This is an anxious month for anglers. The weather tantalizes, with a few warm days sprinkled sparsely among the wintry ones to coax anglers into daydreaming about their first fishing foray.
For anglers who know how to find and catch staging crappie, those wishing days turn into fishing days. Most crappie anglers wait until the spawning fish move into the shallow structure areas in the back of the coves or submerged brush piles under docks during oncoming warmer months because crappie are easier to catch when they collect at visible targets. But savvy crappie anglers realize that fish also congregate in more open water off deeper structure.
Crappie staging for the spawn occur in huge concentrations, but they can also swim in small schools or as singles. Before moving into the shallows, they feed on baitfish that congregate at the intersections of the smaller creeks that create the coves and the larger streams and rivers into which the submerged creeks once fed.
These confluences are among the first places to warm. They may still have springs and seeps and offer big changes in topography that also create temperature differentials. Submerged rocks or trees along the edges of creek channels may provide additional attraction for crappie. But staging crappie do not require such secondary structure. All they need is a concentration of baitfish. But the baitfish move depending upon water temperature, sunlight and weather so anglers have to keep moving to find them.
On colder, overcast days, crappie may still be lethargic. An angler might catch only widely separated crappie and believe the fish are scattered. But he may actually be fishing schools with only the most aggressive fish providing action. On warmer, brighter days, the fish may provide much faster action, but only for brief periods.
The pre-spawn crappie fisherman has a much larger search area than an angler fishing who targets shoreline structure. The fish are usually much deeper, creating a three-dimensional search area that may cover many acres and up to 35 feet in depth. The best way to find the fish is with an electronic depthfinder. Using an electric trolling motor is the best way to perform a depthfinder scan without disturbing the fish. However, when performing an initial search over a very large, deepwater area, some anglers find using the outboard to be more efficient. Once they discover a concentration of fish, they switch to a trolling motor for fine-tuning their search.
Baitfish schools are easy to spot on a depthfinder display. But, depending upon the sensitivity of the equipment, crappie may or may not be shown. Anglers who don’t have depthfinders must use trolling and drifting techniques to find the fish. Sometimes, even when using a depthfinder, an angler may not locate any concentrations of fish because of mud line interference or fish hugging the cover. Yet he can still find fish using the same fishing techniques.
The best tactics include drifting or trolling multiple rods with multiple baits and lures. Fishing with a dozen long rods or more is called "spider rigging."
Fishing with long rods helps cut down on tangles by increasing the separation of lines and rigs. The number of rods is limited only by the angler’s experience and local regulations. If the fish are biting well, it helps to have at least one partner along when spider rigging. Multiple hook-ups are common and having another pair of hands to mind the rods or another set of eyes to monitor the trolling course increases fish-catching efficiency.
No matter the number of rods, the terminal tackle is the same. Multiple jigs, dressed with twisty-tail trailers, tube skirts or feathers are the most popular lures. Jigs are fished in many sizes and colors and more than one can be fished on the same line. Adding a minnow to at least one jig is standard practice because even a cold-chilled suspended crappie seldom turns down a shiner slipping slowly along a creek channel in front of its chin.