Husker May Crappie

If you want to sack up a bunch of Nebraska slabs this month, then heed this advice from people who know where and how to do it. (May 2009)

While some dedicated Nebraska crappie anglers don't mind fishing the brutally cold months of winter -- either by ice-fishing or from a boat if a reservoir is ice-free -- most enjoy the warmer climes of spring. There's no doubt that winter crappie fishing is popular under the right conditions as fish bunch up, and once you find one you can often catch a bunch.

But if warmer conditions are more your style and desire, then you don't want to miss the month of May in the Cornhusker State as crappie by the thousands head to the shore to spawn!

"May is absolutely the spawn, but it depends on which part of the state," said Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoirs fisheries management coordinator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "But some time in May is a pretty good bet.

"In some of the smaller waters, particularly in eastern Nebraska, it's likely to be early May, but if you get out west or even north-central in some of the Sandhill lakes, it may be Memorial Day and they're still on the spawning beds."

Nebraska's crappie fishing reputation is pretty good, according to Bauer, but he often hears grumblings of comparisons to Kansas' reservoirs.

"Our bigger reservoirs, being irrigation reservoirs, don't develop the crappie populations as well," Bauer said. "But we've got some good crappie fishing in some of the flood control reservoirs in the eastern part of the state. And I know big reservoir crappie fishing is better elsewhere, but we've got some opportunities."

Those opportunities include being able to catch either white or black crappie, according to Bauer. And where you find them doesn't necessarily follow any particular pattern.

"We've got both species from one end of the state to the other," he said. "Depending on the body of water, it may be mostly blacks, or whites, and sometimes in reservoirs we'll have both species, and from year to year they might take turns being dominant."

The general rule, like many states with both species of crappie, is that black crappie do better in clear water with aquatic vegetation and that matches many of Nebraska's Sandhill lakes, pits and ponds. White crappie do a bit better in reservoirs where the water may be a bit more turbid than other water bodies.

Telling the two species apart really doesn't matter as length or creel limits apply to both, if in effect. And the palatability of one is as good as the other.

But many anglers mistakenly identify spawning white crappie as black crappie since they're dark and the spots are well defined, particularly on males protecting spawning beds.

However, both species can show various shades of dark and light, but the telltale signs for proper identification lie in the barring pattern and number of spiny rays on the dorsal fin. White crappie have vertical dark bars alternating with lighter areas from the gills back to the tail, somewhat like a zebra. They have six or fewer spiny rays -- the pointed ones that will stick you -- in the dorsal fin. Black crappie don't have any pattern of dark barring; black blotches appear randomly over much of the fish's typically deep body like a dot-to-dot puzzle. Black crappie have seven or more spiny rays in the dorsal fin.

Crappie fishing is popular in Nebraska as Bauer points out that panfish preferences are always right up there near the top in angler preference surveys.

"And that's particularly true in spring when everyone starts to get spring fever and wants to get out fishing," Bauer said. "A lot of them are crappie fishing. And when we have good crappie fisheries, we've got tons of people out there taking advantage of them, as they're good to eat."

Bauer also had some advice for crappie anglers based on the most recent sampling data from fisheries biologists around the state.

"Reservoirs: I'll mention one right away and that's Sherman, which is an irrigation reservoir that does fluctuate, but it's consistently our best big-water crappie fishery," he said. "They fill it every year no matter how far down it gets for irrigation the previous year, and the timing of that fill is about the first of May. They try and have it full so it's perfect timing as the crappie move up to spawn, and there are a lot of bays and coves that get flooded. That's one reason we continue to have a good crappie fishery there."

Some of the flood control reservoirs in eastern Nebraska should provide plenty of opportunity for anglers to catch a mess of tasty slabs this spring. Czechland, a small reservoir north of Lincoln near Prague, has been consistent for crappie production the last couple of years, according to Bauer.

If crappie anglers are looking for big fish, Bauer points them to Whitney Reservoir in the Nebraska Panhandle near Chadron. As far as numbers of fish, he points to Czechland Reservoir again and a couple in the metro area of Omaha in Zorinsky and Wehrspann reservoirs.

"Those have lots of crappie, and there are some fish there over 10 inches, but you're probably going to have to sort through some to get them," Bauer added.

