As a game fish, crappie have a following among die-hard sporting anglers as strong as serious sports fans have for major league baseball. When the hot-stove league of baseball is heating up and spring training begins, the crappie fishing and the interest for it is beginning to heat up as well.
During late February and early March, the crappie in most reservoirs will begin congregating in traditional staging areas. These areas can be very different from one lake to the next. The move into these areas during the transitional period between winter and spring is caused by certain stimuli in the fish that trigger their spawning instincts.
After a few unseasonably warm and sunny days during this early spring period, the crappie might be found right up near the bank. “When anglers hook into a mess of these fish in the shallows during late winter/early spring, they sometimes believe that they are in for an early spring spawn,” says fisheries biologist Mike Colvin. “However, the crappie in these shallows are just reacting to their stimuli and aren’t actually spawning yet.” During this period, you might find crappie up near the banks in shallow water one day and then go back and find that the fish are 15 feet deep off of points over cover the next day.
“The actual spawning takes place throughout a wide range of water temperatures,” Colvin added. “It has been documented where crappie have begun spawning activity in water as low as 55 degrees Fahrenheit and there will be spawning activity until the water temps are into the low 70s.”
Crappie are generalists when it comes to choosing staging and spawning areas. These fish don’t necessarily have to have gravelly bottoms to spawn in. Some reservoirs don’t have any gravel or rock bottoms at all and the crappie reproduce there quite well.
During the actual spawning period, the male is the fish that builds the nest, while the female deposits the eggs and leaves right away. For anglers, this means that you can catch males on the nest guarding the eggs and fry for about 10 days, but the females deposit their eggs and leave, giving anglers only about a 24-hour period to catch them in the actual nests. Just prior to the spawn, females can be found congregated in slightly deeper water, farther away from the banks where the males are building nests. It is a myth that the female crappie are larger than their male counterparts. Studies indicate that both male and female crappie have about an equal growth rate. “The only way to consistently distinguish a male crappie from a female one is by coloration just prior to and during spawning,” Colvin added. “The males begin to turn almost black on their fins and bellies during this time period.”
Don’t worry about catching too many crappie off of their nests. These prolific reproducers supply plenty of offspring for future anglers. “Our studies have shown that crappie spawn plenty of young and that it doesn’t matter how many adults are left to spawn. However, some years tend to be much better for the survival of the spawn than others we just haven’t learned what factors help or hinder the survival of the newly spawned crappie,” Colvin added. According to Colvin, catching adult crappie from the nests can have an effect on the size of the adult crappie population. That is why many reservoirs have begun to limit the size of crappie kept by anglers to 9 or 10 inches.
Ken Bennett not only loves fishing for crappie, he makes a living doing so as a professional guide. His tried-and-true tactics work well on just about any impoundment that holds slab-side crappie.
“Throughout February, during the pre-spawn time, I like to fish above structure whether it is natural structure or a manmade crappie bed,” Bennett said. “The fish will sometimes be down in the cover or they might be suspended somewhere above it.”
A variety of factors determine how deep the crappie might be on any given day, but weather plays a major role in this aspect of pre-spawn crappie fishing. “The fish might be as shallow as seven feet or somewhere near the bottom,” Bennett said. “A good starting point to begin searching for crappie during February and early March is 13 feet.”
A passing cold front with overcast, blustery days will probably drive the fish to deeper water, but a few days of a good warming trend will bring the fish right back to shallower waters. The crappie can act like a yo-yo during this period.
Bennett recommends beginning your search for crappie in 13 feet of water near the mouths of creek channels or farther out off points near main river and creek channels during the early pre-spawn period. “I think a map and a fish locator are two very important tools for crappie anglers. A topo map in particular, will show fishermen where the dropoffs, humps and creek channels are,” Bennett added.
Ken uses both an LCD and a “flasher” type fish locator. Both are very good at locating fish and alerting fishermen to where the underwater structure is. “A flasher can be a bit more sensitive as to locating structure, but I’d recommend an LCD unit for beginners,” Bennett said. “The main thing is to be able to use the equipment you have effectively.”
During the early pre-spawn period Bennett prefers to vertically tight-line for crappie with small jigs. “I like to use 1/16-ounce hair or tube jigs above cover,” Bennett said. “If it is really cold out, I’ll tip the jig with a minnow to provoke a strike from sluggish fish.”
The colder the water, the slower you fish. “Remember, when you are crappie fishing, you are still-fishing,” advised Bennett. “You don’t want to jig your rod up and down like you’re driving nails. The natural movement of the water will often cause your jig to move more naturally. You might want to slowly lift your rod tip up and gently lower it down every once in awhile so as to attract attention to your presentation.”
The clarity of the water is what determines the colors of the jigs that Ken Bennett uses to catch his limits of crappie. The clearer the water, the clearer the lure. “In murky or stained waters, I like to use darker colors, but in clear water I like a transparent color. On moderately clear water, I like a pearl color,” Bennett said.
Throughout all periods of the spawn, Bennett likes to add a touch of chartreuse and/or red to his jig heads. He feels it adds a little something extra to his presentation.
A great rule of thumb is to drop your jig into the water and see how many feet down you can still see your lure. If you drop it down and it disappears after 2 feet, ad
d another 3 and start fishing at 5 feet. If you lose visibility of your jig at 6 feet, you should begin searching for the fish in no less than 9 feet of water.
Sometime in March, the fish will begin their transition into more shallow waters where they will wait for the spawn to begin. During this period, Ken likes to fish the coves and the mouths of tributary creeks.
Bennett uses a 7-foot light-action rod with a fast tip to vertical fish during the pre-spawn. His reel is an ultralight spin-cast spooled with 8-pound-test line. In really clear water, he uses a 4- to 6-pound-test. “The new lines with their small diameters allow me to use heavier poundage lines,” Bennett added.
Bennett also likes to troll with a fiberglass crappie pole lined with 15-pound-test mono. At the end of the line he attaches a 1/4-ounce weight and a swivel. To the swivel he attaches a 12-inch drop-line with 10-pound-test line. He likes to drag a live minnow hooked through the mouth or eye on a number 1 or 2 hook.
During the spawn, you might find the fish in as shallow as 6 inches of water near cover or structure next to the bank, but the fish there will get tons of pressure.
“One of the mistakes the beginning crappie anglers make is fishing too tightly to the bank all of the time,” Bennett said. “Sure, sometimes the fish will be there, especially in murkier conditions, but these fish also get pounded with a lot of fishing pressure and are less likely to be tempted into striking. Sometimes all it takes is backing off of the shore anywhere from 2 to 8 feet from the bank and start fishing.”
Crappie do love hanging and spawning near structure. This could be anything from a hump in a creek channel to a manmade crappie bed in front of a dock six feet deep or more.
February and March crappie fishing can be great if you know the facts. Remember to pay close attention to the weather when deciding how deep to fish, and pay attention to the water clarity when determining what color bait you are going to present to this year’s crappie.
Then you should be well on your way to an early limit of slabs!
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