Crappie are arguably the most popular pan fish in America. Many anglers spend a great deal of time fishing for them in every season and in every region of the country. They are good to eat, and they can reach a size of up to 5 pounds. While Crappies that big may be rare, they are still a great source of food, and a great source of fun, for many anglers (after bass of course).
Black Crappies and White Crappies can both be found in freshwater that has a lot of vegetation. They also prefer water that is moderately acidic. They do not go into a semi-hibernation in the winter, as many fish do, which makes them a great source of fishing fun all year long. Even in the north, where the water is covered in ice for many months of the year, Crappie action can still be very hot.
Crappies prefer to be around structure. They tend to be close to brushy areas, fallen trees, and wed beds. Sometimes finding the proper depth is all the is needed to get into a big school of Crappies and fill limit quickly. A good lake map is an indispensable tool in finding places around the lake of the same depth. Once you find the Crappies in one area at a certain depth, odds are good that you will find them in that depth, around the same type of cover or structure, in other area of the lake.
It is important to keep in mind the forage available to the Crappies in the body of water an angler is fishing. Crappies tend to feed on aquatic insects, minnows, and fingerlings of other fish. Water clarity is also important. It is important for the bait to be seen, but also for it to look as natural as possible.
As with most other fish, the clearer the water is, the more natural colors an angler will want to use. In clear water, silver/white with sparkles is a good choice, or even variations of greens and browns. If an angler is targeting Crappie in a darker body of water, the fish cannot see as well. Therefore brighter colors are better. Anglers should think in terms of whites, yellows, and chartreuses. When the visibility is only 2 – 4 feet, even the brightest lime greens and pinks can work well.
If the water is very muddy, Crappies tend to rely more on vibration and smell than on sight. In these situations, live bait can produce better results. Those who fish only with artificial baits can get good results too, though, by adding a blade to their lure or using fish attractant scents.
While these are some general tips in Crappie fishing, learning the patterns of these hard-fighting pan fish throughout the year will also help an angler to get more fish in the boat.
In the spring of the year, fish start to spawn, and Crappies are no different. As the water warms, they head to the shallows. In many clearer lakes, anglers can see up to dozens of Crappie beds huddled closely together near the shoreline. White Crappies start to spawn when the water reaches about 60 degrees and will spawn up to 65 degree. Black Crappies prefer 58 – 64 degree water temperatures in which to spawn.
The area of the country in which an angler lives will dictate when “spring” is for Crappies. In Florida they spawn as early as December, while in the northern regions it can be as late as early June, depending on the weather. Water temperature, then, has much more to do with the spawn that the date on the calendar.
As they prepare to spawn, Crappies can become aggressive eaters, and anglers can load up on them fairly quickly when they run into a school. Jigs with a spinner on the front can be a great choice for these early season slabs.
Finding the water that warms first will help anglers to find the earliest spawning Crappies. When the water is very cold, they tend to stay deeper, where there is more oxygen. But as the water warms, they will move shallow fairly quickly. In the far north, they may be shallow as soon as the ice comes off the lake completely.
They are aggressive throughout the spawn can be found from 8 inches of water to about 3 feet. In clearer water, they may spawn a bit deeper, but the telltale rings of Crappie beds can still usually be seen along the shorelines and on spawning flats. Often the beds will be close to logs, fallen trees, or other sources of cover.
Vertically jigging a tube or small grub can be deadly at this time of year. Rather than get too close to the nests and spawning areas, though, angler will do well to use a longer rod, in the 10-foot range, to present the crappie lure directly in front of the fish without spooking it with the boat (fishing kayaks work best to sneak up on them). Finding the warmest water in a cove, and presenting the bait directly in front of the fish can be a great tactic at this time of year.
Depending on the area and the specific body of water, many anglers prefer not to catch Crappie to eat them when the water is at its warmest, but they still enjoy a day on the lake practicing catch and release. Some anglers say the meat of the Crappie becomes mushy and can be wormy as the weather warms, but it’s still a great time to take the kids out and end a day on the lake.
Like some other fish, as the water warms, Crappie tend to head for deeper water. They will suspend off of deep drops nearest to their spawning areas. Suspended fish of all kinds are notoriously hard to entice a bit from, and Crappies are no different. However, there are a few tactics that may work well.
Try to find the school of fish with your sonar first. This is the best way to know that you are on fish, and you can work them from a variety of angles to try to get them to bite. Look for deeper creek channels and humps or underwater islands.
