Springtime is crappietime. From Florida to Ontario, anglers eagerly await the arrival of the crappie spawn in shallow water. As the spawn approaches, males don their dark courting colors. They bite like tigers, especially after they select a spawning site and begin clearing a nest and defending it. Females can remain edgy, but they often bite carefully presented baits quite well. The fishing is relatively easy, a day on the water often ending with a meal or two of one of the most succulent tastes freshwater offers.
Water temperatures around the upper-50°F to 60°F range begin to bring crappies shallow into spawning areas. Peak spawning activity generally occurs at water temps of 68°F to 72°F for both black and white crappies. In southern waters, spawning may begin in late February, while in the northern tier of the crappie’s range, early June is more typical.
The spawn is a relatively brief and variable period. In smaller bodies of water, the bulk of spawning may occur within about a 2-week window. In huge reservoirs and sprawling lakes, which might encompass slightly different climates between two distant ends of the lake, the Spawn Period could last a month to six weeks. In Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota-Ontario border, for example, crappies in the far southern part of the lake finish spawning while those in the far northern portion are still in prespawn mode.
Crappies generally choose deeper water and thicker cover for spawning than other members of the sunfish family, depth affected by water clarity. In average clarity, crappies generally spawn at about 3 to 6 feet. In muddy conditions, the bulk of the spawn may take place in water less than 2 feet deep. Light penetration down to the depth of eggs provides warmth for optimum development. If the hatch is delayed, survival can be affected, and poor light conditions can interfere with feeding of larval crappies.
Bays, coves, creek arms, and backwaters with ample cover and the right substrates draw the most crappies. In natural lakes, vegetation—cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and lilypads—keys crappie location, and in reservoirs submerged brush and stumpfields are prime.
Nest building by male crappies usually begins as water temperature reaches about 60°F to 65°F. Groups of males move into a reedbed or stumpfield and establish spawning territories. By this time males have turned dark as hormonal changes begin to occur. Females, holding on the perimeter of the spawning area, have usually darkened, although not as dark as males. Females are distinctively plump, bloated with ovaries full of eggs.
Within the larger territory, males sweep nests over substrates made of marl, gravel, or silt, with firmer substrates generally preferred. Nests are 8 to 12 inches in diameter and tend to be circular or oblong. Nests lack the distinctive perfect circle pattern of bass and bluegills, and rarely feature a distinct lip or rim.
As females approach spawning areas, individual males herd them into their territories and eventually over the nest. Spawning pairs bump their abdominal areas together for a few seconds and release eggs and sperm. The dance may be repeated up to dozens of times over the course of a few hours, or the whole spawn for a pair might conclude after only about 20 minutes.
Eggs are adhesive and slightly less than a millimeter in diameter. After spawning the female moves on and can be driven over another nest when she enters the territory of another male. Females might spawn in several nests by the time her eggs are spent. Multi-nest spawning can help ensure continued genetic diversity within populations and that at least some eggs of each female hatch.
If spawning habitat is limited, crappies from different areas of the lake may wash over it in waves. The first to arrive spawn earliest, perhaps in the low-60°F range, and, as other areas of the lake warm at varying rates, more crappies continue to appear and spawn in the same area. This might leave the impression that the spawn is a long drawn-out affair for individual fish, but that isn’t the case. Each individual female generally finishes her duties within a day.
Spawning concludes as females move to post-spawn positions. In a natural lake, weededges along dropoffs usually key location. In reservoirs, crappies move to timber or brush cover along creek channels in major creek arms.
Males guard nests, fanning eggs frequently to keep them oxygenated and clean until they hatch, which can take about 2 days at 70°F but several days at cooler temperatures. Post hatch, males may remain several days to guard the fry eventually moving to deeper cover to group with females. Fry feed on zooplankton in the shallows, ultimately transitioning to open water where they drift for the first summer, continuing to feed on zooplankton and other invertebrates, or even small fish depending on how big the young crappies are.
Look to catch spawning crappies nearshore and relatively shallow. Patches of bulrushes, sedge, and maindencane (collectively known as reeds) in 2 to 5 feet of water are common in natural lakes. Reeds attract spawning crappies because they provide cover and grow in ideal substrates.
Hunt early spawners in canals dug for boat slips. Check bays and other backwaters before moving to the main lake or reservoir. These areas are usually protected from wind and often have appropriate depth, cover, and bottom type for crappie spawning. Note prevailing winds. Northside coves and bays are generally more protected, but check the south side, too.
Reach crappies at the edge of emergent vegetation with spinning tackle and small jigs. Longer rods with light tip actions cast tiny jigs well, yet provide power to lead big crappies away from thick cover. Jigs weighing 1/32 and 1/16 ounce sink slowly and swim well on 4-pound-test line. An 1/8-ounce lure fishes well on 6- or 8-pound line, heavier line being good insurance for pounder-or-better crappies near abrasive cover.
