September 24, 2010
Try these expert tips for taking early-season crappies where you fish this spring.
By Dan Armitage
The third month of the year is one of transition for freshwater fish across the Midwest, and one of the first species to make a move come March is the crappie. With water temperatures dictated by weather and latitude driving their moods, local populations of papermouths may be in any seasonal mode from pre- to post-spawn.
Fishermen who are prepared to probe the depths to a dozen feet deep using appropriate tactics and terminal tackle will have the best chances of hooking up this month.
The key to early-season success is being mobile and coming to the water equipped to take fish at various depths with a variety of baits and lures. When minnows or worms aren't working, switch quickly to colored jigs, small crankbaits or mini plugs as needed. Fish deep and shallow till you find fish, and then settle in to take your limit. If the action is slow, be prepared to move quickly to other spots where the crappies may be more enthusiastic.
Crappie pro Rick Jones and his brother, Bob, have competed on waters across the region for the better part of 15 years.
To remain competitive, the Piqua, Ohio-based siblings have developed strategies for finding and catching Midwest crappies year 'round. One of their favorite months to fish for their soft-mouthed quarry is March, and the Joneses have a rather strict regimen when it comes to approaching crappie-filled waters at this time of year.
FIND THEM FIRST
"Whether it's March or May, finding the fish is half the battle when seeking crappies," Jones said. "March can be a challenging time, depending on the weather and where you are fishing. March 15 may include skim ice and snow while hunting for pre-spawn fish, while the next day may offer shirt-sleeve weather while fishing for hungry post-spawn slabs."
Water temperature is the key to finding crappies that are moving into spawning mode, staging near shallower water and more vulnerable to anglers' attempts to catch them. Team Jones knows that when surface water temperatures hit the mid-50 degree mark, fish will begin to move into shore from water as deep as 30 feet, where the crappies have spent the winter. The fish try to find breaks or structure as deep as conditions allow to overwinter.
Anglers may need to do some exploring to find the best shallow-water areas where water temperatures are at or near the optimum for crappie activity. It pays to stop often to check temperatures at varying depths because some lakes may have hidden spring holes, currents and other variables that can affect water temperatures in spring.
When water temperatures are right, the fish can often be found in depths of 6 to 12 feet or at the first dropoff adjacent to the shallower water they will use for their annual ritual.
"It's the females that make the first move into the shallows," said Jones. "The crappies may not be in big schools yet, but they will travel in small groups with the females going toward the bank first. The males hold out and then move in to guard the nests until the eggs hatch.
"About that time," Jones added, "comes post-spawn, when crappies really put on the feedbag. You want to be on hand for that!"
MARCH CRAPPIE METHODS
As surface water temperatures reach the 50-degree mark, Team Jones embraces a methodical approach that has the brothers fishing shallow first to determine if the fish are ready to spawn. They target shorelines with rocky riprap rather than the traditional willows and other woody cover that will draw fish later in the spawn, theorizing that the rocks absorb the sun's heat, warming adjacent waters to attract baitfish.
"We consider 'shallow' to be anything less than 2 feet deep," explained Jones. "We find fish in water as shallow as 6 inches!"
For this skinny water work, the brothers employ a "stand-by hook-and-minnow-under-a-bobber rig."
Using No. 2 size Eagle Claw type 214 EL light wire hooks, a 7 1/2-foot B'n'M Crappie Wizard series IM7 rod and a spinning reel spooled with 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line, the crappie pros impale minnows measuring 2 to 3 inches long through both lips and drop them anywhere they suspect a crappie may be hovering.
"If the plain minnow rig doesn't produce, or we catch fish for a while and then the bite shuts down, we switch to jigs and tubes alone or tipped with minnows.
"Spawning fish will hit a variety of presentations, actively taking one and then quitting for a while when they want something different," Jones explained. "You need to be prepared to give them something a bit different when that happens. That can mean a jig tipped with a minnow, a plain tube or simply a color change to get them actively striking again."
