One thing that needs to be understood to successfully pursue crappie is that they are a migratory fish. They are constantly in transit from one mode to another. And, just like birds, each school follows its own regular path to and from the same destinations every year. Where you find them this year at this time, you will find them in the same time and place next year.
Crappie migrate according to the season, using water temperature as a trigger to start moving. In this article, we will discuss the seasonal movements and routes of both species of crappie. Their habits are identical.
Cold Water: Pre-Spawn Crappie
In January and February in the south, and April and June up north, crappie begin to prepare for the ordeal of spawning. All winter, they have been holding in mid to deep water, usually at least 25 feet deep, where they suspend at different depths according to the temperature. They hold over structure and off of creek beds, channels and coves.
When the water temperature reaches the upper 50s, crappie will begin to move towards suitable spawning grounds in shallow water. Bear in mind that surface temperature is usually several degrees warmer. You want to know what the temperature is at around 10 feet deep. Males will begin to come in first, traveling along lines of structure, along creek beds, channels, submerged timber, and any other available cover. Brush piles in 8-15 feet of water are good places to start looking. Females follow soon after. The best tactic for this stage is vertical fishing with 1/16-1/8 oz. jigs, or live minnows. If they stop hitting jigs, either switch to minnows or change colors. If they quit hitting minnows, change to jigs. Use 4-6 lb. monofilament and ultra light jig rods. Crappie are pretty quick to sense when something is wrong, so carry lots of different colors and styles of jigs. They will be in loose schools, so in-line spinners can be productive as well. Small crank-baits worked along creek beds and channels sometimes produce well at this time.
Try to resist the urge to drop your anchor when vertical fishing, unless you want to scatter the crappie school. It is much better to tie up to trees, bushes, or just drift.
Pre-spawn crappie often hold off of points that slope towards channels and drop-offs. This is a perfect place to use small sinking crank-baits. Use light line and work them from shallow to deep water.
In rivers, look for pre-spawn crappie in tributaries, and siltier water, because it warms up first. Crappie will leave the main river channel and move towards areas with less current. Look for them anywhere there is a current break, and heavy cover. Crappie move upstream looking for spawning places. When they come to tailraces behind dams, they will congregate in large numbers in the slower water along the edges, especially near undercuts and current breaks. This can lead to some truly memorable crappie fishing. In this situation, a jig and minnow combination sometimes works better than a jig or minnow alone. Use a double rig under a float for some fast action.
During pre-spawn, crappie often hit very light, so don’t look for any smashing strikes. When vertical fishing, you can make a strike warning device by tying an old low ‘E’ string from a guitar onto the end of your rod. Using pliers, make a small loop in the end for your line to run through. This will detect the lightest hits.
Be prepared to set the hook if the line goes slack, or any time your bait doesn’t look, feel, or act right.
Spring weather can be unpredictable in some parts of the country. If a cold front moves in after crappie have started their migrations, they will return to deeper water, and start all over. They will follow the same path in and out, so if you found them once, you can find them again.
Warming up: Spawning Season
When the water temperature approaches 60 degrees, females will come into shallow water, 4-6 feet deep, on flats near cover, and lay their eggs. Then, the females move off to deeper water and the males remain to guard the nest, striking viciously at anything that comes near it. Any time of day or night is productive now.
People always ask me if it is ethical to catch fish off of their nests. Crappie are a very prolific and successful species. If not harvested, they will actually overpopulate small to medium lakes, causing all the fish to be stunted and misshapen. Each female lays tens of thousands of eggs, and due to their parental protection, hundreds will survive to adulthood. With the possible exception of very heavy commercial fishing, no amount of fishing has ever had the slightest adverse effect on crappie populations. As long as you do not break the law, there is nothing unethical about harvesting spawning crappie.
This is the time of year that crappie aficionados wait for. All you have to do is find them, and they will hit virtually anything thrown at them. They will migrate along natural cover such as submerged timber, creek channels, and especially feeder creek beds, and then nest in nearby shallow flats, and especially coves with stick-up type structures such as pilings, docks, trees, rocks, etc…. They build bowl-shaped nests in gravel, sand, or substrate.
I can’t say much more. There’s not any tactics to this at all. Just find the fish, throw something at them small enough to fit in their mouths, and you will catch crappie. Line size, color, pattern, etc…are all meaningless at this time of year. This will last about two to four weeks, and then they will begin moving back to the mid-depths, along the same route they came in. All crappie will not spawn at the same time, so the action can stay fast for several weeks to months in the deep south.
If you catch a lot of smaller sized crappie, try moving out a bit deeper. Often you will get bigger fish. Cane poles and jig poles work really well during the actual spawn, because most fish will be too shallow to allow vertical fishing from a boat, without being spooked. Some may be as shallow as 2 feet. This is the best time to use flies and fly rods. Tossed jigs, small spinners, spoons or minnows all work well.
After the eggs hatch, usually within 48-53 hours, the males rejoin the females and they move off to mid-depths, relating to structure, and suspending usually near the thermocline. They will remain in this state until the water begins to cool in the fall.
Post Spawn: The Most Difficult to Catch
All the world is a circus when crappie are on the beds, creating elbow-to-elbow situations on the banks of many popular crappie lakes. The boat-melee scene from Jaws, where Bounty-Hunters throw caution to the wind to catch the marauding Carcharias is very descriptive of the scene at most crappie lakes during the spawn. It’s a good thing crappie are extremely prolific and successful spawners.
