May 17, 2023
By Jeff Knapp
The association of productive crappie fishing with springtime is a strong one, the reason being that at some point during this season, great numbers of the fish will be found in shallow water. Any scenario where concentrations of fish are found in select areas tends to play in the angler’s favor.
However, spring can also be a time of disappointment for crappie anglers. Eager folks, inspired by the first warming trends of the year, assault the shallows in hopes that the weather has driven these tasty panfish into thin-water cover—places that likely produced in years past. Typically, though, these anglers leave the water with a head full of frustration instead of a live well full of early-spring crappies.
The transition from deeper wintering locations to shallow cover is a gradual one, strongly linked to seasonal and day-to-day weather patterns. Understanding these movements, and applying tactics in response to such, is much more efficient than camping out on shallow-water cover in hopes that the fish show up and are in a biting mood.
Early-season crappies—just after ice-out on lakes that experience hard water—tend to be in deeper locations, often ones associated with submerged wood cover. Longer periods of daylight, along with warming water temperatures, will inspire fish movement to shallow water. These initial movements are driven by the need to feed rather than to spawn, with an exodus of the shallows occurring when inevitable cold snaps return. Eventually, water temperatures reach a level conducive to spawning and the fish remain in the shallows for an extended time.
So, you see, springtime crappies can be deep, shallow or somewhere in between. Applying tactics that address these three general situations will greatly increase your chances of springtime success.
EARLY AND DEEP
Early-season crappies will likely still be in wintering locations just after ice out. In manmade lakes, which account for the vast majority of crappie waters in our region, this often means close to deep wood cover. Deep is relative to each body of water, but depths of 20 to 30 feet are common in most reservoirs.
Wood cover can be in the form of submerged trees (or tree sections), shoreline laydowns, brushpiles and cribs introduced as added fish habitat.
Typically, the surface temperature during this early time frame will range from the upper 30s to around 50 degrees. In such cold water, it’s unlikely the fish will chase baits. More commonly, you’ll need to first locate them, then put a lure or bait in their faces to inspire bites.
Sonar plays a big part in finding productive cover. Traditional 2D sonar will identify deep, offshore wood, but it’s limited in its ability to separate the cover from fish. Down imaging does a great job of target separation. Side imaging does as well, and greatly expands the swath of area being examined.
Throughout the year, anytime I come upon deep wood cover I mark it with a waypoint. At some point in time, it’s likely the spot will hold crappies. It’s common for crappies to pile into one piece of cover, leaving nearby ones mostly vacant. Examples include a cluster of a dozen cribs in 20-plus feet of water, with only one or two holding fish; or the remnants of a submerged tree, where all the fish are hovered in and around the branches of the treetop, with little relating to the main trunk.
Tightly concentrated fish demand precise presentation. Hovering over fish-holding cover and working it vertically is typically necessary. Crappie-sized plastics (see sidebar for bait/lure options) rigged on light (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) jig heads and yo-yoed in and around the cover is often productive. So is a smaller blade bait. If it’s windy, the addition of a small bullet weight 18 inches up the line can add feel to the lighter jigs. A small swivel that connects the main line to a short leader will secure the bullet weight. I like using thin braid, such as Sufix Nanobraid, to feel light bites as well as to maneuver baits in and around the deep cover.
Crappies feed up, so experiment with various depths around the cover you are fishing. And be alert for “negative” bites, where the crappie strikes the bait from below and continues upward. If you lose contact with the bait, it’s likely a crappie has inhaled it.
As spring progresses, crappies will be on the move, heading toward shallow-water cover. It can be a challenging, here-today-gone-tomorrow situation, but a productive one as well.
Slow-trolling crappie-size soft plastics allows you to both contact open-water fish while simultaneously scanning areas with sonar for concentrations of crappies on shallower cover.
My home state of Pennsylvania allows up to three rods per person, so when I’m by myself I use a triple-rod approach to comb near-bottom areas, mid-depths and also near the surface.
The bottom rod is a limber baitcaster rigged with a three-way swivel. A short dropper connects to a 3/8-ounce bell sinker; a longer dropper to a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jig with a plastic body. Two identical light-power, fast-action spinning rods are also rigged with light jigs and crappie-size bodies. One, though, also has a 1/4-ounce bullet weight (rigged as described above for vertical jigging).
Once the boat is underway, I make a moderate cast with each one and place the rod in a holder. The three-way rig runs off the back, the other two to each side. My objective is to target three zones of the water column, making adjustments as dictated by success (for example, if the mid-depth rod is catching the fish, I zero-in on that level) as well as fish location on sonar.
Boat speed is important. A pace of .7 to .8 mph has been most productive for me, a speed accomplished with the bow-mounted trolling motor. While trolling open water, I like to venture close to cover—submerged trees previously marked, near the tops of shoreline laydowns, etc.—to see if fish are loading up in any of these areas. If they are I’ll often stop and cast light jigs to the cover, allowing them to pendulum over and through the wood.
It’s also important to work different areas of a lake, from main-lake areas to backwater coves and bays, adjusting the amount of line let out and/or weight accordingly.
It’s also worth noting that on lakes and reservoirs with shallow, dark-bottom bays, there’s often a mid-spring movement of crappies into these areas, foraging on fish that relate to old lily pad stems. These fish can be targeted by casting jigs and suspending them under bobbers.
Once water temperatures reach the upper 50s and low 60s, it’s likely crappies will be up shallow to spawn. It’s the time of year when angling success tends to soar for anglers who missed out on earlier opportunities.
Expect to find shallow crappies relating to shoreline-connected brush, trees and flooded willows. Also, as in any angling situation, some days the fish are more aggressive than others. When in a positive mood, a small underspin jig or tiny spinnerbait is tops for covering the shallows, searching for fish that are not locked-in on cover.
At other times it’s necessary to set up on visible cover and pick it apart. Just as bass often respond to contact with wood, crappies can demand the same from precisely cast jigs. Weed guards on jigs can minimize hang ups. Also, a small plastic jig suspended under a fixed bobber may be the answer. I prefer to stay away from live minnows for the sake of simplicity, but there’s no denying a small fathead minnow hovered or suspended within the branches of a shoreline laydown takes crappies around the spawn.
Once the spawn concludes, you can use this mobile approach to keep tabs on crappies as they move toward summertime locations.