Other bodies of water that should produce some good crappie possibilities within an easy drive of Omaha or Lincoln include Stagecoach Reservoir. "And state recreation area lakes between Lincoln and Omaha like Lewisville look really good for crappie, too," Bauer said.

Anglers fishing for spawning crappie don't have to get too tricky, as these fish are often easy to catch and don't require fancy equipment.

"I often tell people a good old-fashioned bobber and a minnow is tough to beat, and it almost always works," said Bauer. "I like a bobber and a minnow because you can take kids out there and plop them down on the bank and they can catch fish."

Bobbers run the gamut in size and color, but the smallest bobber able to hold up the bait is best since crappie won't be inclined to spit it out. The old pencil-type bobber with a round float in the middle works well and it can easily be adjusted to change depths.

Most anglers prefer a small crappie hook and the tried-and-true gold "crappie hook" works well for holding a lively minnow. Some anglers prefer hooking the minnow behind the dorsal fin and above the spine, while others hook the minnow through the lips. The disadvantage to the la

tter is that missed hooksets more often than not result in a lost minnow. A split shot can be crimped a few inches above the minnow to keep it down where the fish are near structure or the bottom.

"And of course, you can toss jigs for them, too, tube jigs especially. Sometimes fishing those below a bobber is the best way to fish a jig on shallow crappie," he added.

That method is a great way to cover plenty of water and one that Nebraska anglers rely on in the spring, as crappie are territorial and don't stack up right on top of each other like they do at other times of the year. A small 1/8-, 1/16- or even 1/32-ounce jig set 12 to 24 inches under a light bobber will allow anglers to pitch the offering up near the shore or parallel with it and make a slow retrieve. The advantage is being able to reel slowly knowing the jig won't get hung up in the rocks or structure as would be the case without the float.

Bauer suggested a tactic that was brought back from days of old, yet often works well.

"Don't forget a cane pole," Bauer said. "In some situations that's the best way to catch those fish as you can fish flooded cover, bulrushes, fallen trees or a beaver lodge. You can use that cane pole to dip that minnow or jig right in there and sit it down on those fish and you can yank them right out of there. You don't have to worry about casting and reeling it through the cover and all that."

No doubt the cane pole works well but modern-day anglers have adapted to another piece of equipment more at home in a trout stream. Long fly rods in the 8- to 10-foot lengths are often used by crappie anglers to "doodlesock" spawning crappie. Tipped with either a minnow or small tube jig, the offering is "dipped" next to standing structure like cattails, bulrushes, brush or timber near the shoreline or in shallow water.

It doesn't take long to determine if there are any takers as it will be apparent almost immediately with a telltale "whack!" If there's no action within a few seconds, the rod is lifted and dipped into another likely location. This tactic works well from a boat or shore, as the long rod allows anglers to reach out and get into a fish's territory without spooking it.

Nebraska anglers should check the 2009 Nebraska Fishing Regulations Summary for a complete list of all fishing regulations before planning a trip. And it's not a bad idea to throw a spare copy in your tackle box, truck or boat for easy reference.

"We've got a handful of lakes where we have some length limits and special regulations, but in the rest of the state there's no length limit," Bauer pointed out. "And then we've got some lakes like Zorinsky and Wehrspann where we've got a lot of crappie and we'd like anglers to thin some of them out. So, the month of April we have no length limit, but the rest of the year there's a 10-inch minimum length limit on all crappie.

"And we've got some places where the bag limit on crappie is 10 fish, but the statewide limit on panfish is 30 fish," he added.

Bauer said that while crappie fishing will be good again this year at several locations, the best might be yet to come. Nebraska, like many states over the last few years, had suffered through terrible drought conditions and many bodies of water wilted away. But rains over the last year have rejuvenated many of those and it won't take long for the crappie populations to respond.

"We've got some big year-classes of crappie coming up, although they're still a little small right now," Bauer said. "But I anticipate in a year or two we're going to have a bunch of good crappie fisheries and that includes places in eastern Nebraska like Branched Oak and Pawnee that both had big year-classes of crappie showing up."

Another bigger body of water to look at as an up-and-comer is Harlan Reservoir.

"It came up and flooded a bunch of habitat," Bauer added. "Hang on for another year or two and we should see another boom in crappie fishing there, too.

"With the water levels coming up, crappie fishing is going to get a whole lot better in a lot of places."

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