After the spawn, however, it may seem as if Jaws has really come to town and run everything else off. Post spawn crappie are the most difficult to catch of all the seasons, even for experts. It requires knowledge, good equipment, expertise and…well a little luck to locate the schools and goad them into cooperating. Here’s why:
Immediately after dropping their enormous load of fertilized eggs, the females head for the nearest vegetation or other cover. They stay there for a short time and ‘catch their breath’, in a manner of speaking, recovering a bit from the ordeal. After a short time in shallow water, the females then bug-out and head for the mid-depth structure, drop-offs or channels, via the same route they came in. The males stay and guard the nest until the eggs hatch, then guard the fry until the little guys scatter, for reasons science still cannot document (but as long as the crappie know what they’re doing…I’m good). The males then catch up with the females and, together, they will move to their summer residences. This period, thankfully, only lasts for about 4 weeks.
Obviously, one of the difficulties in post-spawn fishing is finding the schools. They are no longer concentrated in a limited area, but have hundreds of acres of water to hide in. It can really make you appreciate the Navy’s difficulties in hunting submarines. There are no more concentrated schools, and with their natural tendency to range far and wide, suspending at mid-depths, refusing to move 6″ up or down to take a bait, it can drive piscatorial pursuers insane.
The first, and most obvious place to look for post-spawn crappie is the nearest drop-off with cover, such as weeds or submerged timber.
The next place I would look is at the mouths of coves. Crappie that have entered the coves to spawn will move back to the drop-off, in weedy or woody cover after leaving the beds. They will usually be right on the edge at the mouth of the cove, where it meets the main lake.
Next, crappie that have spawned on the banks of a creek, or inlet, will move to the mouth and suspend in weedy, or brushy cover along any change of depth in bottom contour. Look for them near shelves, creek channels, bowls on the bottom, or under-cuts.
Off steep shorelines, such as cliffs or long points, crappie will spawn in the shallowest part they can access, then move to the nearest brush or weeds in deeper water to recover. Early morning, twilight and night-time are the best times to search.
If there is no cover nearby, crappie will simply find a depth with a temperature they like, and suspend in open water…..every crappie fisherman’s nightmare! When dealing with suspended fish, there are a few things to consider. Post-spawn crappie will normally suspend in 10′-20′ feet of water, but bear in mind that the clearer the water, the deeper they will suspend. Also, crappie do not suspend in the same manner as bass, or other panfish. Bass and sunfish will pick a depth, and ‘stack’ up and down it at different depths, in small groups. Crappie pick a depth and suspend side-by-side at only that depth, over an entire lake, sort of like a fish ‘blanket’. They will not change depth to feed. They will suspend over structure without actually relating to it much. This is why most late-spring fisherman are unsuccessful. They will find cover, but fish under the crappie, resulting in Angler=0, Crappie=1. As much as I like fishing, scoreless trips aren’t that much fun.
Crappie use two factors to determine at what depth they will suspend. One is the thermocline, which, if you remember from High School science classes, is where the warm, less-dense surface water meets the colder, more dense deeper water, forming an invisible line with a sudden temperature change. The other factor is PH. Crappie will look for a depth that has a PH factor they find agreeable.
To find the thermocline, Lower a temperature gauge probe down until you record a significant drop in temperature. That is the depth of the thermocline, and will be consistent over the entire lake. Some good depth-finders can also indicate the thermocline depth. The only way to know the PH of water at a given depth is to guess at it. I usually ask the local lake biologist for a break-down of PH levels at depth and go from there.
The next step after determining these values is to look for structure at these depths. Crappie are not necessarily structure-oriented at this time, but it gives you a place to start. Find several areas of structure at the correct depth and fish the open water in between them. This can often fill a stringer when nothing else works.
The most productive way to find post-spawn crappie is slow-trolling with a jig. Set your jig depth close to the thermocline and …..just troll. Double-jig rigs work really good for this. Use two different colors and rig them about 2′ apart. Troll along lines of cover and structure, creek and river mouths, off of coves, points and river-beds. Sooner or later, you will find them. Remember, depth is critical. They will not move up or down to hit your jig. Fish the jigs under a bobber to maintain the correct depth. Another neat gadget that really works is Zebco’s Crappie Classic reel. It has a depth-set feature so that when you catch a crappie, you can set the depth and when you drop it back down, it goes to the exact same depth….as I said, neat!
If you thought that finding them was all there is to it….WRONG! Post-spawn crappie are also lethargic, moody and downright uncooperative (I would be too if I only got to have fun once a year). They are most likely depressed because their party is over and it’s back to the same old, boring, suspend here, chase a minnow here, suspend there…..for another year. They are probably a little tired as well. Minnow and jig size are very important at this time of year, and smaller is better. I’ve seen times when switching from a 1/8 oz. jig to a 1/16, or even a 1/32 oz. jig was the difference between going home empty-handed, or having fish for supper. Also, use light line, no larger than 4 lb. If you want the best of both worlds, many times, I’ve rigged a small, lively minnow on a small jighead.
As a rule, when you can no longer find any beds, or fry in shallow water, the post-spawn is over and you can look for crappie in their structure-oriented summer homes.