yet because of the up and down weather we’ve had.
“They’re hanging out here, suspended and just waiting to come in. But they’ll bite.”
A couple of hours later, Keim and two guests — Jim Divincen and me —had a live well full of crappies to prove it.
Other boats passed and fishermen gave Keim incredulous looks, wondering what he was doing so far from the normal springtime fishing spots. Keim just smiled and waved.
If they only knew how many crappies Keim had swimming in the live well on his boat, they might have changed their opinion on Keim’s choice of fishing spots.
“They think I’m crazy, sitting out here,” said Keim, 45, who lives in Camdenton, Mo., “But you have to fish where the fish are, not where they should be.”
Keim paused and launched a cast to the shade of a dock. He left the bale on his reel open and counted to 15, then began slowly reeling. The plastic jig hadn’t gotten far before Keim felt a slight tap. He set the hook and felt the tug of a big crappie.
He pulled the shiny silver fish into the boat, then plunked it into the live well.
There would be fried fish for dinner again this week.
That has been a common occurrence for Keim this spring. Since late March, he and friends have followed the same pattern, fishing for crappies suspended in deep water on the shady side of docks. The fish have been 12 to 15 feet down in 25 to 40 feet of water along shelves near the mouth of spawning coves.
Keim starts by using the electronics on his boat, usually the side imaging, to determine if the shad and the crappies are home. When he determines what depth the crappies are using, he positions his boat so that he can cast into the shade along those docks.
He uses a coutdown method to determine when his plastic bait is at the right depth. Then he slowly retrieves that bait through the key zone.
“I’ve found that a one-sixteenth-ounce jig drops a foot a second,” said Keim, who is general manager of the Big Surf Water Park in Linn Creek. “So, you have to be patient.
“But if you pay attention, you can usually get them to hit.”
Keim uses bright-yellow line to help him detect the slight strikes.
“Sometimes I’ll see the strike before I feel it,” he said. “The line might just jump or start to slowly move sideways.”
He prefers the multicolored Strike King Slabalicious jigs and he fishes the Big Niangua arm of Lake of the Ozarks, moving from spot to spot he knows will hold the pre-spawn and spawning crappies.
He often checks the shallows to see if he can catch the magic moment when the fish move shallow to spawn. And he knows that simply because his method is working on one arm of the lake, doesn’t mean that it will be elsewhere.
“The Lake of the Ozarks is so big that the different arms can fish completely different,” he said. “The fish can be on the banks in one place, and out staging like this in another.
“But the crappies don’t all spawn at the same time. There are usually fish out staging in this deep water even when some of the fish are on the banks.”
After the spawn, Keim often trolls along the docks with small Bandit crankbaits and catches limits of crappies that way. But this is one of his favorite times of the year.
“Lake of the Ozarks is just a great lake for crappie fishing,” he said. “It has so many fish, and so many quality fish, that it’s tough to beat.”