September 30, 2010
Kansas crappie fishing might be starting to slow right now, so here are some prime tips and fishing locations that'll help you make the most of this month's fishing action. (April 2007)
Photo by Michael Skinner
After talking to a veteran Kansas fisheries biologist about April crappie angling, I'm beginning to think that the title of this story is perhaps a bit vague: Crappie action can indeed be found in the Sunflower State this month, some of it pretty good -- but you'll have to do more than just show up at your favorite fishing spot to enjoy it.
"April is really tough when it comes to crappie fishing here," said biologist Kyle Austin. "And it's mostly weather-related."
For longer than I care to admit, I believed that crappie finished up spawning here in April, and that the post-spawn doldrums were the source of such difficulty in catching slabs early and often. Austin corrected me quickly.
"Things don't really come together for the crappie spawn until May," he offered. "But I can see how you might think the post-spawn recovery was responsible for things being difficult in April. Crappie actually are still in their pre-spawn pattern now.
"You might have a few males move up shallow in late April, but they're just building nests. The big females won't move shallow until May. Through April, they are still using deep-water structure."
Austin noted that crappie and bass are members of the same family of sunfishes, so influences affecting one affect the other -- which isn't to say, however, that crappie and bass act the same, especially when it comes to the pre-spawn.
"Crappie behavior doesn't really change when they enter pre-spawn," he said. "Bass get very aggressive, and it's a very exciting time to fish for them. Crappie, on the other hand, stay in the same mode all winter long."
As Austin remarked, that mode involves relating to structure in deep water. As a result, catching them this month often involves more searching than actual fishing. And it was discussing this concept that led Austin to suggest some things about crappie that might surprise some of you reading this.
"I spent 15 or so years in the field working with crappie and other species, and talking to a lot of Kansas fishermen," he explained. "My experience suggests that crappie don't ever move more than a couple of hundred yards horizontally in their entire lives. Their movements are much more vertical in nature."
An interesting concept, and one that you should keep in mind as you head out this month for crappie. If Austin's right -- and there's no reason to doubt his analytic skills -- you should be able to use your experience from catching spawning slabsides to your advantage this month.
Before heading out, take some time to recall where you had your best success with spawning crappie last year and in previous seasons. Mark those spots on a topo map of your favorite lake, and then look at the adjacent areas on the map.
Do you see some spots with deep water -- say, 15 to 20 feet -- close by? Remember what Austin said: You should be looking within just a few hundred yards of those spawning banks. Do any of those deeper spots have structure on them -- rocks or a brushpile, or maybe a hard clay bottom? If so, check them out first to see whether any crappie are there.
Chances appear to be good that they will be. "They also can just suspend in open water," Austin explained, "but they prefer to use some kind of structure in that depth range if it's available. I would look for those kinds of places before I'd look for them to be suspended."
You also should expect April's dynamic weather to affect whether you catch crappie. And in this regard, "dynamic" isn't necessarily a good thing.
"The least little bit of a front often gives crappie lockjaw," Austin said. "I've seen that first-hand. Even after the spawn begins in earnest; if you get a little bit of a front move through, crappie will leave the beds and move out to deep water again. They'll return when things stabilize. But some years, the spawn isn't as successful as we'd like, because weather gets those fish yo-yoing from spawning beds to deeper water, and they finally just give up."
In talking about the way various Kansas species differ in their movements, Austin recounted the story of one particular fish on Glen Elder Reservoir that amazed him with its determination.
"We know that species like walleyes and white bass move around a lake much more than crappie do," he said. "But there was one white bass on Glen Elder that I still tell people about. He took that movement to another level."
Austin recalled that, during this particular sampling effort associated with the white bass spawn, he wanted to capture and tag 1,000 different fish. "I didn't want to worry about whether we were going to pick up the same fish every day," he explained, "so we carried them about seven miles and released them near the dam." He was capturing the whites in a spot up the North Fork of the Solomon River.
"The second day we were out, I shocked up one of the males that we'd captured and tagged the day before, then released seven miles away," Austin said. "That really surprised me. But we took him back down to the dam with the rest of the fish we captured and tagged that day and released him again."
Once you find a really good crappie hole, the fish are
always going to be pretty much right under your nose -- you just have to figure out whether they're deep or shallow
on a given outing.
As it turned out, Austin was in for still more of a surprise. "I shocked that same male up again the next day!" the biologist exclaimed. "He had covered the seven or so miles from the dam up to that area on the North Fork two days in a row! The tags are numbered, and we record them, so we knew with certainty it was the same white bass.
"That guy was one determined white bass. We captured him in the morning, and the two releases at the dam happened later on in the afternoon. He covered that distance two days in a row in no more than 16 to 18 hours. It was just amazing."
It also was just not something any Kansas crappie would ever do. "When I was in the field and would have a good year-class with a lot of crappie in the 3- to 5-inch range, I'd find them in pretty much the same spot if the habitat and food they needed were available," Austin said. "It became obvious to me through all the time on the water and talking to so many crappie fishermen that our cr
appie just aren't moving very far around a lake."
Maybe the most important message from this is that, once you find a really good crappie hole, the fish are always going to be pretty much right under your nose -- you just have to figure out whether they're deep or shallow on a given outing.
"Another thing about our crappie is that a hard rain will turn them on, especially around the spawn," Austin offered. "It won't trigger them during the time the front is moving through. But when the weather stabilizes, they'll really get going.
