March 01, 2021
By Dr. Jason Halfen
As winter fades slowly into spring, crappies and other panfish begin a fairly predictable transition from thermally stable, deep-water basins toward warming shallows where the food web of the lake is beginning to bloom.
This general movement might take a number of weeks, and unstable spring weather can easily interrupt it. However, in general, during the weeks after ice cover leaves the lake (or water temps begin to rebound from wintertime lows), crappies are on the move with shallow water as their ultimate destination. This is a movement that will eventually lead to spawning, but the need for calories, rather than immediate reproduction, is driving this initial transition.
Once the spawn does occur, crappies remain in shallow water, basking in the warm waters of late spring and consuming bait and bugs with reckless abandon in an effort to recover from the rigors of spawning.
Indeed, the weeks leading up to the spawn, as well as the weeks immediately thereafter, offer some of the best, most consistent crappie fishing of the entire year.
EARLY SPRING AND PRE-SPAWN PERIOD
Many anglers will impulsively head to the shorelines and back ends of soft-bottomed bays as soon as surface temperatures begin to increase. However, while some panfish may be found in these waters, the vast majority of the population, and nearly all of the quality fish, are most likely to be located in transition areas between the deep basins and shallow spawning grounds. They will remain there until the shallows become consistently warm.
Your hunt for pre-spawn crappies starts with a quality contour map of your lake—either an “old-school” paper map or an accurate digital contour map used in conjunction with your boat’s GPS-based chartplotter. Begin by locating the basin areas used by wintering crappies. Typically, these areas will be 25 to 40 feet deep with relatively soft bottoms—places where coldwater crappies, bluegills and perch can sustain themselves on the larval forms of aquatic insects. Next, look for a spawning flat. These are frequently four- to eight-feet deep and can run right up to the shoreline. The best spawning flats are often expansive, extending hundreds of feet away from shore, and are sprinkled with fish-attracting structure such as reed beds, weed pockets, stumps or artificial structures such as cribs or stake beds.
Now, draw (or visualize) a straight line connecting the basin to the flats—pre-spawn crappies will be found somewhere along that line. The colder the water, the closer the crappies will be to the basin. String together a few warm, sunny days and the crappies will be up on the flats. When rain or cold fronts push pre-spawn fish off the flats, they will likely be located along primary depth transitions just outside the flats. Or, if things get really bad, crappies might drift back farther toward the basin. However, once the weather stabilizes and the sun returns, look for crappies to rapidly reestablish their pre-storm positions and get back to feeding.
A classic tactic for targeting coldwater crappies is to dangle a lively minnow above their heads, often suspended from a bobber. Allow me to suggest something different this spring—instead of live bait, fish with subtle soft plastics. Such baits might be 1 1/2 to 2 inches in length with a slender profile and thin tail that quivers and dances at the slightest movement. One of my favorites is the two-inch Crappie Minnr from Big Bite Baits, which I rig on a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce VMC Neon Moon Eye Jig. The action of this bait’s slender tail is an outstanding trigger for coldwater panfish, and the small profile is an excellent mimic for the insect larvae and other invertebrates that constitute the primary forage in the warming waters of early spring. Present these jigs using long, sensitive, panfish-specific rods, like the 7-foot, light-power, extra-fast-action St. Croix Panfish series rod, rigged with a 1000-series spinning reel and spooled with 20-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown in the Stealth Gray color pattern. In stained or turbid water, you can tie jigs directly to the braided line, but in clear water, add a three-foot-long leader of six-pound-test Seaguar InvizX 100% fluorocarbon.
I strongly prefer a mobile approach all spring, including during the pre-spawn window. This allows me to rapidly identify prime crappie-holding locations—which might change on a daily basis—while picking off the largest, most aggressive fish in the school. So, rather than anchoring up or drifting, I make use of the i-Pilot Link system in my Minn Kota Ulterra bow-mount trolling motor to pull me through typical pre-spawn holding areas while pulling my soft-plastic-tipped jigs behind the boat. The optimum speed for this jig-trolling presentation is often 0.7 to 0.9 miles per hour. With the boat moving within this speed range, make a long cast behind the boat, peel out a little extra line and then engage the reel. With a 1/16-ounce jig, your bait will be swimming three to five feet beneath the surface. Use a 1/32-ounce jig to swim higher, and slow the boat down if you need to reach fish holding in deeper water.
