September 30, 2010
Once the crappie finish spawning, most anglers forget about them until the following year. But the fish aren't that hard to find after they leave the beds — or to catch!
Comes a time each spring that marks the beginning of a period of mourning among Mississippi’s crappie fishermen: the end of the crappie-spawning season. A time that sees many put up their papermouth fishing gear for the year and settle in to wait for next spring, when the dogwoods bloom, the wild turkeys gobble and the “perch” again swim the shallows.
But not so fast! Just because Easter’s over and the crappie have moved off the spawning beds doesn’t mean that you’ve got to stop fishing for them. As a matter of fact, crappie fishing can be good in many parts of the state well into the summer months. Local fishing clubs continue to stage tournaments on state-operated lakes, while the national tournament circuits such as Crappie USA schedule big-paycheck events on the Magnolia State’s largest reservoirs.
To say that crappie fishing during the post-spawn period doesn’t at all resemble the fast and furious action to be had in late March and early April probably won’t spark an argument. During the past several weeks, as springtime’s warming waters prompted the popular panfish to move to shorelines to spawn, anglers able to predict the crappie’s instinctual movements have filled heavy stringers of crappie statewide. Post-spawn crappie catches, on the other hand, may consist of only a few fish at times
But the action’s far from over. In fact, if you know where the fish have gone and what it takes to catch them, crappie fishing in late April and early May can still offer pleasurable rewards.
“The crappie spawning period could last two weeks to two months, depending on water temperature,” explained Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks fisheries biologist Keith Meals. “The spawn begins at 57 degrees, peaks when the water temperature reaches 65, and isn’t usually completed until the water reaches 75 degrees. Water temperature in any one lake could differ from one part of the impoundment to another, so it could take six to eight weeks to move from the minimum temperature to the highest temperature in which crappie spawn.”
In other words, we could be well into May before the last of the bedding is seen, and the spawn typically progresses from the shallow end to the deep end of the lake. Using those facts, you could easily extend your crappie fishing during an exaggerated spawning period. However, Meals added, the stragglers that have yet to spawn at this time are typically small fish pushed aside by larger crappie in the course of the competition for spawning sites that takes place earlier in the season.
Anyway, don’t put up the jigging rods and cane poles just yet. Spend a few more weeks tipping small jigheads with minnows or soft-plastic tube bodies. Suspend the bait beneath a small cork or bobber, and drop it along your favorite shoreline stumps or over a secret brushpile. Later, when you’re sure that the crappie have stopped spawning, make a few more trips onto your favorite lake in late April and early May to round out your annual spring catch of perch.
WHITE CRAPPIE AND OPEN WATER
According to Meals, 90 percent of the papermouths in Mississippi’s reservoirs are white crappie, a fish he describes as “pelagic” in nature, meaning that members of this species are likely to migrate from shorelines to open water only a few short days after working themselves into what some anglers describe as a “post-spawn funk.”
One of the top crappie anglers plying their skills at north Mississippi’s big impoundments, Memphis’ Kent Driscoll subscribes to the “funk” theory. “May is the toughest month for crappie fishing on large lakes because of three factors,” he said. “The fish are stressed out, they don’t want to eat and they’re looking to rest. Basically, they’re hanging out in the shallow water — say, 2 to 5 feet — and suspended, just laying there and trying to recuperate from the rigors of the spawn.”
Driscoll is among a growing cadre of anglers that have taken crappie fishing to heart — and to wallet — nationwide. He and his partner, Terry Byrd, fish the Crappie Masters Team Tournament Trail sponsored by Bass Pro Shops. The pair expects to fish several of the 10 tournaments that remain on the 2005 national schedule between April and September.
But it’s at lakes Arkabutla, Sardis and Tunica Cutoff that Driscoll spends many of his crappie fishing hours. The part-time fishing guide and tournament angler has long honed his post-spawn crappie fishing techniques at these huge impoundments.
“You can catch post-spawn crappie using small hair jigs and small minnows,” he said, “but it’s all done with real slow-moving fishing techniques so you don’t pass the fish too quickly. Eventually, the fish begin to move toward deeper water, and their habits and behavior changes accordingly.”
When, according to Keith Meals, the crappie in just about every Mississippi impoundment begin to move toward deep water, the fish position themselves with respect to the whereabouts of three critical elements: food — primarily threadfin and gizzard shad — a high level of dissolved oxygen, and a temperature several degrees cooler than the 80 degrees typical of surface water in late spring. Driscoll agrees especially with the point about water temperature, which creates what he calls the “crappie comfort zone.”
“As the water temperature rises, the fish move toward the deeper ends of the main lake,” he explained. “Most of the time they’re suspended, relating to the thermocline. As the water temperature rises and the season progresses, the comfort zone grows smaller and smaller, eventually leading crappie to gather again in big schools.”
Along the way to their deep-water haunts, Meals observed, crappie use submerged creek channels and ditches as highways leading away from the shallow spawning waters. “But they’ll stop during that migration along points and structure where baitfish might gather,” Driscoll added. “That’s why I begin my hunt for post-spawn crappie by locating the traditional spawning grounds — the major creeks and coves with hard bottoms.”
In his dual capacity as tournament angler and fishing guide, Driscoll uses rather sophisticated fish-finding electronics in his
hunt, which involves idling through a cove or creek channel in 4 to 6 feet of water as he looks for baitfish. “I’ll spend the good part of an hour just looking for the marks,” he noted, adding that baitfish appear on his fishfinder as cloud-like shapes, while crappie associated with the baitfish appear sharper.
