Patterning Pre-Spawn Papermouths

Deploy the right tactics at this time of year, and you'll fill your livewell without having to wait for the spawn. Following these tips can bring you steady action right now!

The author displays a couple of the results of his pre-spawn tactics. Photo courtesy of Kevin Dallmier

By Kevin Dallmier

Spring crappie fishing is supposed to be as easy as falling off the proverbial log, right? You just cast a minnow toward any shoreline cover and start filling the stringer - right?

Well, the fishing may be that easy for a few glorious days at the heart of the spawn, but expanding your crappie-fishing playbook can give you a jump-start on that kind of angling.

Spring crappie are always in transition; what with the season's unpredictable weather, several false starts can be tossed in the mix along with the rest of the uncertainty. As the water warms, fish move away from deep structure and head to shallow flats, looking for somewhere to spawn. Afterward, they gradually drift back out to deep water for the summer.

The key to prolonging your spring crappie fishing lies in analyzing the conditions to figure out where the fish should be and, consequently, the best technique to catch them. The angler who ignores conditions and stubbornly persists in fishing the same way isn't going to catch fish consistently. So let's take a look at three plays for pre-spawn crappie.

One early-season method that excels at taking inactive, cold-weather crappie is known as "bumping bottom." When a sudden deep freeze sends shallow crappie back to the relative comfort of deeper water, fish are thrown for a loop and are usually slow to bite, making this slow presentation a good choice for tough conditions.

Bumping bottom involves vertically presenting a minnow using a dropper rig. Deep-water crappie relate to ledges and other offshore structure, and it's the rare lake whose bottom is totally devoid of these crappie magnets.

Ledges are subtle structure, though, and finding them may require some detective work. A good starting point is a submerged channel. Channel bends often have a steep ledge. The best ledges break sharply and have plenty of other cover, like stumps, or rock.

Presentation is the key to bumping bottom. The bait must be presented in exactly the right place. The old fishermen's adage about having to "bump them in the nose" is absolutely true for coldwater crappie.

For this presentation, a simple yet effective dropper rig is used. This consists of a 1/2-ounce bell sinker tied to the end of the main line and a No. 1 Aberdeen hook on a dropper line approximately 18 inches above the sinker; a standard snelled hook simply tied on the main line above the sinker works just fine, too.

The rig should be baited with a standard crappie minnow for the most strikes. Consider bigger minnows if you're willing to trade strikes for slab-sized fish. Hooking the minnow through the eyes results in both a livelier bait and more hookups.

The dropper rig is presented vertically along the ledge with the weight just ticking the bottom. Any stumps or other cover should receive extra attention, since the biggest fish often claim these prime areas as their own. The critical factor: location, location, location. Missing the target by just a few feet results in few if any fish.

The best way to describe correctly bumping bottom is "hovering" over the target. Forward movement faster than a hover is too fast to catch inactive crappie. It should take an hour to fish 100 yards of ledge.

Crappie are notoriously soft biters, so setting the hook every time you feel something usually results in frustration as the hook buries in stumps or other debris. It takes practice to discriminate between the feel of a fish mouthing the bait or the weight brushing against a stump. When resistance is first felt, gently feel with the rod before setting the hook. Soon you'll be able to tell if what's down there is a 2-pound crappie or a 200-pound stump.

Bumping bottom requires calm conditions. Many expert anglers feel that anytime the wind is blowing more than 10 miles per hour, you might as well stay home. Since the goal is an exactly vertical presentation on open-water structure, it just won't happen when the wind is up, even for the most skilled boat handler.

When planning your attack, keep a couple of things in mind. No. 1 is the wind. Fishing into the wind is the only way to control the boat precisely. Second: If the wind is not a factor, fish a channel ledge heading downstream. Although a very slight current may not be noticeable on the surface, the fish feel it, and position themselves facing into it.

The next crappie technique is trolling. Slow-trolling gives active fish plenty of chances to bite. This technique is superb once the water has started to warm and the fish are suspended over the channels or on the flats, waiting there to move into the shallows to spawn.

A spread of rods (check local regulations, because the number allowed sometimes even varies by lake) pulling small marabou or tube jigs will catch a mess of fish in a hurry once your quarry's depth and favored color of offering are discovered. The trick to making the most of trolling is consistency. Use the same line on all rods, let the same amount of line out, and use the same style and size of jig on each line. If you consistently put the right jig at the right depth, you'll catch more fish.

There are many subtle nuances that separate those anglers that catch a limit from those who spend the day aimlessly pulling a spread of jigs through empty water. The key is depth. When fish are at 8 feet or deeper, a 1/16-ounce jig is what you want to tie on. For anything shallower, go with a 1/24- or 1/32-ounce jig. Beyond that, speed regulates depth. The faster your trolling motor is running, the shallower your jigs are going to be.

The last pre-spawn technique could be called "pushing." It's a sort of hybrid of bumping bottom and trolling. The technique is great for getting baits up into the tight places where the big ones live.

Pushing is good when crappie have moved to shallow cover, although the peak of the spawn may still be a few weeks away. This technique is simply a method of putting live bait exactly where you want it and keeping it there.

The tackle needed for pushing is uncomplicated. First, get some long soft-action crappie poles paired with ultralight reels. On the end of your line tie a 3/4-ounce bell sinker. About a foot up, add a snelled No. 1 Aberdeen hook and, a foot above that, another identical hook. Rig up rod holders so the seve

ral rods extend out from the bow of the boat something like the fingers outstretched from the palm of your hand.

Next, find a good spawning area like a shallow cove near deep water and bait up with a fresh, lively minnows. Drop your line down until the weight hits bottom; then, give the reel a crank or two to lift the sinker off bottom. Begin moving very slowly around the area, making sure to use the long poles to put the bait up under docks, around visible brushpiles, or anywhere else that looks like it might hold fish.

How fast you move along is very important. If the lines are going straight down or are slightly angled back, you've got it right. If the line is swinging back much at all, you need to slow down.

Keep a close eye on the depthfinder for any fish suspended off the lake floor. If the instrument shows such a concentration, the fish are going to be hard to catch; if it shows them at mid-depth in the water column, it's going to be a good trip.

For suspended fish, bring your baits up to slightly above the depth the fish are holding. Surprisingly, for such an up-close-and-personal style of fishing, spooking the crappie doesn't seem to be a problem, even in just a few feet of water.

Just as with bumping bottom, the one drawback to pushing is wind. On a breezy day, if you go with the wind, you move way too fast; if you go against it, it's hard to keep your baits where you want them. Inches matter in this game. The idea is to get your bait right in front of the noses of the fish and keep it there for as long as it possible.

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