Spring is a wonderful time of year in Kansas’ great outdoors. Everything is waking up from a long winter, and warm weather days are reason to celebrate. Turkey hunters are out in full force and those that like the fungus in the form of morel mushrooms share the woods now, too. And if your pursuits are more piscatorial in nature, then chances are you’re headed to your favorite watery haunt in search of spawning crappie. The action is heating up in many bodies of water across the state.
▪ Photo by Marc Murrell.
“I love fishing the spawn,” said avid angler Bob Roberts. “I love fishing for many species, but when those crappie move up shallow it’s a hoot.”
Roberts has decades of experience fishing. He fishes reservoirs in the central and western part of the state like Milford, Wilson, Kanopolis, Cedar Bluff, Glen Elder and Marion, and even some smaller state fishing lakes. More often than not he catches his share of crappie. He tries to fish during the week when most anglers are at work and often has many of his favorite spots all to himself. Spring is when he loads the boat with spawning crappie at any number of destinations.
“When that water temperature starts getting close to 60 degrees, it’s time to start checking some spots,” Roberts admitted. “You’ll find that some banks warm up quicker than others if they’re protected from big winds, and those are the ones fish usually go to first.”
Winter crappie fishing is also a favorite of Roberts and he says that fishing for spawning crappie ranks right up there.
“You probably don’t catch as many fish as you can in the winter when you really get into them, but you can usually catch some really nice fish in the spring,” Roberts said.
While winter fishing is primarily restricted to anglers who own boats, crappie fishing at this time of year is more open. More crappie are caught now by jig and minnow-dunking bank-anglers than at any other time of year. Fish often move to shallow areas in coves, many of which are accessible from shore.
“When they get going, they can be on most any bank that has suitable spawning habitat,” Roberts said. “Many of our state fishing lakes and reservoirs have plenty of good places for them to spawn.”
Roberts looks for a gradually sloping bank, usually with some brush or gravel along it. But he doesn’t rule out steeper banks either, as fish will still spawn in some of these areas but just hang deeper.
“And if you’re going along and you see a bunch of cloudy water along the bank, you know it’s probably a male crappie in there stirring things up building or guarding a nest,” Roberts said. “And if that female isn’t right there nearby, she’s often hanging out in just a little bit deeper water.”
A favorite tactic for Roberts is to use a spinning rod and reel and pitch a 1/8-ounce jig near shore and slowly retrieve it. If the shore is particularly rocky or brushy, he likes to suspend his jig with a small bobber placed about a foot above it.
“Some days they want that bobber stopped and the jig just sitting there, and other days they’ll whack it on the move,” Roberts said. “But that bobber allows you to fish a slower presentation and shallower water while not getting hung up as much.”
Such was the case on a memorable day last spring when Roberts made a late afternoon call to a friend.
“What time can you get over here to Kanopolis?” he asked his buddy. “If you want to catch a bunch of crappie you better hurry up because we’ve been catching some.”
Roberts and his suddenly sick friend hit the water about 4:30 p.m. and started pitching jigs toward a shallow, muddy and gravel bank.
“He caught one on his second cast, and I think he knew right then he was glad he made the trip,” Roberts laughed. “We stayed in one spot for an hour and never moved and caught a bunch of fish.”
The duo fished similar looking banks as the first and caught scrappy crappie most every stop. The livewell began to fill with loads of male white crappie and the occasional egg-laden female white crappie. Throw in a few black crappie and there was plenty of slab-sided action until the sun disappeared behind the horizon.
“We caught about 75 crappie in about three hours,” Roberts said. “We kept 54 between us and most of our keepers were between 10 and 12 inches. We had about a dozen that would weigh a pound to a pound-and-a-quarter, so we had some pretty decent fish and most of our fish were males.”
A mostly male catch means the spawn is just getting started, as they’re usually first on the scene. Scenarios just like this are being played out on many waters all across Kansas and some are better than others.
“There’s nothing like a lake being down for a while and then filling back up which floods all that vegetation and new growth,” Roberts said of the seasonality of Kansas’ reservoir water levels. “High water at the right time of the year gives those fish places to spawn and also places for those young-of-the-year fish to hide from predators.
“You really can’t manage crappie, only Mother Nature can,” he said of the hit-or-miss timing of the water coming up or going down, which is naturally beyond any fisheries biologist’s control. “It can make a lot of crappie when it’s right.”
Since a crappie’s lifespan is relatively short, most reservoirs don’t have length limits. However, a few Kansas reservoirs do have a 10-inch minimum length limit. In addition to the 50-fish statewide creel limit on crappie, some bodies of water, large and small, have more restrictive creel limits. For example, popular crappie hotspots like Council Grove, Perry, Melvern, Clinton and Hillsdale reservoirs have a 20-fish crappie creel limit and a 10-inch minimum length limit. Other bodies of water may have similar restrictions, so anglers are advised to check the 2010 Kansas Fishing Regulations Summary when planning a trip to fish the crappie spawn.
Another sure-fire method for catching Kansas spawning crappie involves a leisurely approach favored by many anglers. A lawn chair, minnow bucket and a beverage of choice are three key ingredients in many after-work expeditions. A peaceful sunset is made better by hungry crappie inhaling a medium-sized minnow dangled 1 to 2 feet below a bobber that was pitched out from shore anywhere from a few feet to several yards
or more. Riprap areas of fishing jetties or breakwater surrounding boat ramps, marinas or bridge causeways are ideal spots. Crappie often move in from deeper water to these shallow, rocky areas as nightfall approaches, and fishing often gets better closer to dark.
The spawning action should continue through mid-May in some Kansas locations, depending on Mother Nature.
“I’ve done well on some reservoirs as late as Memorial Day,” Roberts said of fishing the crappie spawn. “It just depends on the weather.”
BLACK OR WHITE?
Avid crappie anglers can tell the difference between white and black crappie at first glance. However, many novice anglers mistakenly identify (not that it matters as they both look the same sizzling in hot grease) spawning male white crappie as black crappie. These spawning male white crappie are often the blackest of black and much darker than their female counterparts.
The easiest way to tell the two apart is to look at the overall coloration and pattern of black or dark blotches on the sides. White crappie have vertical barring that may be only slightly darker than the rest of the body to coal black. Black crappie don’t have any pattern to their black spots and they appear random over much of their sides.
If you want to positively identify your fish (which isn’t really necessary since creel or length limits don’t differentiate between the two), you can count the spiny dorsal fins on the top of the fish. White crappie have six or fewer spines, while black crappie have seven or more.