Cast jigs into reeds and swim them back slowly, keeping your rod tip high to keep the lure moving along off bottom. Marabou and hair jigs remain staples in white, pink and chartreuse, as are jigheads paired with softbaits like curlytail plastics and tubes in the same colors. Mini swimbaits are emerging as other top options.
If crappies are shying from a fast swimming bait, try fishing the jig under a small float, either a slipbobber or fixed float, to keep the jig in the strike zone longer. Retrieve the float a foot to swim the jig then pause, letting the jig slowly settle. Another float pairing is a minnow presented on an Aberdeen hook with a small splitshot pinched about 8 inches to a foot above the bait.
Crappies spawning in interior sections of thick weed patches are often plentiful but hard to reach and overlooked. To reach these crappies, use long rods, telescoping and multi-piece versions, to dabble jigs and livebaits into weed pockets. Position the bait beside individual reeds and on or near crappie nests. Methodically work over multiple spots, as bedding fish may not move far to strike a lure.
Reservoirs are often too murky to see fish on beds, so search areas that should attract spawning crappies—water in the 2- to 5-foot zone with cover, along with protection from wind. Expect lots of crappies if the habitat is right and water temperatures are in the mid-60°F range. Keep moving until you locate fish. If you aren’t catching crappies where you are, the brushpile or submerged tree 50 yards down the bank could be loaded with fish.
Shoreline and submerged brush make ideal spawning cover, and stumps and snags also attract spawners. Traditional slipfloat methods using split shot to drop livebaits into brush and to vertically probe adjacent to snags and stumps with jigs are time-tested methods in impoundments. Use a trolling motor to fish from stump to stump in upper reaches of timber-filled creek arms and bays.
Swimming presentations also can be top options. Pitch 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jigs paired with plastic tails to brushpiles and slowly retrieve the jig over the top of submerged tangles, letting it fall along the edges. A tough 6- to 8-pound line allows the hook to straighten when snagged.
The flash from a small inline spinner or safety-pin style spinnerbait such as a Beetlespin can be irresistible to aggressive males. Fish them along weed- and woodcover and over brush. Like other swimming lures, spinners make for excellent search lures over vast shallow flats, stumpfields, and for locating bedding fish along shorelines.
Concentrations of spawning crappies combined with their aggressive nature this season often bring limit catches. Where crappies overpopulate, keeping what you catch is often best for the fishery. Yet quality crappie populations can be vulnerable to overharvest, particularly in infertile waters and those with marginal habitats, or where a single strong year-class makes up the bulk of the fishery.
Even the most productive fisheries are susceptible to overexploitation as news of angling success spreads, attracting more pressure with even more crappies in livewells. It’s not unheard of for a crappie population’s annual sustainable harvest to be surpassed even before spring ends. What’s more, many of the daily bag limits for crappies today aren’t low enough to decrease harvest enough in situations where it needs to be substantially reduced.
One more crappie in hand, and you’re literally left “holding the bag” about which and how many fish to keep. Release the largest crappies, keeping enough smaller ones for a meal or two. It’s all about selective harvest. It’s all about the future of crappietime.
Check Spawning Stage
To tell if a crappie is actively spawning, hold it on it’s back and run your thumb and index finger from just behind the gills to the vent. Use moderate pressure and repeat 3 to 4 times. Spawning males readily release milt, a milky white fluid. Females emit eggs only if close to ovulation or actively spawning. Prespawn fish look plump, but won’t release eggs or sperm. Post-spawn fish look thin and ragged and may have swollen vents. Post-spawn females might secrete only an orange fluid.
Fecundity & Eggs
Fecundity is a measure of egg production per individual. Fecundity increases with crappie size, although it varies among crappies of the same size. A 6-inch crappie might contain 10,000 to 15,000 eggs, while a 16-incher can produce over 250,000. Mature eggs are slightly less than 1 mm in diameter, and in some cases crappies have been shown to have multimodal egg size distributions, suggesting than some individuals might spawn more than once in a single season. Immature eggs can be resorbed at the end of the spawning season.
Compatibility between shoreline development and nest site selection by black crappies is apparently low, report Minnesota DNR researchers Jeffrey Reed and Donald Pereira, based on their study of nesting crappies in Minnesota lakes.* Black crappies nested in 1 to 5 feet of water with a preference to nest near shorelines with canopy, emergent vegetation, and understory, while avoiding submergent vegetation and developed shorelines. Nests adjacent to developed shoreline were deeper than those along undeveloped areas.
Crappies strongly selected sites of hardstem bulrush for spawning, and undeveloped shorelines are more likely to have stands of hardstem bulrush and other emergent vegetation. The researchers conclude that as current development trends continue, loss of emergent vegetation may crowd spawning crappies into smaller areas of smaller, fragmented stands. Concentrating spawning crappies and spawning at sites exposed to wind and waves could make them more susceptible to recruitment failures.
- The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com, 807/466-7134.