"It seems as though there's something about the freshly flooded structure that gets them active. You seem to always find this in areas with rocks, gravel or hard clay. It's not going to happen on softer mud banks, because crappie don't use them for spawning unless they have absolutely no other choice. The siltation you get in areas like that will cover up their eggs and destroy spawning success."
Austin suggests that you imitate the crappie you're after and not move very far from where you find them during the spawn when you go out this month. Concentrate your search on areas close to the spawning banks that offer the fish structure of some type in 12 to 15 feet of water. If you don't find them, check out deeper water -- but look for them to be suspended in that 12- to 15-foot range.
Do you have a favorite Kansas crappie lake? The pattern that Austin outlines should apply no matter where you fish. But some lakes around the state will stand out this season as offering some excellent prospects for crappie. They were featured last month in a crappie-fishing preview, but here's a quick recap.
Hillsdale, Marion and Toronto are three Kansas reservoirs that papermouth fans perennially think of as offering good crappie fishing. Big Hill and Fall River tend to be viewed more as good bass lakes, but the surveys conducted by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologists last year suggest both will be really good for crappie this season.
State fishing lakes that should be good this month include Goodman and Scott, in western Kansas, and, in the east, Geary and Neosho. Research also shows that Neosho is one of the SFLs that will give Sunflower State anglers some good action for black crappie. The others include Miami and Brown in eastern Kansas, and Kingman in the south-central part of the state.
Some good community waters beckon to crappie fans: Carbondale City Lake East, Eureka City Lake, Marion County Lake and Sedan City Lake. Keep them in mind as you plan your outing this month.
Now, the lists above suggest something else that you might face when you head out over the next few weeks: visiting a lake for the first time because the crappie fishing is supposed to be good. A number of lakes noted above may be new water to crappie anglers who've spent season after season at Clinton, Perry, Pomona, Melvern and other Kansas waters. So here's how you find the crappie at a lake you're visiting for the first time.
Do you have a favorite Kansas crappie lake? The pattern that biologist Kyle Austin outlines should apply no matter
where you fish.
If at all possible, spend some time in advance scanning lake maps for likely spawning areas. Find places on those maps that resemble the spots at your favorite venues that have produced year in and year out. Then, using the formula explained earlier, search for structure nearby in deeper water; those are the places you should check out first, as they're very likely to hold plenty of fish.
"That's another thing about crappie," Austin said. "You don't find stragglers . . . one here and one there. When you catch a crappie, you can pretty much be certain that there are plenty more in the area. You just have to fish thoroughly for them and know that they may not be as aggressive as you'd prefer."
Nothing beats a minnow-tipped jig for this kind of fishing. "Yeah, it's pretty simple," Austin concurred. "It's hard to beat a minnow on a jig when you're fishing like this -- especially if the fish are neutral to negative.
"For one thing, they are going to hit really lightly; a lot of times you won't even feel the strike. When you use live bait, you're improving your odds of hooking fish, because crappie are going to hold on to that minnow longer than they would a jig with a plastic body on it."
As you fish areas, also remember what Austin said about finding fish: If you fool one crappie, there are more where it came from waiting for your next cast. You also should note the kind of structure you caught the fish near, and its depth. This is important because you're just as likely to find more crappie around the lake you're at if and when you do finally decide to move. If you're on your home lake, you probably ought to concentrate on the spots that have been known producers of crappie, especially during the spawn.
If you think of your favorite lake as a fish's home, then the following analogy should help you to understand the differences between crappie and the state's other popular game fish species.
As Austin described crappie and their habits, it occurred to me that the fish use their homes as if they were condominiums: They live on about the same fairly small footprint but move vertically -- just like a two- or three-story condo.
Walleyes and white bass, on the other hand, tend to treat the lakes they live in as sprawling ranch houses, moving all over the place as if going from one wing of a huge home to another. Black bass tend to be more like crappie than like walleyes or white bass, but you might think of them as inhabiting the water as if it were a split-level -- they'll move around a bit more than do crappie, but they also tend to move vertically quite a bit.
In the end, the diversity is fascinating -- and as it relates to your crappie fishing this month, it betokens that you might really have it easier than will those after other species. If you know where crappie spawn on the lake(s) you like to fish, you're already really close to finding them. They're just not on the top level of that home. They're one floor down, or maybe two.
Another word about the weather: April can be one of the most dynamic months of all in Kansas. Lovely afternoons can give way to viciously stormy evenings without much warning. Tornadoes definitely spawn in strong Sunflower State storms this month.
That said, always let friends and family know which lake you'll be fishing, and the general area you'll be in. With today's technology, having a cell phone along almost goes without saying; remember to carry yours.
You also should carry a weather radio and check it often for updates. If you don't have a fishfinder with GPS technology in your boat, consider investing in a handheld GPS unit, the prices of which continue to become more reasonable, and they can be invaluable -- especially when you're on a new lake. You can not only mark spots at which you find and catch fish but also register the location of the ramp you launc
hed from and use the GPS to help you find your way back if necessary.
And whatever you do, don't give the weather the benefit of the doubt. If it starts darkening up to the west or south, start heading in. Don't wait until the wind starts gusting, and don't wait until you start hearing thunder. If you are more than a short distance from the ramp and your vehicle, you could get in big trouble.
If you've fished Kansas lakes at all, you know how quickly a light chop can turn into roiling whitecaps. They make navigation tricky at best, and there's no way that you'll be able to make a quick retreat in that kind of rough water.
Always err on the side of safety. The crappie will be there another day, and you should assure that you can be, too.