Patterning Pre-Spawn And Early-Spawn Slabs

Water temperature, light penetration and other factors can all influence crappie movement at this time of year. Make prevailing conditions work for you! (February 2007)

Depending on where you live in the South, February conjures up different images. For some, things are still extremely cold, with temperatures at or below freezing; along the Gulf Coast, it feels more like springtime. And in the middle tier of states, the weather's somewhere in between.

Regardless of the weather, many anglers in this part of the world equate February with crappie fishing. If we're not already catching big tubs of crappie, we're preparing for it -- or, in some cases, dreaming about it. Even where ponds and small lakes are frozen, we're getting our tackle ready and, if we're smart, scouting our favorite lakes to see where the fish are and what they're doing.

Like the weather, crappie are in different stages, depending on the latitude. In the colder climes we talked about, crappie may still be locked in winter patterns; in other, milder regions, they might already be starting to spawn.

On the other hand, February is a transitional time throughout the South. Weather conditions in early February are much different than they are in late February, but the changes are so subtle that you might not immediately notice them. You do feel them, however, and you get a little more energetic and peppy as the month goes along.

Crappie are like that, too: They go through a very predictable reproductive cycle that heats up with the pre-spawn, peaks with the actual spawn, and cools with the post-spawn. The amount of daylight and water temperature influence the timing of this cycle significantly, but the spawn follows the same pattern everywhere. It ain't rocket science, as they say -- but it is biological science, and it follows some robust rules. If you understand how to pattern the key periods of the spawn, you can catch crappie anywhere this month, anytime.

Although crappie are easiest to find and catch during the spawn, many anglers overlook the fine fishing available during the pre-spawn, when crappie begin concentrating in deep staging areas as they prepare to move to the shallows. This is a great time to catch a lot of fish, because as they prepare their bodies for the rigors of reproduction, the slabs are gorging on minnows. Dedicated crappie anglers, many of whom maintain extensive brushpile installations in their favorite waters, pay close attention to crappie locations and feeding patterns during this time. Fish concentrate first around brushpiles situated on deep structure, and gradually move shoreward.

Before they move to the bank, however, crappie suspend in deep water near prominent main-lake and main-river structure. On lakes and rivers, the best places to find them are along main channels near big concentrations of baitfish. Because baitfish move around so much, the crappie move with them, so yesterday's hotspot can be barren of fish today.

Electronics will be the thing for finding papermouths at this time, and the graphic shape made by the sonar signature of a big school of crappie will be unmistakable: It'll clutter your screen. At big lakes, crappie often suspend pretty much in the middle of the water column. If you're in 50 feet of water, the crappie generally will be at 30 to 35 feet. If the maximum depth on your lake is 20 feet, look for crappie at 8 to 10 feet, and so on.

Catching suspending crappie is easy: Just drop a tandem rig baited with a couple of live minnows and tightline it at a depth that puts the bait among the fish. Use a relatively light drop-weight, from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce, and tie your first dropline about 14 inches above the weight; tie the second dropline about a foot above that. Let it sink to the bottom, take out the slack and then come up a few inches at a time until you find the "bite zone."

If you don't want to fool with tandem rigs, you can use a single line on a slip-cork. To improve your chances, use crappie jigs tipped with minnows, so if a fish steals your minnow, you can still catch fish on the bare jig.

A fisheries biologist in the Deep South once told me that, if the water temperature is right, crappie can spawn anytime from December to June. Late-winter/early-spring flooding also plays a huge role in the spawn. As big lowland reservoirs and rivers swell, they overflow into floodplains and backwaters, creating a wealth of crappie spawning habitat. Those areas are shallower than the main basins, so they warm up faster. If you've been targeting suspending fish, you'll notice they follow these floodwaters inland.

The trick is to time the peak of the rise. Crappie will move into an area and spawn near the high water within a few days of the peak, ensuring that their eggs can hatch, and that their young can move to deep water before the water falls and strands them in the shallows.

In the Deep South, these floodwaters can sprawl over many thousands of acres. When they fall, however, they'll drain out of the backwaters within about 10 days, leaving them and the fish trapped in them landlocked.

By understanding the various phases of the crappie's reproductive cycle, you can find places that will produce for you from late winter to early summer.

Two years ago, I went crappie fishing at an oxbow off a major river. The woods had been inundated for weeks, but were then draining. I traveled from one oxbow to a smaller oxbow by pulling a flat-bottomed boat through a shallow runout. As I walked, I was amazed at all the small bream and crappie that were following the current out of the oxbow. Unfortunately, that also told me that the bulk of the spawn had already occurred, and that the fish would probably be in the post-spawn phase.

At big highland reservoirs, rises are confined to well-defined vertical basins, so floodwaters go up instead of out. However, crappie respond to them the same way: They'll move to submerged wood cover along the shoreline and spend several days spawning. When you visit your local sporting goods store or bait shop and hear that crappie are on the bank, you'd better get on the water as soon as possible -- because the fish won't stay there long.

Another thing to consider at upland reservoirs is that the crappie's spawning patterns will be staggered from one end of a lake to the other. Since water temperatures warm up sooner in the upper tributaries, crappie move to the shallows in those areas sometimes two or three weeks sooner than they do in the lower ends of a lake, which usually are deeper and colder.

After the spawn, crappie move out to offshore structure and cover for rest, revitalization and reconditioning, and brushpiles come into play. Woody structure, either natural or artificial, offers everything a crappie needs for post-spawn

recovery. Shielded from predators, the fish can loaf about relatively safely; further, brushpiles attract baitfish, and so provide an ample food supply.

Although I love fishing the spawn, I love fishing the post-spawn almost as much. I can cruise from one brushtop to another and catch a mess of fish off each one. In fact, I generally can catch a limit from just two or three spots. If I'm fishing with friends, I'll have to visit a few more. Oh, what a burden!

Technically, the post-spawn period doesn't last very long, but the post-spawn pattern can last for weeks, even months. As long as crappie are in brushpiles, you can catch all you want by dunking minnows.

Finding brushpiles, or "tops," is easy with a depthfinder: Look at the shoreline and get a visual image of the shoreline contour, and then follow, graphing the areas in which you believe that points and channels converge. A brushpile presents a distinctive profile on the screen of a sonar fishfinder. When you find one, mark it with a pair of buoys and fish it with live minnows under a slip-cork.

One of my favorite places for catching big crappie is in the upper end of a large water-supply reservoir near my hometown. Brushpiles are not allowed there, and almost all of the lake's natural vegetation rotted away many years ago. However, the lake is full of slab crappie. In this particular area, they spawn on whatever cover they can find, and when they're finished, they back off the shore about 30 yards and settle along the main creek channel that runs under a bridge. There's always wind-driven current in that spot, which keeps the water comfortable and full of food. There's no cover there at all -- just a subtle contour change at which certain crappie-friendly elements converge.

By understanding the various phases of the crappie's reproductive cycle, you can find places that will produce for you from late winter to early summer.

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