Quite a few years ago, I was visiting some family who happened to live less than one block from a large reservoir renowned for large numbers of quality ‘gills and crappies. My parents had allowed me to bring one fishing rod and a few baits along, as there would be plenty of time between family meals for me to sneak away and catch whatever was biting. I had no idea what I was in for, but knowing that I was going to be fishing was the important thing. I had hardly finished unloading the car before I was running over to the docks, rod in hand, to inspect the potential.
After the first evening, one of the neighbors couldn’t take watching me catch 7-inch bluegill from the dock anymore. Apparently, he recognized the fire in me and presented me with one of the greatest gifts any angler has ever given me, the keys to his two-man paddleboat. He pointed out three brushpiles, all within a hundred yards of the dock, and he asked if I wanted to catch some big crappies. I said yes!
It was the third week of March and the water temperatures were not quite warm enough to justify any swimming, so I took extra precautions and heeded an ultimatum from my mother that I would wear a lifejacket at all times (or I would stay on the dock). I was old enough to understand style, and I was not going to get the attention of any high-school girls wearing a big orange life jacket. However, I was willing to sacrifice my Don Juan-esqueness for the fish I was about to catch.
There was about 18 to 24 inches of visibility, so I chose a dark blue 1/16-ounce hair jig from my dirt-filled tackle trays and began pedaling the boat to the first brushpile. I got to within about 15 feet and placed my bait just past it on the shore side. The first retrieve was a bit fast and yielded no results, so I decided to let the second cast drop and work it back slowly. As the bait came in contact with the brush, I gave it a twitch and something hammered my jig. The fish created a golden flash at boatside, and I knew I was into the crappies.
I had 12 fish in the boat that were between 8 and 11 inches when something bigger ate my bait. It was pulling drag and running hard, but I never did get a good look at it as it broke my 4-pound line just seconds prior to making it into the boat. And, I was out of jigs so my evening was over!
The following day, I picked up a 12-pack of those jigs at a local baitshop and headed back out with a plan. I got to the same brushpile, dropped my jig down and worked it very slowly. BANG! Something hit it hard almost immediately and the fight was on. It felt similar in size to the fish I had lost the night before and I instantly got nervous. I got the fish up to the boat and was very surprised to see a mammoth papermouth!
Fifteen inches is what she measured and I will never forget her. I backed off from that spot after a few more unsuccessful casts, and decided to try the same approach on the deep side of the brushpile. I was absolutely blown away…
Depending on where you call home, iced-over lakes can get downright depressing, but not much is worse than ice in March. Throughout most of the Midwest and Great Plains, ice is a factor most anglers have to deal with. By the time the snow and ice melts, the dedicated few who call themselves crappie anglers are champing at the bit to get the boat ready.
Crappies, like bluegill, are often considered “child’s play” as most anglers cut their teeth on panfish. Generally speaking, they are easy to catch and exist in abundant numbers on most bodies of water. In addition, about anywhere you go in the country to catch these angry fish, their locations and the tactics are basically the same. But, to intentionally catch a true trophy? Now that’s a task not easily accomplished unless you understand exactly how these fish transition from season to season. The bottom line, however, is to fish where big fish swim.
In most bodies of water locating these fish early in the season is relatively simple, but to find the big girls you might have to do a little sorting. The thing I love the most about early spring crappies is that, when you get into them, it’s fast and furious. You can’t bait the hook or get your jig down there fast enough; when they want to eat, they want it now!
“In many fisheries, crappie are a dominating species,” says renowned panfish expert and Nebraska resident, Bruce Condello. “Almost immediately following ice out, crappie begin moving into their preferred spawning habitat. They favor submerged trees and brush, so if you can access this type of structure once the water opens up, get your boat in there and give them a try.”
“The key to catching any crappies during this time of year is to dramatically slow down your presentation,” he explains. “The water temps generally hover around the upper 30s and lower 40s, keeping the fish on the sluggish side of active. My favorite presentation this time of year would be either a 1/64th or a 1/100th of an ounce black hair jig tied onto 4-pound test, at the heaviest.”
Condello continues, “It is essential to the action of your presentation that you tie the jig so that it will rest horizontally. I suggest suspending the bait 8 to 12 feet below a slip float in and around woody cover. Throw it into the breeze and let the wind drift it back to you. The action the jig will get from the float moving is all it will take to entice a hungry slab into eating.”
If you are consistently into the 9- to 11-inch crappies and you are in search of the bigger, more trophy-caliber fish, Condello suggests working your presentation slightly deeper. Crappies are very social and it may take sorting through 25-30 fish before you get a 15-inch or better crappie. Larger presentations are not necessarily the key to bigger fish; crappies differ in this manner, especially black crappie as they often feed on plankton.
