Gone “Video Game” Fishing for Crappie
Live-Scoping Sonar Technology has changed the way crappie pros put slabs in the boat. Is that a good thing?
Tony Sheppard hasn’t put the rod holders in his boat in a long time, and that’s odd for a professional crappie fisherman whose home waters are Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Sheppard has grown up fishing the massive impoundments, which are among the country’s hottest spots for crappie fishing, and he is one of the country’s best-known—and most competitive—crappie pros. When Sheppard isn’t on the water, he’s designing crappie baits and equipment for Jenko Fishing.
Probing offshore cover and structure for slabs is productive year-around here, and the way most anglers do it is by spider rigging. In fact, long crappie rods, fanned eight at a time across a bow, might be the only sight in western Kentucky more common than the yellow Dollar General sign. So, when a guy like Sheppard says he catches way more fish with one spinning rod, casting one jig a time, you listen up.
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Realtime sonar units, in particular the Garmin Panoptix LiveScope, have changed the crappie fishing game in just a few years. Early models hit the market in 2018, and today retail for $1,500. Humminbird has a new MEGA Live Imaging system for about the same price, and Lowrance has a less-expensive system called LiveSight. Word on the street—I don’t have a dog in the fight—is that the Garmin system is the best. It’s in fact so effective that serious crappie anglers have generically dubbed the technique “Live Scoping,” same as you’d casually call a soft drink a Coke. I’ve heard more casual crappie anglers call it “video game fishing.”
Sheppard has promised me a demonstration. “Nobody had this a few years ago,” he says, after we launch his boat and make a run to a cluster of saved waypoints. “Then Josh Jones [a crappie pro out of Oklahoma] started using it, and with one pole, he was just kicking everyone’s ass, every tournament. I had to figure out.” And Sheppard has.
After motoring to within 100 yards of the first waypoint, Sheppard shuts off the outboard, drops his trolling motor, and motions for me to take a seat next to him at the bow. Like most crappie pros, his boat is rigged for a two-man team to fish side-by-side. At his feet are two large graphs with multiple cables affixed to them, with numbers and icons flashing. I’m half-afraid to lean too close for fear of pressing the wrong button.
I worked for a tournament fishing circuit back in the day, so I’ve been on many boats and looked at a bunch of depth finders. I’ve listened as anglers pointed out, matter-of-factly, balls of bait, hard bottoms, soft bottoms, brush piles, and various species of fish that looked to me like nothing more than purple-and-yellow blobs. But on Sheppard’s LiveScope screen, I can see details—right down to the forks in the brush pile’s limbs. And moving around those forks are fish-shaped figures that almost seem to glow. “Those are carp,” he says. “But look at those two spots in the tree. I bet those are crappie.”
Sheppard fires a cast, and points at the graph. “That little disturbance in the corner is the splash,” he says. “And that right there is my jig sinking.”
Sure enough, I can see a dot slowly descend on the screen—and as Sheppard moves his rod, the dot lifts, and then settles right over top of the brush. One of the spots glows a bit brighter. It’s moving. “He sees it, and he’s flaring up,” Sheppard says. “Sometimes in a tournament, when I know one’s about to bite, I’ll be holding my breath, watching that screen. There he goes!”
The spinning rod bows. I’m keeping one eye on Sheppard as he fights the fish, and another on the screen, tracking the glowing icon as it rises through the water column. A slab of a white crappie churns the surface, and Sheppard swings it into the boat.
“You want to take a mess of fish home?” he asks.
The only thing he could’ve done to impress me more was if he’d brought up the fish already fried, with two hushpuppies and a Keystone Light.
Sheppard tosses the fish into the live well, then I pick up a spinning rod of my own.
How Does Live-Scope Technology Work?
As sporting goods go, fishfinders are complex equipment. But, in a nutshell, most of them simply rely on Sonar, which is the echo of reflected sound waves interpreted as a digital image. Back in the old days, flasher units basically told an angler the water depth. Liquid-crystal displays allowed us to see structure, differentiate between bottom compositions, and pick out signatures of individual fish. The newer side- and down-scan units allow you to pick out details as fine as bream beds. But with all of it, the picture is an interpretation of what the unit’s transducer—which is mounted to the boat or trolling motor—has passed over, meaning that what you’re looking at is what was there when the boat passed over or by it.
The LiveScope is different in that it provides a real-time view of what’s ahead of the boat, out to 50 feet, with the transducer in the Forward view (Perspective and Down views are also available). The image relayed to the graph screen is whatever is inside the transducer’s “cone.” Think of it like shining a flashlight beam, where whatever is in the beam shows on the graph. It’s not a perfect underwater camera view—things are still subject to some interpretation—but it’s the easiest to understand that I’ve ever seen.
And it’s, well, live.
“There is a sonar return and a very slight delay, but it’s less than a second—so minute that your mind can’t pick it up,” says John Soukup, a pro angler and co-owner of The Bass Tank, a one-stop electronics service, offering everything from installation of fishing electronics to training on how to use them.
Soukup says there’s never been anything quite like the LiveScope. “I can’t explain the technology behind the system processor,” he says. “But in simple terms, the picture appears more like night vision. I can zoom in on a fish and see his gills flare. I’ve won bass tournaments by scanning suspended fish, chasing them, and casting in front of them. And after spending a little time with it, I knew it was going to transform crappie fishing. Now, just after the past (three) years, you will not find a single high-level crappie pro who does not have one on his boat.”
