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Crappie Lures, Baits and Rigs for Now Through the Spawn

They're the keys to catching limits of slabs from pre-spawn to post-spawn.

Crappie Lures, Baits and Rigs for Now Through the Spawn

Crappies will be on their beds once water temps hit the mid- to upper 50s. Peak spawning occurs around 61 degrees. (Shutterstock image)


There is a certain type of fellow who, when he gets old, wants a fast boat. My friend Harry Ruth was such a guy. One day, before we ran up and down the big river, Harry nosed the boat up toward a bridge piling.

I cast at the concrete, let the minnow slap against it and held the bail open to let the bait slide down the piling into the water. Then I saw the flash and the grab. Crappies were stacked around the concrete on both sides and we hammered them on the white plastics, which must’ve looked like shad fry to them. I caught my best-ever largemouth bass off the bow of Harry’s boat that day, and some pretty good smallmouth, too, but I won’t soon forget that school of crappies.

I live for those moments when crappies are on the prowl. They are voracious feeders, a challenge to understand and hard fighters, especially in food-rich reservoirs. The good fishing starts early in the year. Here is a look at the best lures, baits and rigs for crappies now, throughout the spawn and beyond.

crappie fish
After locating a school of pre-spawn crappies, anchor or wind-drift over them while working lightweight jigs with tubes or minnow imitations. (Shutterstock image)

FEBRUARY’S FIRST WATER

Crappies are probably deeper in February than they are at any other time of the year as they seek out warmer water, which is usually closer to the bottom now.

Now is the time to catch the biggest fish. Metabolisms are slower for these warm-water creatures in the cool water, though the biggest crappies deal with cold better than those in the younger age classes. Because of the slower metabolism, however, smaller baits are better.

First, try a 1/16-ounce jig head paired with a 1- to 1 1/2-inch tube or minnow-shaped soft plastic. If threadfin shad are present, opt for a white-, reflective mylar- or silver-body minnow with a contrasting accent like bright blue or chartreuse.

Look at the banks of the reservoir to divine the topography beneath the surface. In deep water, especially around creek channels with drop-offs and rock outcrops, look for suspended schools of crappies to be 5 to 10 feet off the bottom. Electronics are a big help in understanding the contours. Scan for balls of minnows and look for the suspended fish that are probably close by.

Light-colored marabou jigs like the Mr. Crappie Marabou Sausage Spin, plastics like the Mister Twister 1 1/2-inch tri-color mini tube and minnow imitations are the best options in February. Keep them small, fish them slowly and change color combinations before changing the style of the bait.

When anchoring over schools of crappies, let the anchor down slowly; there’s no sense in alarming the fish. Two anchors can be better than one, though a drift anchor can help keep the boat in position if only one anchor is used.

A better way can be to wind-drift over the fish or use a bow-mounted trolling motor to stay in position. A lot of times the best presentation is with a light, sensitive rod and the bait beneath the boat. Bites can be light and harder to detect at this time of year. What you feel with the bite is the fish trying to expel the bait, so start reeling and get that rod tip up.

If a still presentation or a slow retrieve is not working, try occasional twitching. And don’t be afraid to tip the hook with bait.

crappie fish
As waters warm and crappies feed more aggressively, small crankbaits can elicit fierce strikes. (Shutterstock image)

IN LIKE A LION

Spring starts a lot sooner in Arizona, New Mexico and southern California. Look for crappies to be on or near the spawning beds in March in the Southwest.

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A lot of the best crappie lakes were creeks before the dams were built in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Try to find an old map and look for the creek beds, road beds (sometimes raised off the valley floor), structures (sometimes whole towns) and timber (old orchards). Follow the creek beds up to shallow areas and bays and into the fingers of the lake.

Pre-spawn crappies tend to concentrate around rocky points and around the mouths of creeks. Deep water close to the spawning beds is likely to hold crappies in March and April when fish suspend adjacent to the flats.

Small crankbaits like the Bandit Lures 200 and 300 series can provoke savage strikes in the warming water. If the crankbaits don’t do the trick, turn back to marabou jigs and minnow imitations. Soft plastics like the Strike King Mr. Crappie Slabalicious can turn on a bite. Marabou jigs in all the usual crappie colors work this time of the season.

The fish are still schooled up but are likely to be found in different places than they were early in the season. Small jigging spoons like the Mack’s Lure Cripplure Spoon, and even small suspending baits like the Southern Pro Suspending Minnow, come into play. Apply action to the baits in the warming water.

ONTO THE SPAWN

Look for crappies to be on the spawning beds when the water temperature hits 56 degrees, with peak spawn occuring at 61 degrees. This can happen in mid- to late-March in the Southwest and in May in northern California and southern Oregon. Water temp can spur spawning activity in early June farther north in Washington, Idaho and Montana. Look for crappies to spawn over a 6-week period.