“When looking for trophy-caliber crappie an angler needs to keep one thing in mind when evaluating habitat,” Condello explains. “Crappies of all sizes seek to spawn every year, however the larger, stronger, more robust fish will find and protect the very best spawning habitat available. The natural way of things is for the females to seek out the biggest and strongest males and spawn in the areas they are protecting. Certainly that doesn’t mean the smaller fish are not successfully spawning, but if you are into large numbers of average-sized fish and are not seeing the 1 1/2- to 3-pound slabs, you might need to relocate.”
Leaving a good bite is a difficult decision for many anglers to make, but sometimes that is what it takes to find the bigger fish. Condello advocates noting the structure type you are finding fish on, and then trying to replicate that scenario when
looking for additional spots. However, to find the true trophy fish, an angler must improve from that current habitat. Once you have located the larger, more dominant fish, stick with them.
“The male fish seem to hold tight to the cover, where the females tend to disperse out a short distance from the favorable spawning habitat,” Condello explains. “We have noticed that the fish really segregate themselves during the early pre-spawn and feed heavily. We have caught 20-25 consecutive males, moved on to another location and caught 20-25 consecutive females. Once the spawn gets closer, they will integrate and both can be caught together.”
“In most systems containing crappies, there is usually an abundant number of 8- to 10-inch fish. These are what I consider quality ‘eaters,’” he continues. “If you are fishing to put food on the table, I suggest keeping your limit of these fish and putting the larger fish back as it is their genetics that need to be carried on. At this time of year, I also suggest putting all females back into the system so they have a chance to spawn.”
Walnut Creek Lake
Walnut Creek Lake is south of Omaha near Papillion. The lake is 105 acres and contains submerged brush and rock offering the dedicated crappie angler ample opportunities. According to creel surveys, and netting data, fish up to 15 inches have been sampled. For more information, please call (402) 592-8877.
Wehrspann Lake is also in Omaha and has 246 surface acres in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area. Live bait suspended below a float around all obvious structure or near brushpiles in close proximity to shore will produce results. For more information, please contact (402) 453-0202
Sherman Reservoir has 2,879 acres of water and is located Northwest of Grand Island near Loup City. Crappies are one of the most popular species on this lake and an angler can find plenty of “eater”-sized slabs with some trophy-caliber fish being reported. For more information, please contact (308) 745-0230.
Branched Oak Lake
Branched Oak Lake is Northwest of Lincoln, near Raymond. There are 4,289 acres of water and plenty of access. There is a white perch (invasive species) problem, but anglers can find quality crappie fishing in the early spring near brushpiles and rocks. For more information, contact (402) 783-3400
Burchard Lake is 145 acres sitting in Pawnee County. This lake is known for its crappie fishing and catching a trophy-caliber fish is not out of the question. Fish the brushpiles with live bait presentations below a float, or work jigs on the deep side of obvious structure.
Fall River Reservoir
Fall River Reservoir is located near Toronto in Greenwood County. It is 2,450 acres of prime crappie habitat. Spend your time near obvious structure close to shore early in the spring. Crappies are popular on this lake, and it is one of the top crappie destinations in the state. For more information, please contact (620) 637- 2213.
Perry Reservoir is located near Perry and contains 11,630 acres of fishable water. Zebra Mussels are present, so make sure you carefully clean your boat before heading home or to other waters. The average fish size is substantial here; fish up to 1 1/2 pounds are caught on a regular basis with larger fish available. There is a 20-fish daily limit here.
Hillsdale Reservoir is located near Paola and is 4,580 acres in size. There is a 20-fish daily limit with a minimum length limit of 10 inches. Due to such management, fish up to 13 inches are reported on a regular basis.
Toronto Reservoir is a tremendous crappie fishery with fish up to 15 inches being a very good possibility. This 2,800-acre lake is located 15 miles southwest of Yates Center, near Fall River. There is a 50-fish daily limit on this lake. Focus your efforts near stumps and channel breaks.
Glen Elder Reservoir
Glen Elder Reservoir puts out quality fish on a regular basis as fish up to 15 inches have regularly been sampled. This 12,586-acre lake is located near Glen Elder and needs to be on the crappie angler’s destination list. There is a 50-fish daily limit. Fish along creek channels and submerged brushpiles.
As I made my first cast on the deeper side of that brushpile, my bait was instantly picked up and the fish started running, just like a bass with a jig. I set the hook and played the fish as lightly as I could. 17 inches! And I caught half a dozen more just like him. The worst part of this story is that I had no camera, therefore all of this is just a big-fish story. I learned a valuable lesson that long weekend: There are times when leaving average-sized biting crappies is necessary in order to catch the trophy specimens.
Also, keep a camera with you. Then you can prove your story, not to mention it’s easier to release a 3-pound fish if you have a picture to verify your claim. I also learned that if not for that old man who loaned me his moss-covered paddleboat, I might not have made the memory I
live with today. While this story is about catching trophy crappies, I would like to suggest being that guy for some wild-eyed kid when you get the chance. The reward far outweighs the investment, that’s for certain.