Photo by Bob Hood.
If anything’s predictable about crappie, it’s their unpredictability — especially as cold fronts pass and habitat changes in the spring. But that doesn’t mean that they’re difficult to locate. Learn to find these fish under both normal and abnormal conditions, and you can catch them at just about any lake at just about any time.
Crappie (also known in various parts of the country as “speckled perch,” “white perch,” “sac-à-lait” and “calico bass”) have been known to grow to 4 pounds and larger. In most circles, crappie weighing 2 pounds or more are considered true trophies, but few people who have caught them that large regard them as trophies for the den wall. Instead, they consider big crappie “slabs” — as in “big slabs of fillets for the deep fryer.” Indeed, the meat from crappie is considered a delicacy among lovers of freshwater fish.
So how do you catch these slabs at different lakes with their own unique structure types and varying weather conditions? Simple: Follow them through their normal seasonal patterns while being fully willing to adjust to their reactions to temperature and habitat conditions.
Sound complicated? Not really. It’s almost like simple arithmetic to avid crappie anglers who use a run-and-gun approach to locate them not only during the spring but from one season to another as well.
Here are some of the basic crappie patterns that, I’ve found, hold true throughout the popular fish’s major ranges in all parts of the country. Each pattern will produce crappie for you most of the time — but always be prepared to shift to another strategy when a cold front pushes through. Another situation calling for change arises when you return to a lake and discover loss of habitat since you last fished; this may have resulted from the passage of time, the effects of severe storms or the influence of any number of other factors.
The major crappie spawn occurs during the spring months. Some spawn earlier or later in various states, but whenever the arrival of spring pushes water temperatures into the upper 50s and lower 60s, you’ve gotten into the best time of the year for catching huge crappie in ultra-shallow water on minnows, jigs and ultralight soft-plastic lures. Cattails, bulrushes, button willows and other thick vegetation standing in 2 to 4 feet of water in creeks, small coves and flats near deeper water make for ideal crappie spawning grounds.
Other hotspots during the spawning season are areas around boat docks, especially those that have been brushed. Look for slabs amid stumps, logs and brush along edges of feeder creek channels on major reservoirs and the main creek and river channels within their banks on lakes of all sizes. By boat, approach these areas cautiously and use a slip-cork or similar rig to fish the structure slowly.
At some Southern lakes, crappie buffs prefer to use a method called “strolling,” which involves using soft-plastic lures such as tube jigs and small marabou or hair jigs to troll beside the boat along the outside edge of weedbeds or in creek channels.
Many owners of private boat docks place brush under them to attract crappie and other fish. Docks enhanced in this way are great for crappie in spring in particular but also in winter. Remember, though, to use common sense whenever you fish around private boat docks. In most states, the water around the docks on public lakes belongs to the public, but I urge all anglers to respect the property and privacy of dock owners by refraining from fishing around them when the owners or their guests are occupying the docks.
Crappie, even when spawning, tend to gather in the same areas in large numbers so be prepared to catch several after you land your first fish. Whether you find good action during the early or late-evening hours, leave the area once the bite slows or stops and try other sites; then, return to the first spot an hour or two later. More often than not you’ll find that things have picked up again.
During the spring, before crappie move to their shallow spawning areas, you’ll find them prowling water 6 to about 10 feet deep at the mouths of major creeks on big reservoirs. I’ve used crappie jigs floated beneath party balloons to catch crappie in large numbers when they are on the flats under these circumstances.
I’ve also caught them by casting ultralight soft-plastic curly-tailed grubs in the same areas. However, when breezes blow across shallow flats, catch crappie while you cover a lot of territory without repeated casting by using a balloon to put life into your artificial lure. Just inflate a small party balloon to about the size of a large lemon or avocado, tie it onto your line about 18 to 24 inches above the hook and let the wind move your jig across an area you think the crappie may be traveling.
As temperatures warm in early spring, crappie often congregate at depths of 12 to 35 feet. Standing timber along roadbeds, boat lanes, the pilings and cross members of bridges, logjams and brushpiles are ideal for finding crappie at that time of year, most particularly during midmorning and early-afternoon hours, when the sun is high.
Two ways to determine the depth that fish are holding at when staging in cover away from the rays of the sun and not actually spawning: Either start with your lure or bait just off the bottom and reel it up about a foot at a time to find where the fish are holding — or do just the opposite, starting near the surface and working the lure or bait toward the bottom.
When crappie hold on bridge structures, for example, they may be stacked atop an underwater concrete cross member midway to the bottom; this is even more likely to occur when they find brush or limbs there. At other times they may be holding next to the bridge piling itself, near the bottom or close to the surface at what they consider their comfort zone.
Standing timber along roadbeds, boat lanes, the pilings and cross members of bridges, logjams and brushpiles are ideal for finding crappie.
If unusually cold temperatures arrive during early spring, you can bet that the crappie won’t be shallow. At many lakes, this is the time that indoor crappie houses, brushed boat slips at marinas, deep manmade bru
shpiles and large trees in deep water become the name of the game, crappie jigs and soft-plastic tubes often outproduce live minnows, and fishing s-l-o-w-l-y and with lots of patience is the only way to go.
When cold fronts push crappie back into deep water during pre-spawn periods, the fish usually don’t go far from the shallow water that they were seeking. Look for them around the bases of large stumps and trees, or close to the deepest parts of creek and river channels in which brushpiles and other structures lie near spawning areas.
Learning your favorite lake’s structure will help you catch more crappie not only during the spring but also year ’round. A sonar depthfinder is a valuable tool when you’re searching for underwater brushpiles near dropoffs into creek channels, brush around bridge pilings or brush placed near boat docks. Fishing a single minnow or crappie jig under a slip-cork in thick cover will work just fine, but you can increase your chances of catching large numbers of crappie by using two minnows or lures at a time when you fish around thin cover or on the outside of thick cover. (Check first to make sure the practice is permitted at the lake that you’re fishing.)
I know an angler who ties multiple crappie jigs on his line whenever he’s fishing bridge structure. The guy catches a lot of crappie — and you can’t argue with success!
My favorite rig for spawners is the slip-cork setup with either a minnow or jig. I tie a rubber band on the line above the slip-cork to allow me to adjust the depth of the hook-to-bobber relationship. I’ve scored on more crappie than I can count with both minnows and jigs while I dabbled that setup around brushpiles in lakes, creeks and rivers of all sizes. When fishing with a live minnow, I hook the bait through its lips from the bottom up; it’s less injurious to the minnow and so keeps it lively.
During the post-spawn period, I prefer the double-hook setup with each hook approximately 18 inches apart above a split shot — when fished vertically, a very effective rig for the outside edges of thick cover or relatively clean structures such as bridge pilings, deep dock pilings, brushpiles and tree stumps.
Regardless of the bait you use, the key to catching crappie lies chiefly in your ability to locate them. Spring brings change to weather and water, and crappie adjust to it. You can improve your chances of catching them, regardless of conditions, by adjusting right along with them.