Water temperature and photo period (amount of daylight) are the main determinants in crappie spawning. When the days are long enough and the water is warm enough, crappies will be on the beds. But watch the weather forecast. Storm fronts that come with cooling rain out of Canada can drive crappies off the beds until the water warms again.

When the fish are close to spawning, or even tending their nests, a leadhead jig with an action tail is a good bait to swim through the reeds or lily pads. Another option is to slow-fish a jig under a float up next to brush, docks, bridge pilings or flooded trees.

This is the time to try TTI-Blakemore’s Team Crappie Slab Dragger, which comes in 1/16- and 1/8-ounce sizes. Or pull out the fly rod and fish rubber-legged crappie flies in crappie colors. Fish flies and jigs slowly with an indicator set at two-thirds the depth of the water.

two crappie fishermen
With multiple anglers in the boat, each should use a different offering—style, size and color—until the bite is dialed in. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Typical spawning habitat is in 1 1/2 to 10 feet of water with sparse vegetation, tules, willows, stumps, lily pads, downed timber or other structure in finger bays off the main lake. Shallow water warms the fastest. When the thermometer reads in the upper 50s, crappies are either on the beds or staged nearby.

Fish the deeper water first and the beds second. A good lure to start with is a lead-head jig with a two- or three-color grub, about 1 1/2 inches long.

This is where local knowledge pays off. In some waters, chartreuse and yellow are most productive, while blue/black or red/white might work in other places. Don’t be afraid to ask tackle shop employees or other anglers you meet on the water or at the cleaning station.

Another way to put a lot of crappies in the boat is with a fly rod. Balanced leeches and minnow imitations work very well on and around the spawning beds.

Again, the right color combo will vastly outperform everything else. Some great fly patterns include the Mihulka’s Crappie Special from Rainy’s Flies (comes in a half-dozen color combos), Carter’s RL Dragon (with yellow-barred rubber legs) and the Flashabou Damsel. In general, crappie flies should be heavy at the head, and it really pays to use a float. Set the bobber at two-thirds the water depth. Good options include Mr. Crappie weighted floats and Betts Billy Boy slip bobbers.

POST-SPAWN PLAN

After the spawn, crappies tend to scatter, with fish moving back to the main lake as they seek deeper water and bigger structure. While some crappies go deep, others stay relatively shallow and school up around cover like docks, bridge pilings, downed trees and standing timber.

Leadhead jigs sized 1/16 and 1/8 ounce, with tubes to 2 inches long, pay off after the spawn. This is the time of the season when tipping the hook with Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibbles can triple the number of hook-ups. Another option is to use wax worms. And, yes, color makes a difference. Always experiment. No two anglers should use the exact same combinations. Mix it up and figure out what they’re craving.

SUPER SLAB SPOTS

  • Top Western destinations for hot crappie bites
crappie map
Late-winter crappiue hotspots in the West.
  1. WASHINGTON: Wait for the temperature to come up at Potholes Reservoir, then prospect for papermouths in Lind Coulee and shallow bays. Stop in at Mardon Resort for local know-how.
  2. IDAHO: At C.J. Strike Reservoir, watch the electronics to find bait balls and suspended crappies in 30 to 50 feet of water over the flats and humps.
  3. CALIFORNIA: The fishing can be good in February and March at Clear Lake near Kelseyville. Early in the year, prowl the shoreline and throw small plastics at the docks. Try a 1/16-ounce jig head with a tri-color tube.
  4. WYOMING: White crappies average 9 to 11 inches at Glendo Reservoir, where the main food source is shad. Prospect around Custer Cove, Soldier Rock and back in Whiskey Gulch.
  5. MONTANA: At Tongue River Reservoir, plan to be on the water early in the day and again late in the evening when crappies are more active. In the spring, as the water warms, fish around the submerged juniper trees.
  6. NEVADA: Threadfin shad are on the menu for the abundant black crappies at Lake Mead. From March to June, the lake typically recedes. Bring a thermometer and check the temps to determine whether crappies are on the spawning beds or staging nearby.
  7. NEW MEXICO: At 11,500-acre Caballo Lake, fish the slopes off Apache Canyon early, then work up into the finger bays as the water warms. Four campgrounds and several boat ramps serve the traveling angler, though bank access is good, too.
  8. ARIZONA: At Bartlett Reservoir near Phoenix, look for crappies off the Yellow Cliffs early in the year. As the temps come up, fish around the sunken trees and brush piles. Start with a 1/16-ounce lead head and a tri-color tube 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches long.
  9. OREGON: At Prineville Reservoir, fish the juniper brush piles at the mouth of Bear Creek and along the south shore above Sanford Creek. Also prospect for crappies where the reservoir turns the corner across from the old resort and upstream from the state park.

  • This article was featured in the West edition of the February 2024 issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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