Prespawn crappie are tough to figure out. Some days they’re deep; some days they’re shallow. One day they prefer minnows; the next they prefer jigs. Sometimes you can’t buy a nibble; sometimes you catch ‘em one after another after another for minutes on end.
Despite its complications, early-season crappie fishing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors. In February and March, fewer fishermen are on the water, and you’re rarely bothered by skiers and personal watercraft. It’s like a banquet laid out just for you. Fresh air, bluebird skies and if you’re lucky, a few crappie to bend your pole.
Following are eight tips to help you enjoy success during your late-winter forays. Study them, employ them and enjoy the prespawn bounty.
Watch the Weather
Good prespawn fishing often occurs toward the end of warm spells, before an approaching cold front hits. During this time, male crappie start fanning out nests in the shallows. Females also move shallow, looking for food. Therefore, focus fishing efforts on shallow waters where spawning will occur.
When the cold front arrives, crappie return to deeper waters, holding near distinct bottom structure where cover is abundant. If conditions are sunny and windy, wave action cuts light penetration, and crappie remain near mid-depth structures. A few days after the front passes, the wind usually calms, allowing greater light penetration and driving crappie to deeper structure and cover.
If weather remains sunny and begins warming before the passage of another cold front, crappie gradually begin migrating back to shallow waters. Rainy weather, especially a warm rain, sends them scurrying to shallow reaches.
Remember these things when seeking prespawn crappie.
Trolling with several poles lets you “sweep” an area at several depths to find often-scattered prespawn crappie. Put each pole in a rod holder. Use minnows and/or jigs in a variety of colors and styles. Two baits might be set 10 feet deep, two at 15 and two at 20. This permits you to test different baits and depths.
The dropper rig is popular for prespawn trolling. Attach a 1- to 3-ounce sinker to the end of your line. Above this are one to four 12-inch dropper lines a foot apart. Each dropper connects to the main line via a loop knot or swivel. A different type or color of bait is tied to each dropper, and the rig is pulled while trolling.
Small spoons—1/6- to 1/4-ounce—are very productive for catching suspended prespawn crappie. Using sonar, the fisherman looks for the arched signature of crappie suspended above humps, points and breaklines, then a jigging spoon is free-spooled to the fish. The lure is jigged by raising the rod tip with an upward pull then quickly lowering the rod so the spoon falls on slack line. Crappie usually strike as the lure drops.
Safety-pin spinners such as Johnson’s Beetle-Spin are a boon when searching for scattered prespawn crappie. Fan cast in a big circle. As you retrieve, work the lure slowly over, through and beside woody cover. When fishing shallow brush, blowdowns and other visible cover, cast beyond the cover and bring the lure through it or alongside it. Bump the cover with the lure; this seems to excite crappie into biting.
Look for Ledges
Scan your sonar for shallow underwater ledges. These aren’t deep drop-offs falling 10 feet or more, but rather shallow ditches, cuts and gullies near bankside bluffs or coves. Ledges are especially productive when found near weedbeds, timber stands or other crappie cover.
Medium-sized (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) jigs are ideal lures for fishing ledges. Work a lure down the drop-off, hopping it stair-step fashion.
Super-structure is a smaller, specific component of much larger structure where crappie are likely to gather. Let’s use creek channels to illustrate the principle. Primary creek channels are among the best structures to fish during prespawn, but crappie won’t be found along each channel’s entire length. Instead, they gather in small schools in spots where the channel exhibits a change of some sort. This may be where a secondary channel intersects the main channel, or around a tree standing on a sharp bend—anything different from the norm. Finding such super-structure can mean the difference between catching lots of crappie or none at all.
Points and Crankbaits
Prespawn crappie often hold on points sloping toward bottom channels. Among the best lures for fishing these areas are small, deep-diving, baitfish-imitating crankbaits.
It’s difficult to keep crankbaits at favored depths and still move them slow enough to entice lethargic crappie. Using a neutral buoyancy or sinking crankbait eliminates these problems. Use light line — 4- to 6-pound-test — crank the lure down to the proper depth and then slowly crawl it across the bottom.
Fish crankbaits around cover on each point, retrieving the lure from shallow water to deep, or working across the point toward the deepest side. Crappie move up and down points as weather and water conditions change and may be difficult to pinpoint. But when the first fish is found, you might take several on consecutive casts.
When a prespawn crappie strikes, don’t expect a bone-jarring smash; it rarely happens this time of year. Instead, strikes usually are “soft”; they feel like the bait has picked up a leaf or little stick.
Be prepared to set the hook the instant your line goes slack or your bait doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait for anything else. Set the hook and make a mental note of the depth at which the fish struck. There may be a dozen more crappie still down there.