Depending on the fishery, don’t be afraid to look as deep as 30 feet of water. If there is cover in a creek channel, that could very well hold fish. Once you find this cover or structure in deeper water, mark the channel with buoys are you drive over it or close to it. This will allow you to back off and fish that area more effectively.
Especially in early summer, trolling a crankbait, if legal in your area, can be a great way to get those fish off of the cover and out to attack your bait. If trolling isn’t legal where you are, winding the crankbait back near your marker buoys should put your bait near the fishes’ mouths and can draw some strikes. Experiment with the retrieve speed, and kill it or speed it up throughout the retrieve. This change in speed often triggers strikes.
Be careful when setting the hook with a crankbait, however. Crappies are known as “paper mouths” for a reason. Setting the hook too hard will most likely pull the bait right out of the mouth of the fish. Usually, the strike itself is enough to penetrate the hook through the mouth of even the biggest slab. Simply keep pressure on the fish without pulling too hard, and bring the fish in to the boat.
In the fall months, Crappies, like most other fish, have their mind on winter and tend to “put on the feed bag”, as they say, eating aggressively in anticipation of the colder months when they prefer to move around less. This is the time of year they start to head toward their winter haunts.
A good starting depth when looking for fall Crappies is 15 – 25 feet. Again, using your electronics is the best way to find these fish. Throw out some marker buoys to keep casting simple. At this time of year, more often than not, they will pull off of the structure they held to in summer and hold at that depth in deeper water rather than follow the bottom contours of the lake.
Some anglers like to cast a light jig without a weight or bobber. The retrieve here can be a bit faster than in the dead of summer at times, as the fish are looking to fatten up for the winter and, while they are more apt to take in a meal that is slow moving or seems as if its sick or dying, the right offering will make them move in a reaction strike sort of situation. Many anglers start in the deepest water available when looking for fall Crappie, and casting allows them to cover a larger amount of water than a technique such as jigging.
Using a bobber, especially when it’s windy, can help an angler detect the bites where a Crappie hits and moves up toward the surface, however. Crappies tend to feed up, so this technique is preferred by other anglers who believe they will miss fewer bites this way. The Thill Crappie Cork is a great example of a bobber presentation. These bobber come with a weight printed on the side.
Simply match that weight to the weight of your jig, and you will be able to see even the slightest movement in the bobber and detect more strikes. Alternatively, a split shot can be rigged above a smaller jig to equal the weight printed on the bobber.
Once you’ve found fish with your electronics, jigging a spoon vertically right at the depth the fish are holding can be a great presentation. It can also help you determine the depth at which the fish are eating. If fishing in very deep water, a light-emitting color may help attract more fish to the lure. Of course, live bait is great at this time of year, too. Many anglers tip their spoons with a minnow or a half minnow facing down.
In the winter time, school of Crappie tend to group up. It’s not unusual to sit in one spot, once an angler finds the fish, and fill the livewell in a short amount of time. This is true whether fishing open water in the south, or ice fishing in the north.
A great idea for those who live in the northern regions where the lakes freeze over in the winter is to carry a portable handheld GPS fishfinder. In the summertime while on the boat, anglers can use that handheld GPS to mark cribs, laydowns, creek channels, and other cover and structure that will tend to hold Crappies in the winter using a handheld GPS. Once the lake is covered with ice, the angler can take that came handheld unit out onto the ice and start to drill holes within a few feet of that structure or cover.
For anglers in the southern regions, casting is still an option. It works very well when an angler doesn’t want to spook the fish. By being able to keep the boat farther away from the cover the fish are holding to, many anglers feel they have a much better opportunity to catch fish.
Some anglers, even in open water, prefer jigging. Obviously, this is one of the only options available to those who are ice fishing for several months out of the year, but even southern anglers use jigging as great option in the wintertime. This presentation tends to get hung up less than a casting presentation, and can still be deadly when conditions are right.
Crappies truly are a fish for all seasons. Whether you live in the north, south, east, or west, Crappie fishing can be a great way to pass the day and to catch an awesome camping meal for yourself and your family.
Using your fishfinders and other electronics is the best way to find the schools of Crappie on your local lake once they are done spawning for the year and they move around the lake a bit more.
Keeping in mind the season and the available forage in the lake will help any angler, pro or beginner, to fill their livewells with more fish, more often.