I watch as Sheppard orients his trolling motor, where his LiveScope transducer is mounted. Set to the Forward view, the cone is wherever the motor’s directional arrow is pointed. Once Sheppard finds a brush pile, he points the arrow at it, and that’s where we cast. Complicated as it may sound, it’s just like throwing at a stump you can see on the bank, except the stump is offshore, and out of sight—and you can see the fish hiding in it, and what your jig is doing for the duration of the cast, too.
I soon learn to pick out my own jig on the screen. I pump my rod a bit, and watch the jig jump 4 feet or more in the water column—way too much. “This thing will teach you all sorts of stuff you didn’t know about crappie fishing, but jig control is one of the biggest,” Sheppard says. “Putting it on their nose is the important thing. If you’re moving your rod, like most people do when they’re jigging, the jig is bouncing all over the place.”
I adjust by gently pulling and steering the jig, using the LiveScope as my guide, right into the top of the brush pile, where a crappie takes notice. “Look at him,” Sheppard says. “You’ve got his attention now!”
Sheppard has paused his own retrieve, and we’re watching as a disk-shaped icon moves through the brush, toward my jig. I feel a thump, and set the hook into a keeper crappie of my own. For a few minutes, we haul fish up on nearly every cast.
What Can You Learn from Video Game Fishing?
Despite a lifetime of crappie fishing experience, Sheppard says a few seasons with the LiveScope have taught him a lot that he didn’t know about crappie behavior. “They’re incredibly spooky, and they seem especially spooky of a boat going over them,” he says.
Soukup agrees. He says the technology has been particularly effective for targeting trophy-size fish. “You can target the size fish you want to catch, which is huge in a tournament,” he says. “Without this technology, you’d have to catch 15 or 20 to get the size fish you want. Now you can target the biggest fish of your life. There are more guys catching 3-pound plus fish than ever because they’re hunting those fish, rather than waiting to come across them.”
He adds that seeing fish react in real-time confirms—and challenges—some conventional crappie wisdom. “We used to think a school would have a big fish or two mixed in,” he says. “But what we’ve learned is that as crappie get really big, they become roamers and isolationists—more like a big smallmouth. But they still grew up as prey, and so there are characteristics to be aware of. A big crappie does not like a lure coming from underneath it. They’re prey themselves, and that’s where predators come from. They like to feed up, out of the brush. If you can get a fish to follow a bait up, he’s more apt to bite.”
Most crappie fishermen spend a lot of time obsessing over jig colors and styles. But both pros believe the rate of fall is decidedly more important, and that’s impacted by everything from line and jighead size to the size of the soft-plastic.
Sheppard and I are casting 1/32-oz. Jenko Slasher heads, and most of our fish are coming out of brush in 14 feet of water. A jig that small sinks slowly and is fairly difficult to locate on the LiveScope screen—especially for a newbie like me. But when I switch to a heavier jig that I can see more easily, I quit getting bites. Sheppard mentions a recent tournament where the crappie were holding in 20 feet of water and refused to hit anything but a tiny hair jig. “You could almost make a cast and eat a sandwich by the time your jig got down to where it needed to be,” he says.
Is Live-Scope Fishing Fair?
There’s still plenty of fishing skill required to use the LiveScope to its potential. In addition to interpreting what you’re seeing on screen, you still have to cast accurately and perfectly control your boat. You need a good understanding of seasonal crappie movements to know where to begin your search, and it helps to know what a crappie bite feels like.
That said, this thing will tell you in short order whether or not you’re around fish or casting to dead water. A day of fishing becomes an exercise in motoring from one brush-pile waypoint to the next, checking for fish—sometimes without casting. In tournament crappie fishing circles, the consensus seems to be that either you have a LiveScope and are competitive, or you don’t and you aren’t. A quick search of online fishing boards turned up plenty of discussion over whether or not the units should be banned from competition. Some local circuits like the Oklahoma Crappie Anglers Club have created a Traditional Division in which real-time sonar is not allowed.
I ask Sheppard: “Are you worried about every redneck on the lake getting one of these and cleaning out all the fish?”
He nods. “They’re expensive, and that holds a lot of people back. But if everyone had one, then yeah, I could see it impacting crappie populations, at least without reg changes.”
Most people don’t go crappie fishing to release them, but Soukup sees a potential change in culture on the horizon, too. “The guys who can consistently catch the monster fish let them go anyway, and target smaller fish to eat,” he says. “But I think this technology will spur some progress in crappie tournaments. At the end of a lot of them, people still take their fish home and fillet them. They used to fillet the fish in bass tournaments, too. I think you’ll see more crappie anglers practicing catch and release.”
That aside, crappie are prolific spawners, and debates over limits and regulations are best left to local fisheries biologists. “There’ll be studies over this,” Soukup says. “But whether it could actually impact a crappie population depends a lot on the fishery. In lakes with high-growth rates, you can’t catch enough to thin them out. But in lakes with slower growth rates, yeah.”
After about three hours of fishing, Sheppard drops me back at the ramp. He’s headed out to scan brush and scout for his next tournament. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the implications of this thing. I’ve got a dozen good keeper crappie to clean, and I know for a fact that I’ve had a good time catching them. But was it cheating? My gut says that it was—a little. But hell, isn’t every innovation cheating in one way or another?
Tonight, I’ll have to have the moral debate with myself over a plate of fried fillets, with two hushpuppies and a Keystone Light.