March 24, 2014
What You'll Find Here:
Choosing Your Approach
Where to Find Slabs
Tips from "Mister Crappie"
Best Crappie Tactics & Gear
When I was a kid, my older brother and I used to walk to a slough near our home on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to go spring crappie fishing.
Using canebrake for whippy crappie poles and live minnows for bait, we watched the crooked brush that lined the shallows. Once settled on a spot, we hooked minnows through the lips and dipped them up and down in the crooked brush. No bobber required. When we felt a tug, we pulled the crappie straight up through the cover and added them to our stringer.
It was that easy. It still is. Papermouths, slabs, speckled perch, sac-a-lait, white perch — by whatever name they're called, crappie are favorite targets of anglers from east coast to west coast, and points in between. Like bluegills and other sunfish, crappie are fairly ubiquitous in all regions and types of fresh water. The two first cousins of the family, the paler white crappie and the speckled black crappie, can be caught from the South's tannin-stained rivers and upland lakes, to the prairie potholes of the Midwest, and the tule-lined streams and mountain lakes up and down the West Coast. The hottest weather in the Deep South isn't too hot for crappie, and winters never get too cold to keep papermouths from falling prey to ice fishermen guarding their tip-ups on frozen lakes.
Wherever they swim, crappie have the potential to grow to an adult size of a few pounds apiece, up to about 4 pounds. The most important limiting factors to their growth are water quality, overpopulation, the quantity of their forage base, fishing pressure, cover or lack thereof, and vulnerability to natural predators such as pike or cormorants.
Availability is one thing, but it's the crappie's willingness to take a variety of lures and live minnows, presented in a variety of ways, that adds to their popularity. As was the case for me, most anglers get their first taste of crappie fishing with cane poles and live minnows. Refinements such as rods and reels, and spider rigs comprised of specialized poles and reels that fan out from the bows of boat in all directions, say more about the preferences of anglers than the requirements of crappies. To these panfish, a simple approach is as good as the most sophisticated presentation.
Crappie are meat eaters, and they're ambush fish. To them, darkness is the best cover, whether it's found in the shade of a dock or underneath a bridge, in stake beds submerged in a quiet cove by a crappie guide, or flooded timber with a maze of twisted limbs and stumps.
"The easy fish get caught first," notes Wally Marshall, whose long career in tournaments and as a seminar speaker has earned him the sobriquet, "Mister Crappie." "If you want to catch the biggest crappie, you've got to be able to get a jig or a minnow in front of them, and sometimes that can be really tough."
In Marshall's case, the approach is the bow-and-arrow cast with light spinning tackle, or, as he labels it, "shooting." He uses small jigs and virtually shoots them under docks and pontoon boats or anywhere else crappie are likely to be holding and out of harm's way from most casual fishermen.
Here again, the type of delivery system is optional. Some anglers catch crappies in the spring by trolling small baits through their lairs. Others dip minnows around bridge pilings where current has piled up brush around them, and where crappie are attracted by juvenile threadfin shad. Southern anglers have developed sophisticated approaches such as side-trolling, whereby a boat follows bottom contours until the right depth (or, from the crappies' perspective, the right water temperature) is found and the bobbers start dancing on the surface.
Like any fish, crappie have to eat something most of the time, but their appetites begin to peak with the onset of warm weather, and they start moving away from the deeper drop-offs, humps and points where they spend much of winter toward their spawning grounds in the shallow, sandy-bottomed coves and creeks. In western Kentucky, we often timed the crappie spawn by when the dogwoods started blooming, or when water temperatures start bumping the low 50s. That's probably a good starting point anywhere, even if dogwoods aren't part of the local scenery.
Trolling white Beetle Spins slowly around cove and creek shorelines until crappie are found is still a popular approach, but nowadays all sorts of companies — including Z-Man, Strike King, YUM, Bobby Garland and Blakemore — offer a variety of specially designed soft-plastic crappie swimbaits or grub bodies for 1/16th or 1/32-ounce jigheads that are good for the task. Likewise, several companies such as Rapala, Strike King and PRADCO offer crankbaits to entice slabs, either by casting or trolling over their deep-water haunts.
Any time of year, when one crappie is caught, more are close by. On electronics, they show up as suspended blotches roughly in the shape of a Christmas tree. On sunny days, they move into or under cover, especially boat docks; on shady days or at night, they suspend above the cover or roam in search of food.
Fish for them with lures or live minnows, by trolling or casting, by watching a bobber or tight-lining with a dropshot rig.
Whatever your approach or technique, crappie will oblige.
In Southern impoundments, bridges are crappie magnets. How do you know where to fish? Look for tie-up ropes hanging down from the bottom of the bridge at various points along the span. These mark the best spots where crappie fishermen have tied up. Otherwise, use sonar to find brush washed up against the pilings.
Juvenile threadfin shad that feed on the algae and zooplanton growing on bridge pilings attract crappie. Always fish the shady side and put the grub or minnow as close as possible to the piling.
In stained water, switch to jigs or grubs with bright colors that stand out. Otherwise, stick with the basic colors that more closely match the natural colors of shad or lake minnows.
Boat docks are the favorite target for crappie anglers who fish with artificials. Typically, they 'shoot ' jigs under docks or parked pontoon boats where crappie lurk. Light spinning tackle with 7-foot rods are the choice here.
All photos by Colin Moore
Lake Fork Slab
Cabela's Chuck Smock, at right, with Wally Marshall and a Lake Fork slab. Famous for its big bass, the east Texas lake also is home to some trophy-size crappie.
Crappie aren't called papermouths for nothing. The thin membrane around their mouths is easily torn, and trying to horse in a big crappie often results in the fish coming unbuttoned.
With any fish, it's always best to match the hatch in terms of the size of the baitfish they're after. Where crappie are concerned, typically that's minnows about an inch or so long, and artificials to match. In the fall of the year, larger jigs and small deep-diving crankbaits will produce.
Once you've caught yourself a couple papermouths, heat up the oven or fryer because we've got two delicious dishes for you to try.
- Crappie fillets, at least two per person
- Yellow mustard
- Salt & Pepper
For a tangier taste, spread yellow mustard on both sides of a fillet, roll in cornmeal salted and peppered to taste, and fry in peanut oil, preferably in a deep fat fryer, until golden. Serve with your favorite side dishes.
- Crappie fillets, at least two per person
- 1 teaspoon€¨ parsley
- 1 teaspoon€¨ salt & pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon€¨ lemon juice
Line baking dish with foil, or use stick-proof dish. Spread fillets on pan and sprinkle with spice blend and salt and pepper. Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until fillets are flake and pull apart easily. Remove to serving dish and serve with lemon juice.
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