Recent high-water years have turned into a blessing for 2017 Missouri crappie fishing aficionados.
The ratings for the spring crappie fishing outlook are good to excellent depending on where you decide to dunk a minnow or pitch a jig.
The high water levels on several of Missouri’s top crappie fisheries led to successful spawns in recent years and those year-classes of fish have now reached legal size or bigger.
Crappie abound in all of the major reservoirs throughout the state and in some of the smaller lakes managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Springtime crappie fishing heats up first on the lakes south of Interstate 70, while the northern crappie fisheries usually are covered with ice until early March. Once the spawns finish in the southern half of the state, you can head north to continue catching crappie in the shallows until almost Memorial Day.
Here’s the outlook from local experts and MDC fisheries biologists for the top crappie lakes throughout the state.
The earliest crappie action of the year usually occurs on this shallow reservoir in southeast Missouri.
“Normally I can catch them in 2 feet of water in February,” says guide Dan Porter. “That is when you are going to catch your bigger fish.” He predicts crappie fishing will be “better than normal” this spring with good numbers of legal-sized fish (9 inches) being caught.
The local guide starts looking for pre-spawn crappie at the end of February and the first part of March when the fish migrate to the feeder creeks and flats. A productive way to catch pre-spawn crappie is to troll the flats with 2 1/2- to 3-inch soft-plastic baits attached to 1/8-ounce jigs.
The crappie spawn usually runs from the second or third week of March until the end of April. “Some fish will get on the banks but most of the fish will spawn around a stump on the flats in about a foot of water,” says Porter, who favors jigs for catching spawning crappie.
Willard angler Rick Flint expects this spring’s crappie fishing on the southwest Missouri reservoir will be better than last year. “There are going to be a lot of 11- to 11 1/2-inch fish,” Flint says. “We are kind of on the tail end of the last good (year) class, which was about three years ago.”
February fishing can be tough since crappie will be congregating around balls of shad at depths ranging from 40 to 75 feet. Flint probes the depths for early crappie with 3-inch plastic tubes attached to a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Road Runner jighead.
The action starts picking up in March when the water temperature climbs above the 50-degree mark and pre-spawn fish gang up in the mouths of coves. “The fish then are moving into the cove areas where they are going to spawn,” he says, “but they will be sitting out there in deeper water.” Drifting with minnows or casting curly-tailed plastic grubs on 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigheads works best for staging crappie.
Stockton crappie start spawning when the water temperature reaches the 60-degree mark. Flint uses the same curly-tailed grub to catch spawning crappie in pockets with 45-degree sloping banks.
The local angler rates the Sac arm as the best for producing lots of action, but ranks Maze Creek as the best place to catch slab-sized crappie. “There are some really big fish in there,” Flint says. “You don’t catch lots of them but the ones you do are some really good ones.”
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Lake levels remain fairly constant throughout the years on this Central Missouri reservoir, and so crappie reproduction is pretty consistent most years.
Warm spells of two to three days in February can trigger some
good shallow-water action, according to guide Terry Blankenship. “One of the most fun patterns for me in February is bobber fishing,” he says. “You can catch large numbers of fish in February because the crappie are starting to prepare for their spring, fattening up for the spawn.
“That time of year the shallower long coves and creek arms will warm the quickest,” Blankenship says. “If there is a lot of south wind warming the water and rolling it onto the north banks, the baitfish will go to those shores, which will bring in game fish.”
Blankenship suggests you can catch the biggest fish of the year as shallow as 2 feet deep during the warm days of February and early March. His favorite lures to stick below a bobber are Bobby Garland Baby Shad and Baby Shad Swim’R soft plastics on 1/16-ounce jigheads. He also relies on a Bobby Garland 3-inch Slab Slay’R for dock shooting in the early spring.
The veteran guide rates the Grand Glaize, Niangua and Little Niangua arms and Indian Creek on the Gravois arm as the best areas to try for early spring crappie action.
Pre-spawn crappie usually bunch up in brushpiles 8 to 15 feet deep in the coves throughout March and early April. The spawn begins on the upper reaches and tributaries of the lake in early April and spreads downlake to the dam by the end of April. Ideal spawning areas are pea gravel pockets laden with boat docks or laydowns.
Guide Jeff Faulkenberry predicts the crappie fishing should be “very good” at Truman this spring. “We had a very good spawn and that 2- and 3-year-old year-class of 10- and 11-inch fish are very prominent,” he says.
Late winter is the prime time to catch the biggest crappie of the year at this Central Missouri lake. “February is when you are going to catch the big pre-spawn staging females,” Faulkenberry says. “They are going to be moving to the mouths of the creeks and even back into the creek channels.
“For the last three or four years Truman has produced fish over 2 1/2 pounds and even a half-dozen or so 3-pounders,” Faulkenberry says. “I have been fortunate in the last three years to catch crappie over 3 pounds every year.”
Spider rigging with jigs or minnows in the creeks is the most effective way to catch the staging females. Some pre-spawn fish can be taken dipping 1/8-ounce jigs into brushpiles 8 to 10 feet deep in the creek channels. The best areas of the lake to fish for early spring crappie are the upper arms of the tributaries and feeder creeks where the dirtier water warms up faster.
