The rising sun shines brightly through the cypress trees as my son Josh and I slide a johnboat into the oxbow lake. I paddle the boat across the lake while Josh ties a jig to the line on a long pole and slides into his waders. The boat serves merely to transport us from the ramp to shallows on the oxbow's far side. Today, we'll wade fish.
The author shows why many crappie anglers love spring fishing -- lots of fish on the stringer.
Conditions -- water temperature, day length and other factors -- must be perfect for us to succeed. And on this day, they are. We see crappie as soon as we start wading.
The water they are in is just inches deep. In most places, it's not deep enough to hide the crappies' dorsal fins. Even where it is, we can see swirls the fish make as they move in the shallows.
A flip of the line places Josh's jig beside one swirl. Immediately, a crappie nabs the lure. The jig pole arcs as Josh lifts the crappie, removes the hook and places the panfish in the fish basket tied to his waist.
I've chosen a different tactic-pitching a Crappie Slider rigged on an ultralight spinning outfit. This proves equally effective. I cast to one fin and get an immediate strike. It's a dandy fish, but when I reach for it, the crappie thrashes and escapes.
Not to worry, though. I'll have more chances. I can see crappie in every direction.
After an hour of fishing, my fish basket is getting heavy. When I reach the boat, Josh is finishing his count. "Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three ... twenty-three crappie. Not too bad, huh?"
I had twenty-two.
The Spring Invasion
Crappie invade shallow-water haunts along the banks of lakes during the spring spawning season. This makes them much easier to find and catch than during other seasons, and results in more anglers fishing for crappie during this period.
Several spawning events help account for the good-luck days anglers experience in spring.
Some crappie anglers says its spring crappie time when the dogwoods are blooming, but a more reliable indicator is a water temperature around 56 to 60 degrees.
First, during the weeks just before the actual spawn, male and female crappie go through a feeding frenzy to offset their reproductive growth spurt. They're also trying to add energy reserves for the stressful spawning period when activity increases. Consequently, crappie feed more, and this is a good time to catch fish.
Another fact in the angler's favor is the concentration of fish during the spawn. There may be dozens of nests in a relatively small area, and there may be several beds along a 100-yard stretch of shoreline. Because crappie are concentrated in shallows, they're much simpler to find.
Male crappie vigorously defend their nests from egg predators or anything they perceive might be an egg eater. If an intruder gets close, the defending male chases it, nipping until it leaves the area.
Crappie anglers can turn this aggression into a fishing boon. Many crappie taken during this period strike the bait not because it represents food but because it has intruded into their nesting territory. Males protect the just-hatched fry and continue attacking anything near the nest. Therefore they remain unusually susceptible to baits and lures for a week or more after nesting activities end.
When and Where To Go
A clear understanding of factors that trigger crappie spawning is essential for successful spring fishing.
Water temperature is one primary key. Most experts quote a figure of 56 degrees as the temperature at which nesting activity begins. But spawning's peak may not occur until the temperature climbs to 58 or 60 degrees.
Arkansas crappie guide Darryl Morris uses a simple slip-bobber rig to nab spring crappie around man-made fish attractors.
The exact time when the water reaches this temperature varies from year to year, latitude to latitude, and one body of water to another. It is important, therefore, that crappie anglers determine when ideal spawning temperatures are most likely to occur and do some on-the-water investigation that will lead to a visit during peak nesting time.
Looking at sunrise-sunset tables can be helpful. I learned this from Steve Wunderle who wrote the excellent guide, New Techniques That Catch More Crappie.
In this book, Steve tells of a study done on Missouri's Table Rock Lake by fisheries biologist Dr. Fred Vasey. Vasey learned that "The first [crappie] nests to appear had an average of 13.2 daylight hours," and "The last nesting sites occurred when the daylight averaged 14.6 hours." In other words, you can determine when spawning will begin and end, and therefore postulate when it might peak, by calculating the number of hours between sunrise and sunset on a given day.
