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Longer days and rising water temperatures will soon begin to trigger spawning activity among the crappie in your favorite waters. These tips will help you catch those slabs.
Prespawn crappie are tough to figure out. Some days they’re deep; some days they’re shallow. One day they prefer minnows; the next they prefer jigs. Sometimes you can’t buy a nibble; sometimes you catch ‘em one after another after another.
Despite its complications, early-season crappie fishing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors. In February, few fishermen are on the water, and skiers and personal watercraft rarely bother you. It’s like a banquet: fresh air, blue skies and – if you’re lucky – a few crappie to bend your pole.
Following are 12 tips to help you enjoy success during your late-winter forays. Study them, employ them and enjoy the prespawn bounty.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Good prespawn fishing often occurs toward the end of warm spells, before an approaching cold front hits. During this time, male crappie start fanning out nests in the shallows. Females also move shallow, looking for food. Therefore, focus fishing efforts on shallow waters where spawning will occur.
When the cold front arrives, crappie return to deeper waters, holding near distinct bottom structure where cover is abundant. If conditions are sunny and windy, wave action cuts light penetration, and crappie remain near mid-depth structures. A few days after the front passes, the wind usually calms, allowing greater light penetration and driving crappie to deeper structure and cover.
If weather remains sunny and begins warming before the passage of another cold front, crappie gradually begin migrating back to shallow waters. Rainy weather – especially a warm rain – sends them scurrying to shallow reaches.
Trolling with several poles lets you “sweep” an area at several depths to find scattered prespawn crappie. Put each pole in a rod holder. Use minnows and/or jigs in a variety of colors and styles. Two baits might be set 10 feet deep, two at 15 feet and two at 20 feet. This permits you to test different baits and depths.
The dropper rig is popular for prespawn trolling. Attach a 1- to 3-ounce sinker to the end of your line. Above this are one to four 12-inch dropper lines a foot apart. Each dropper connects to the main line via a loop knot or swivel. A different type or color of bait is tied to each dropper, and the rig is trolled.
Small spoons – 1/6- to 1/4-ounce – are very productive for catching suspended prespawn crappie. Using sonar, the fisherman looks for the arched signature of crappie suspended above humps, points and breaklines, then a jigging spoon is free-spooled to the fish. The lure is jigged by raising the rod tip with an upward pull then quickly lowering the rod so the spoon falls on slack line. Crappie usually strike as the lure drops.
Small safety-pin-style spinners are a boon when searching for scattered prespawn crappie. Fan cast in a big circle. As you retrieve, work the lure slowly over, through and beside woody cover. When fishing shallow brush, blowdowns and other visible cover, cast beyond the cover and bring the lure through it or alongside it. Bump the cover with the lure; this seems to excite crappie into biting.
LOOK FOR LEDGES
Scan your sonar for shallow underwater ledges. These aren’t deep drop-offs falling 10 feet or more, but rather shallow ditches, cuts and gullies near bankside bluffs or coves. Ledges are especially productive when found near weedbeds, timber stands or other crappie cover.
Medium-sized (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) jigs are ideal lures for fishing ledges. Work a lure down the drop-off, hopping it stair-step fashion. Around river ledges, allow lures to drift naturally and bounce along the ledge.
“BRUSH” UP ON YOUR FISHING
Fisheries agencies often construct fish shelters by sinking reefs of trees and brush in waters lacking good cover. Buoys mark the locations of most shelters. Others are marked on maps and can be pinpointed using sonar. All such shelters are likely to harbor crappie concentrations during the prespawn.
Use sonar to determine the shelter’s position; then use a countdown technique to pinpoint feeding fish. Position your boat a cast away from your marker buoy and cast a 1/16-ounce on 4-pound-test line to the buoy. Now count the jig down until you get a hit or contact brush. If you get a hit, use the same count next cast. If you contact brush, use a shorter count.
Super-structure is a smaller, specific component of much larger structure where crappie are likely to gather. Let’s use creek channels to illustrate the principle. Primary creek channels are among the best structures to fish during prespawn, but crappie won’t be found along a channel’s entire length. Instead, they gather in small schools in spots where the channel exhibits a change of some sort. This may be where a secondary channel intersects the main channel or around a tree standing on a sharp bend-anything different from the norm. Finding such super-structure can mean the difference between catching lots of crappie or none at all.
JIG FOR HIDEAWAY CRAPPIE
Crappie often hold in deeper edges of thick cover prior to spawning, but catching these “hideaway” crappie is daunting. Here’s a tactic that works using a jig and jigging pole.
Grab your line below the line-guide eye nearest your reel. Pull your jig tight against the rod-tip eye. Carefully work the pole through the tangles of the cover until your jig is over your selected fishing hole. Lower the jig into the hole. Some anglers work their jigs with an “up, down, up, down” action. But this causes unnecessary hang-ups when fishing heavy brush. Simply lower the jig to the desired depth, and hold it stationary. Vibrations relayed through your line to the lure impart enough action to attract crappie.
When a fish hits, reverse the action. Keep the line in your hand, set the hook, pull the fish to the rod tip, then back your rod up to get the fish out.
POINTS & CRANKBAITS
Prespawn crappie often hold on points sloping toward bottom channels. Among the best lures for fishing these areas are small, deep-diving, baitfish-imitating crankbaits.
It’s difficult to keep crankbaits at favored depths and still move them slow enough to entice lethargic crappie. Using a neutral buoyancy or sinking crankbait eliminates these problems. Use light line – 4- to 6-pound-test – crank the lure down to the proper depth, and then slowly crawl it across the bottom.
Fish crankbaits around cover on each point, retrieving the lure from shallow water to deep, or working across the point toward the deepest side. Crappie move up and down points as weather and water conditions change, and they may be difficult to pinpoint. But when the first fish is found, you might take several on consecutive casts.
River crappie are nomads, moving here and there as seasons change. They begin spawning in water that’s 62 to 65 degrees, and they leave cooler water as soon as possible. The thing is, water temperature isn’t the same everywhere in a river. It fluctuates from one spot to another, and that can make it tough to find fish. Crappie may move out of the main river and into a warmer tributary. Or they may move to water that’s a little muddier, because silty water warms quicker than clear water. It’s important to find areas with the proper water temperature in order to find fish.
Start your search in areas with little current – big backwaters, side channels and other places where current is reduced. If that doesn’t produce, try fishing cuts connecting backwaters and the main river, or work your baits around heavy cover in the river proper. Change lures, tactics and locations as often as necessary to establish a fishing pattern.
Don’t overlook the opportunity to take loads of crappie in tailwaters below big river dams. River crappie move upstream in late winter or early spring, searching for spawning sites. When they reach a dam, they congregate and mill around the area for a while, and you have an excellent chance for extraordinary catches there. A jig/minnow combination often outproduces a jig or minnow alone in this situation. Use a leadhead heavy enough to get down in the current, and cast the rig around wing dams, boulders, lock walls, sandbar edges and other current breaks where crappie can rest and feed.
When a prespawn crappie strikes, don’t expect a bone-jarring smash; it rarely happens at this time of year. Instead, strikes usually are “soft”; they feel like the bait has picked up a leaf or little stick.
Be prepared to set the hook the instant your line goes slack or your bait doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait for anything else. Set the hook and make a mental note of the depth at which the fish struck. There may be a dozen more crappie still down there.