“If you have to, cover all your bases. Look at water in segments of depth, starting shallow, about 2 to 4 feet deep, then move to water 6 to 10 feet deep, 10 to 14 feet deep and 15 to 20 feet deep. The fish are more likely found deep on bluebird days and shallow on gray days.”
While searching for fish, Driscoll will frequently have already begun using what he and his partner Byrd believe is the top tactic for catching crappie not only in the post-spawn period but also during the warm months. “I’ll be trolling a spider rig — eight rods set up the same way and fanned out across the bow of the boat, each double-minnow rigged, pulled with an electric trolling motor,” he explained. “This is critical to catching suspended crappie.”
Each rod in Driscoll’s spider rig has a three-way swivel on the main line. To one end he ties 6 to 8 inches of leader line, and to the other, 36 inches of leader line, which he passes through a 1/2-ounce barrel weight four times in order to peg the lead in place about 18 inches down the long leader; at the end of each leader he ties a No. 1 red Aberdeen hook. (Driscoll believes that the red hook simulates the red shade of the baitfish’s gills, thus drawing more strikes than would the typical brass-colored crappie hook.) The setup is baited with live shiners 1 1/2 to 2 inches long rather than with plastic jig bodies.
“The fish are not very aggressive this time of year,” Driscoll remarked. “You have to have scent and vibration.”
Once rigged, each rod in Driscoll’s array is set at depth intervals 2 feet apart, usually starting around 6 feet deep, staggered to as much as 20 feet deep. “That’s real important,” the angler explained, “because sometimes the bigger fish in a school are found just below or just above the smaller fish. Once I have a pattern, I can also adjust the depth quickly using the speed of the trolling motor. By moving faster, I can pull the baits higher in the water column by about a foot or so. By moving slower, I can drop the bait a foot deeper, or I can stop the boat completely to allow the bait to fall below a channel ledge or nearer fish that are deeper than the usual trolling depth.”
BLACK CRAPPIE AND SHORELINES
Black crappie are fish of clear water and shorelines. While white crappie dominate fisheries in the large impoundments, where sediment run-off frequently creates clouded or stained water, black crappie rule the many oxbows whose clear waters twist and turn in the Mississippi River Delta.
The numerous oxbow lakes dotting the Delta provide outstanding crappie fishing opportunities from Horn Lake in DeSoto County in the north to Eagle Lake in Warren County in the south. In many cases these ancient river bends of Old Man River and its tributaries are still influenced by the big streams and their fluctuations. Those seasonal rises and falls are the factors most significantly influencing crappie behavior in more than a dozen Delta oxbows.
Foremost among those effects is the extent to which water levels affect the timing of the spawn. Water temperature also fluctuates with the rise and fall of the river in early spring before settling in the 60- to 65-degree range. According to Meals, that happens some two to four weeks later than it does in the reservoirs. The biologist also says that the occurrence marks the peak of the spawning season for black crappie. As a result, the post-spawn period for crappie fishing in the oxbows occurs later in the spring than it does on the reservoirs.
“But don’t count on the water temperature to tell you where and when to fish for crappie after the spawn,” cautioned Tunica’s Ed “Dawg” Weldon, a guide who’s been fishing Tunica Cutoff for more than 40 years and guiding on the big oxbow since 1990. “It’s the oxbow — actually, its water level — that makes that call. It’s got little, if anything, to do with water temperature until June or July, when the seasonal drop in the water level marks an increase in the water temperature. Until that time, the fish will be found in the ‘happy’ range of 55 to 65 degrees, and on cover not far at all from where they spawned.”
Black crappie are much more oriented to cover than are white crappie, says Meals. “Certainly, black crappie are shoreline-oriented, and after the spawn, black crappie do not move off the shoreline much. It could be in part because black crappie are more insect-eaters and thus associate with vegetation and other matter where insect populations are strong.”
Because of the black crappie’s affinity for cover, Dawg continues to fish the sites at which the fish spawned well into the post-spawn period, despite rising or falling water levels. “In the oxbows,” he reflected, “it’s not the crappie that move after spawning — it’s people that move. People who don’t understand what’s going on, and follow the water depth because that’s the factor they believe is most significant to their success. Well, that might work on a big lake like Sardis or Arkabutla. But black crappie like the shorelines.
“Say I was catching a lot of fish in 9 feet of water, and three days later the water has dropped 3 feet. I’ll keep catching fish in that same spot where the water is now only 6 feet deep at least until a combination of other factors do cause the fish to move later in the season.”
Unlike Driscoll, for whom live minnows play a big part in post-spawn fishing techniques, Dawg counts on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce crappie jigs tipped with big plastic bodies — up to 2 inches long — to keep his crappie-catching numbers up during the post-spawn period. “They just seem to like a big jig,” he said, “and I think it’s because they’re hungry after raising their young.”
Because the crappie of the oxbows remain in or near cover during the post-spawn period, Dawg has designed a unique way of rigging the jigs. He suspends these from long jigging rods in or near the root balls, stakebeds, brushtops, logs and stumps that he fishes in late April and May. On his main line he threads a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce bullet weight, following that with a couple of colored beads — usually a shade of red — and those with another weight of the same size. The first weight is threaded with the tapered end leading to the rod, the second weight with the tapered end leading to the hook.
“It’s designed to get hooks unsnagged,” Dawg explained. “If the hook gets hung in the cover, I can drop the rod tip, which causes the weights to fall below the point of the snag and,
doing so, often pulls the hook off the snag.”