If the brothers determine that the crappies have not yet moved into shallow water, they back off the bank and begin working waters from 6 to 12 feet deep.
When trolling, the brothers use 8- or 10-foot B'n'M trolling rods fitted with bait-casting reels spooled with 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line. They place a Dipsy sinker at the end of the line, varying the weight to find the lightest sinker they can use under the conditions (speed, depth and current) to allow them to keep their fishing lines vertical while trolling under bow-mount electric motor power, usually under one mile per hour.
About 18 inches above the sinker is a dropper line with another 18 inches above that, each trailing a lead-headed jig molded onto a No. 8 or No. 10 hook.
"We use jigs weighing anywhere from 1/8th to 1/100th of an ounce," Jones said. "We have learned that with such dainty jigs the crappies suck in the bait and always get hooked in the meat of the mouth -- and not in the outside, the delicate 'paper' area where they can easily tear free of the hook."
The jigs are custom-poured and hand-tied using various colors of synthetic hair. Jones admits the over-sized minnows they often use dwarf the tiny jigs, but he suspects that is what may trigger some strikes.
"I guess the large minnow with a small, colorful jig in its mouth may look extra appealing to a hungry crappie," he said.
The pair always tries to troll these offerings into the wind, keeping the rods in racks on the boat's bow and proceeding at speeds slow enough to keep the lines hanging straight down into the water. The brothers vary depth and jig color until they find a combination that starts catching crappies, adjusting all their presen
tations to mimic the productive mode until the fishing action dictates a change.
Team Jones' March method for locating and catching crappies is as methodical as it is slow-paced until they find fish.
"In states where we are allowed to use more than two rods apiece, we still may not troll more than a pair each when we get on fish simply because we can't boat them fast enough," Jones admitted. "When the spawn is over and the crappies are still relatively shallow, it can be a circus."
Here are 10 more tips the Jones brothers agree will put more crappies in the boat this month:
Tip No. 1
Head for the rocks first. Riprap and bridge abutments absorb the sun's heat and radiate it, warming the waters close by. Save the brush and woody areas for when the spawn is on.
Tip No. 2
Don't overlook the dropoff at the end of a concrete boat launch ramp. The water is often warmer there from the sun heating the pavement, and there's usually a washout hole at the end of the ramp where boaters power-load their boats.
Of course, this is only practical -- and productive -- when the ramps are not under heavy use.
Tip No. 3
Target water inlets such as creeks, drainage and discharge pipes that introduce warmer water to the main lake and attract bait and crappies.
Tip No. 4
Find metal or wood boat docks and lifts. They offer shallow-water structure, shade and absorb and radiate warmth from the sun. Boat docks can be one of the first places that hold early-season fish within range of anglers before main-lake waters warm up enough to drive them shallow.
Tip No. 5
When trolling, use bait-casting reels, which make it easier to adjust line lengths and lure depths while in the rod racks. When casting bobbered baits, use spinning reels, which are better for delicate presentations.
Tip No. 6
Troll into the wind to keep the speed slow and constant and to maintain better control of your baits. You want that line as vertical as possible where it enters the water for a better presentation, hookset and to help detect light strikes.
Tip No. 7
Study the local tackle store's "braggin' wall" of photographs. Note the size of resident crappies that make bragging status and ask about where the larger fish are being caught. Bait shops are in the business of helping customers catch fish and can offer a wealth of information.
Tip No. 8
When fishing the shallows with jig-and-bobber rigs, place all legal-sized crappies in a livewell (where legal) whether you intend to keep them or not. Released fish can spook other crappies, driving them off the spawning grounds or shutting down the bite. Release the fish only when you are ready to move to another spot.
Tip No. 9
Don't operate or position your boat too close to the spawning area. It's easy to spook fish out of the shallows. Instead, anticipate where you think the fish are likely to be and cast into the area from a reasonable distance.
Tip No. 10
Whether fishing for spawning crappies from a boat or from the bank, tread lightly and speak softly. Sound and vibrations from heavy footsteps and the sound of loud voices can easily spook shallow-water crappies and shut down the bite.