Anglers also should remember that crappie almost invariably nest in shallow coves protected from wind and wave action. Finding areas with these characteristics is the key to finding crappie beds. Nests often are near a log or other large object over a bottom of sand, fine gravel or interwoven plant roots. The depth where nests are found can vary considerably, from less than 1 foot to as much as 20 feet. But most will be in 1 to 5 feet of water.
Several nuances of the spawn may not be readily apparent. One is the fact that the biggest crappie often are in deeper water when smaller males are first preparing nest sites. For this reason, it's smart to try fishing deeper areas away from shallow-water beds, sometimes as deep a 7 to 15 feet.
Another fact to remember is that spawning activity is spread out over a period of time. Female crappie don't all lay eggs at the same time, and an individual female may deposit eggs in batches over a period of two weeks. This assures successful reproduction and provides anglers outstanding shallow-water fishing opportunities for an extended period.
Crappie often spawn in water so shallow it's difficult to get a boat to them. In this situation, wade fishing may be the best alternative.
If you've fished a body of water before and know where crappie beds were previously, return to those areas. Crappie nest in the same locales year after year.
You also can examine a bottom contour map to pinpoint hotspots. Look for underwater creek channels near shore. Crappie follow channels from deep water to shallow, and disperse on both sides of the channel/spawning cover junction if conditions are suitable. Shallow water in backs of feeder-creek bays often proves good as well, as do migration corridors leading to shallow cover -- stump rows, old fence lines, weed lines, ditches and the like. The key combination is shallow water with abundant cover and a firm, not silty, bottom.
Some anglers prefer a long jigging pole or cane pole to swing a jig or minnow to prime fishing spots in shallows. Others prefer a spinning or spincast outfit to present the bait from a greater distance. Both work great.
One of my favorite set-ups is a Charlie Brewer Weedless Crappie Slider fished with ultralight tackle. Because it's weedless, I can cast and retrieve this lure without worry of hangups. I cast the Slider just beyond the spot where I see a fish then bring it back past the fish.
One of the author's favorite spring crappie lures is Charlie Brewer's Weedless Crappie Slider.
If the water is clear but nests are in brushy areas or weedbeds, I use a jigging pole and try to place a minnow or jig on top of fish I see. I look into every cranny in cover for crappie hovering over their nests, then work the bait back to the fish and lower it into the water. No movement of the bait is necessary. If the crappie are feeding or guarding nests, strikes come quickly.
In many lakes where standing timber has rotted away, shallow man-made attractors of cedars, bamboo or old Christmas trees often draw spawning crappie. A top rig here is one used by crappie guides Jerry Blake and Darryl Morris on Arkansas' lakes Greeson and DeGray. A Thill 1/2-inch, pencil-style slip float is rigged beneath a bobber stop and above a No. 6 Eagle Claw Aberdeen hook. A split shot is added between hook and float, and the hook is baited with a live minnow. Several rigged poles are placed in holders, the bobber stops are positioned at the depth where crappie are likely to be, then using a trolling motor, the guides slowly circle each attractor. Crappie often pull several floats down simultaneously, a testament to this tactic's effectiveness.
Many spawning crappie move into extreme shallows in flooded timber that can't be reached with a boat. To catch these fish, slip into some waders and move slowly through brushy backwaters, using a long pole to place minnows or jigs near cover or casting a Crappie Slider to swirls in the water that reveal fish. Don't rush, or you could trip on a stump or log. Carry a basket or stringer for your catch, and use a staff to provide support and probe the water ahead.
There's no doubt about it: spring crappie fishing is the best there is. Anglers who fish their favorite waters this time of year will find it much easier to find and hook lots of these fun-to-catch panfish. And by applying the tips provided here, your catch rate should improve even more.
Don't miss out on the year's best action. Be on the water when crappie are on their beds and take advantage of this spring fishing bonanza.
Keith Sutton is author of "The Crappie Book." Autographed copies of his book can be ordered by visiting his website www.catfishsutton.com.