While pulling your baits along, pay close attention to your sonar unit to lookg for signs of life. Realize, though, that in this relatively shallow water, not many fish will appear in your traditional down-looking sonar view, simply because that cone-shaped sonar beam doesn’t cover much of the water column. Instead, opt fora high-frequency side-looking sonar, like Humminbird’s MEGA Imaging, to hunt for fish holding well off to the sides of the boat. Fish appear as distinct white spots with an associated dark sonar shadow in side imaging, so when your view looks like someone has sprinkled salt all over it, you’ll know that you’ve found the crappies.
LATE SPRING AND POST-SPAWN PERIOD
As the spawn completes, crappies will remain in shallow water to bulk up and recover from the rigors of the spawn. With early summer on the horizon, lake weed growth will be kicking into high gear, and outside weed edges will help to focus post-spawn crappie activity in predictable areas. Thus, while the pre-spawn period often requires anglers to cover lots of water and probe extended flats in search of fish, the post-spawn period will find those fish much more concentrated, so you can do less searching and more catching.
The same jig trolling technique that is so productive during the pre-spawn period can be equally effective later in the spring; however, abundant weed growth in crappie-rich areas often leads to more snags and frustration. Because fish will frequently be concentrated along deep weed edges, this is a perfect time to position your boat along those outside edges and probe the weed-water interface with precision casts. I use the i-Pilot Link Spot Lock feature on my Ulterra to lock my boat in place within easy casting distance of prime weed edge features like points and inside turns. The i-Pilot Link Jog feature lets me reposition my boat in precise 5-foot increments when I need to change my casting angle or search for the next active pod of crappies.
After a long cast, let your soft plastic/jig combo fall down through the water column, tickling the weeds as it goes. If you get hung up, a quick snap of the rod tip will often free the bait, and that erratic action is also an excellent bite trigger for nearby fish that are inspecting your offering. Although you are casting from a fixed position, be ready to get back on the trolling motor and move to the next prime weed edge spot, as loose schools of post-spawn crappies will frequently reposition after you’ve caught a handful.
Spring crappie fishing offers some of the most consistent and reliable opportunities of the year to catch fish. Take advantage of this period to share the outdoors and your love of fishing with a young person. If you invest a little time and effort to locate either pre- or post-spawn crappies, your young guest will end up reaping the benefits of your efforts and reward you with smiles, laughter and maybe even your first fish fry of the season. So shed those winter coats and get out there on the water to enjoy some spring crappie fishing with a youngster today!
PLANO’S CUTTING-EDGE TACKLE BOXES
Gear-wise, crappie fishing is often simple compared to other forms of angling. But you still need an organized system for storing lures, hooks, weights and other gear.
Plano’s new EDGE series tackle boxes are great options for crappies, or any species. Boxes are available in many variations—four general purpose boxes in standard, thin or deep-box configurations, and six boxes built for custom storage solutions, such as terminal tackle or soft plastics, among others.
These tackle boxes are particularly interesting, however, because of the technology and features baked in, courtesy of two years of research and development. Plano’s Duraview crystal-clear lid makes bait and tackle identification and location easy. Meanwhile, Dri-Loc provides a watertight seal that moisture can’t penetrate, keeping everything dry. If water does manage to get in, Plano’s new and exclusive Rustrictor anti-rust compound is infused into the base of all EDGE boxes, and Water Wick technology offers a water-absorbing desiccant divider. Patent-pending pre-separated vented dividers also allow for air circulation.
Add to this a unique (and also patent-pending) one-handed latch mechanism with durable steel pin hinges married to the base, as well as Plano’s EZ Label system for quick identification of contents, and it’s clear the EDGE line offers crappie fishermen a number of advantages. ($19.99–$49.99; planomolding.com)—Drew Warden