Two Methods for Early-Season Crappie

No matter where you fish, the methods of these two crappie experts will help you put more slabs in the boat this year.

Rabbit Rogers likes to chase crappie through the spawning process. Roger Gant stays deep no matter what.

Rogers moves slowly and fills his cooler with a vertical jig presentation. Gant drifts constantly, and force-feeds fish until limits are filled.

In fact, the only similarity between Rogers and Gant is that they are among the most respected crappie fishermen in the Southeast. At the end of the day, their coolers will be crowded with crappie.

Rogers is the perennial points champion of two crappie tournament associations. He wins those titles by consistently catching fish in all types of water. Gant is a guide on deep, clear lakes, and fishing legend Bill Dance called him "the best fishing guide I've ever met."

So when these two anglers talk crappie fishing, there's a wealth of knowledge for other fishermen to gain. Because they are so different in their approach to taking fish, you can learn enough from them to catch fish in any kind of water. Although they catch fish all year long and in all conditions, both are exceptional at catching big pre-spawn females that are staging for their annual motherly duties.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Rogers patterns the fish beginning in the late stages of January and early February. "Obviously, no matter where you fish, the crappie are going to be deep during the winter months," Rogers said. "In a reservoir situation, they are going to be either holed up in the deeper river channels or suspended in the deeper flats along the river. Typically, they will stay in that pattern until the water temperature starts moving up. For me, that happens when the water hits 50 degrees."

Science tells us that crappie react to changes in the length of the daily photoperiod. As days get longer, instinct tells them it's time to start moving up toward their spawning areas. The increased amount of sunshine also raises water temperatures. Those two factors trigger crappie movements in February and March.

"The first place I start looking for crappie during the pre-spawn is on deep flats along the river channel near bottlenecks," Rogers said. "A perfect example would be anywhere on the upper end of a reservoir where the water narrows and there's a bridge across the river. If there's a flat right off the river below the bridge, it's a key area in which to start checking.

"These spots can be good even before the pre-spawn, if there's a heavy rain and increased river current. Crappie will leave the channel and move up on those flats to get out of the current. If you find any kind of cover in deep water - and 'deep' is relative to the lake you are fishing - on one of those flats, you can get a limit."

When the temperature starts hitting the 50-degree mark, Rogers begins looking for crappie to move. "They're going to start following ditches, creeks and sloughs that lead directly from the river to spawning areas," he said. "Think back to the fall. If you did any fall fishing and found the ditches and creeks that crappie moved into to feed on shad as they moved from shallow water to deep water, those are the places where you want to start. If you didn't fish in the fall, get a map and start looking for any ditch, creek or slough that starts at the river and only goes a short distance before reaching shallow cover. Those are the places the crappie will use."

At 50 degrees, it's still 18-20 degrees away from the water temperature crappie want for spawning.

"This is a long, slow process," Rogers said. "They won't just up and leave the river one day and be in the shallows the next. They won't move fast, but they will move, and you can follow them. They will be somewhere in that slough or creek, and they will congregate on cover. Locate any structure, like brushpiles or stumps, and jig it thoroughly."

Gant, too, is aware of the slow speed at which crappie move through the pre-spawn process. In fact, he counts on it.

"Frankly, I believe that the best fishing is always going to be deep, regardless of what stage the spawn is in," said Gant, whose deep-water strategies were once rebuked by fisheries biologists. Now, many biologists agree with him.

"I'm going to be fishing deep every day, no matter what. In the latter stages of winter, like in February, I don't check the temperature. What I'm going to do is watch the depthfinder or graph and start looking for schools of crappie. What I want to do is establish the depth that is comfortable to them. If I start seeing crappie suspended 20 to 25 feet deep in 30 feet of water or deeper, then I'm going to move to water 25 feet deep and start fishing."

Gant firmly believes that crappie will feed in any situation, when given the opportunity. His theory is that if you put a meal in a crappie's face, it will eat it.

"But it is true that the fish that are more actively feeding will be on or near the bottom," he said. "Crappie move to the bottom to feed, so if the fish are comfortable in 22 feet of water, then I want to be fishing in 22 feet of water. That's where I am going to find the most active fish. What I look for is a contour change on the lake bottom, maybe just a foot or two, and follow it."

Gant doesn't call his fishing method "trolling." He calls it "pulling."

He uses natural current, either wind or water movement, to propel his boat sideways. The trolling motor is used only to keep the boat sideways to the current. Three to six ultralight spinning rods are used to pull jigs through the strike zone (after drifting, he lets line out until the jig hits the bottom, then reels up one foot). He has two 1-ounce jigs placed a foot apart at the end of each line.

"Fish always face into the current, so this pulling technique pulls the jigs right into their face, right in their strike zone," Gant said. "I call it force-feeding, and it works - I promise you."

Gant has to move more during the pre-spawn period than at other times of the year because the fish are moving more. "But I don't abandon my deep water," he said. " I just have to move to deep areas immediately adjacent to spawning areas. Not all female crappie move in at the same time, and when they do move in they don't stay long. The biggest concentration of slabs is going to be deep. During the spawn, you have to know where the nearest deep waters to the spawning areas are located. Then you just se

t up a pull and force-feed the crappie.

"I realize that this pattern will not work in a lot of shallow lowland reservoirs during the spring, but it's ideal for deeper pools."

Rogers does most of his fishing on lowland impoundments and knows that even on these waters it is imperative to find deep water near the best spawning areas.

"Gant's pattern makes sense in big, deep lakes, but on the lowland reservoirs I don't think it's viable because of where the bigger females will stage for the spawn," he said. "You can't troll like that if the fish are using ditches and sloughs for their deeper holding areas off the spawning flats. Those ditches and sloughs are going to be winding through the flats and will likely be lined with stumps.

"That's when vertical jigging is ideal. I will find the dropoff to the deeper water, follow it slowly with the trolling motor on low, and jig every stump I find on the edge. I will also jig along the drop between stumps. The bigger females will hold in that deep water right on through the entire spawning process in April and May."

Male crappie will start moving into the spawning areas when the temperatures hit 62 to 65 degrees and begin preparing for the females.

"Once the water gets to 68 degrees, the males are going to be shallow and they are going to stay shallow. If you know the lake you are fishing and know where the peak spawning areas are, you can depend on finding enough males to get a limit," Rogers said. "But if you want the females, you are going to have to fish deeper. Once we get to 70 degrees, the females will begin moving in on the beds. They'll run in, drop eggs and move back out. Each female will make several trips in.

"If you're out there trying to catch fish and have fun, then find the spawning area and fish. You'll get action. But if you're out there trying to find big fish, then fish the deeper water. You'll have a better chance of finding more females there. Besides, I'm a firm believer that it's not the males we need to be catching, but the females. The males are more vulnerable because of their reluctance to leave the shallows. They guard the nests. They watch the eggs. They do all the work."

* * *
Deep or shallow? The choice is yours. Simply know that if you follow the advice of these experts, you'll likely find yourself cleaning lots of crappie at the end of the day. And that's a pretty good situation to be in, isn't it?

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