By William J. Bohica
They say “Hope springs eternal,” but if you’re a crappie fisherman you might rephrase that to “Spring offers eternal hope.”
It’s no secret that the spring months are the best times of the year to fill the cooler with a mess of tasty slab-sided crappie. Equally well-known is that tempestuous spring weather can send the best angling game plan in the world right into the dumpster!
String together a few days of warming weather, and slabs are likely to be gathered in the shallows. Toss in a cold front, and they drop back into deeper water. Regardless of where they are, however, once you find the fish, you can normally expect to have a banner day. At this time of year, crappie are schooled up tightly and ready to eat.
Here’s a six-point plan used by expert crappie anglers that can put you on the schools.
Locating spawning areas first means that you have just eliminated a lot of deeper waters that you do not have to look through. If you know where the crappies will wind up, you are likely to find them in open water nearby.
If you are familiar with the lake, head to the traditional bedding areas that are used year after year. If it is unfamiliar water, there are alternatives. Fish camps and bait stores are good ones. They can often provide tips for key areas where crappies spawn. State fisheries biologists are another. Many do tagging and research studies during the spring months when crappies are concentrated into narrow areas.
Regardless of how you acquire the data, the information is important. It tells you which areas of the lake you need to concentrate your efforts on and eliminates a lot of non-productive water.
Once you find the spawning sites, you can begin backtracking to the open water haunts.
Crappie do not make an overnight movement from open waters to the spawning shallows. They do it in stages. How long those stages take depends upon the weather. But the deep-to-shallow movement of the fish does have distinct stops along the way.
Just where they stop depends upon the type of water they inhabit. But there are certain key areas to look for.
On a shallow, soup-bowl-shaped lake, look for crappie to pause at the deeper edge of any vegetation line. These can be composed of native weeds, or introduced hydrilla and milfoil. Either way, a distinct break line between open mid-lake waters and the spawning shallows is the key.
Reservoirs, especially those with a pronounced main channel, often see crappie stacking up on any channel swings, drops or ledges. If this situation occurs within a couple hundred yards of the known spawning site, it’s worth exploring. If the site has wood structure, don’t pass it up.
Crappie love wood whenever they are in their pre-spawn or post-spawn phases. A fallen tree, some brushtop or a planted brushpile can be the five-star hotel along any section of channel drop. Find that piece of wood on the contour break and you have likely found a key staging point for crappie.
Locating staging points is important for pre-spawn fish, but it’s equally important for post-spawn crappie or even slabs simply affected by a sudden cold front. As they back out of the shallows, they go to those staging points.
Whether you are fishing shallow spawning cover or open water, a trolling motor is a major asset. Savvy anglers use it to move at a steady pace through shallow cover. If the cover is sparse, ultra-light spinning gear with Beetle Spin-type lures can fish a lot of water. In heavier cover, a cane pole allows you to quickly dip a jig or minnow fished under a float into available openings.
Open water anglers should add a depthfinder to the mix. Combined with a trolling motor, a depthfinder allows you to systematically check various depths while highlighting drops, ledges and submerged brushpiles.
Once the first crappie is found, drop a marker buoy to pinpoint the spot and stay on the school.
Lures are often better for quickly covering shallow spawning areas, and they can enable you to find fish fast. If water temperatures are warm, they may also be the best choice for filling the fish box.
In sparse cover, a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce Beetle Spin is an outstanding, although often overlooked, lure. Relatively weedless, it can cover a lot of water quickly, and few veterans start their search without one rigged on an ultra-light rod.
If fish are located over a relatively clean bottom, shifting to a bare jig can often be a better bet, especially in clearer water. Crawled slowly over spawning beds, it’s an offering few bedding crappie can resist.
n heavier cover, slipping a bare jig onto a cane pole under a float is a surprisingly quick way to probe small openings. Crappie normally strike the jig as it drops after it hits the water. Let it sink and twitch it twice, and if nothing happens hit another opening.
If the water is cooler, however, a live minnow is normally a better bet. These can be fished on a small gold hook or tipped onto a jighead.
In open water situations, savvy anglers fare better by mixing the bait selection – bare jigs, minnow-tipped jigs or just minnows. Crappie can be surprisingly finicky, and you often have to let the fish tell you what they want. It is best to have both bait and lures on hand.
In turbid waters, high visibility colors like pink, yellow, fluorescent chartreuse and pearl white are often the most effective, while clearer water calls for black, brown, green or pumpkinseed.
Regardless of which is working, however, when the action slows it is wise to start experimenting with different colors. That can often re-trigger the bite after the school has had a long look at the previous color.
Experienced anglers know that they need a mix of cane poles and ultra-light gear to allow them to drift open water, work brushpiles, or probe the spawning shallows. Even then, bait can outperform lures on one day and the reverse occur the next.
Those anglers who experience consistent success are the ones rigged and ready to handle multiple techniques. They also are the ones adding extra ice to the cooler and sharpening their filleting knives.
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