The patterns remain the same throughout March except the fish will school up tighter by the end of the month in preparation for moving to the banks by the second week of April. Faulkenberry starts looking for spawning fish when the water temperature climbs above 55 degrees and the period of daylight reaches about 14 hours. Then crappie will spawn in water as shallow as 6 inches along laydowns on pea gravel and chunk rock banks.
MARK TWAIN LAKE
Guide Ken Erb noted that Mark Twain’s crappie population has some gaps in sizes, but he thinks the fishing will be good this spring. “We have big classes of 12- and 14-inch fish, but we’re not seeing a lot of 10- and 11-inch fish,” he says.
This northeast Missouri lake is ice-covered throughout February, and so anglers usually have to wait until mid-March for the crappie fishing to turn on. Erb finds pre-spawn crappie in the back of Dry Fork and Sandy Creek where the fish are staging about 5 to 10 feet deep in standing timber along the creek channel. Since the fish are lethargic then, Erb sets a tube or hair jig under a bobber, which allows him to keep the lure close to the cover and in the strike zone longer.
The pre-spawn pattern usually lasts until March, and then the crappie move to the bank to spawn. “The whole lake lights up in April,” says Erb, who notes the prime of the spawn runs from around April 15 to the second week of May.
Mark Twain crappie spawn along 45-degree banks and will build nests ranging in depths from less than 1 foot to 5 feet, depending on the water clarity. “By the time the jig gets about 1 to 2 feet off that bank, if the fish are there they’ve got it,” he says.
Recent MDC fish samplings indicate Smithville’s crappie are getting bigger. “Some of the larger fish are starting to come back,” says Eric Dennis, MDC fisheries biologist. “Of all the fish we sampled, 30 percent of them were over 10 inches long, which has nearly doubled from 2013. We had a huge year-class of fish coming through in 2013 and 2014 because we had extremely high water so those fish are now starting to come through our system.”
The biologist also noted that 50 percent of Smithville’s white crappie population is above the 9-inch legal length limit.
Crappie anglers at this reservoir near Kansas City also have to wait until the ice disappears before they can venture out on the lake in early March. Pre-spawn fish will be holding in main-lake brushpiles about 15 to 20 feet deep throughout March. Trolling small crankbaits and vertical jigging the brushpiles with tube baits or minnows are the best tactics for catching Smithville’s pre-spawn crappie.
Dennis notes these fish move to the mouths of coves where they stage in April and then move to the banks to spawn the first two weeks of May. Smithville crappie prefer spawning on hard mud bottoms, rocks, gravel and laydowns in 4 feet of water or less. Dennis recommends using jigs or minnows for crappie on nests.
The fisheries biologist suggests fishing the upper arms of Smithville for white crappie, which prefer the muddier water of Camp Branch and the Platte River section. The clear lower end of the lake contains numerous black crappie of sublegal size.
HAZEL CREEK LAKE
A rebound in the largemouth bass population at this MDC-managed lake near Kirksville also has improved the crappie fishing. “Hazel Creek has progressively gotten better over the years because of the response of the bass population,” says MDC fisheries biologist Mike Anderson. “Years ago we had an 18-inch (bass) limit there and a lot of people thought it was a heck of a trophy bass lake. But it wasn’t. Bass reproductive survival was poor because of a lack of vegetation, and because of that crappie weren’t preyed upon too heavily, and so the lake was dominated by lots and lots of small crappie.”
With the restored bass population thinning out the numbers of small crappie in the water, Hazel Creek now has more crappie over 9 inches long. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have recommended going there and fishing for crappie but I would now,” Anderson says. “There are some guys who consistently go out there and catch 1- to 1 1/2-pounders.”
The pre-spawn stage for crappie begins at Hazel Creek after ice-out in late March or early April. The fish will be staging 10 to 15 feet deep on the main-lake creek channels where Anderson recommends presenting a jig or minnow vertically next to standing timber.
The Hazel Creek crappie spawn usually runs from mid-April to early May when the fish move to the banks to build nests in 1 to 5 feet of water. The best habitat for crappie can be found north of the mid-lake boat ramp or the old channel of Little Hazel Creek, and so Anderson suggests trying jigs and minnows in the shallow timber of the wooded coves.
Small Waters, Big Crappie
Show Me State anglers annually catch big crappie from smaller lakes managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
When I was the editor of the Versailles newspaper, I was amazed at the photos of 2-pound crappie that were caught at Manito Lake, a small MDC-managed lake north of Fortuna. Several years ago during a trap-netting survey, fisheries biologists netted a state-record black crappie at 530-acre Hazel Creek Lake.
The MDC ranks the following small waters as the best bets for catching black and white crappie throughout the state.
Black crappie: Blue Springs Lake, Che-Ru Lake, Deer Ridge Lake, Duck Creek Conservation Area Pool 1, Happy Holler Lake, Harrison County Reservoir, Hazel Hill Lake, Jerry P. Combs Lake, LaBelle Lake, Lake Remembrance, Lake Showme, Maple Leaf Lake, Mozingo Lake, Ted Shanks Conservation Area, and Wakonda State Park.
White crappie: August A. Busch Memorial and Weldon Spring Conservation Areas, Che-Ru Lake, DiSalvo Lake, Harrison County Lake, Indian Creek Lake, Lake Jacomo, Lake Paho, Lake Remembrance, Lake Showme, Longview Lake, and Maple Leaf Lake.