June 08, 2020
Fascinating things happen within the shroud of a bulrush bed. Life in abundance, from tiny insects and spiders to fish fry, frogs, and turtles, to marauding bass, pike, and bowfin. They all visit rush beds for some of the same reasons. Watch spawntime crappies wend their way through these forests. Dark fish forms appear over a patch of sugar sand before evaporating back into shady curtains.
I recall whopper crappies we sunglassed one late April on a lake friends and I call the Bee Hive. Slowly moving toward one of the lake’s bulrush patches, magnificent dark silhouettes seemed so broad and substantial in the water we mistook them for bass. Can these fish actually be crappies? An old photo shows a much younger version of myself releasing an honest-to-goodness 18-incher.
For about a decade after that trip, a low water table on this spring-fed lake left bountiful beds of hardstem bulrush high and dry. Subsequent crappie spawns failed. Gradually, remnants of the big old fish disappeared, succumbing to old age as well as harvest. It’s taken 20 years to raise lake levels enough to re-flood old rush beds, allowing healthy spawns and finally beginning to repopulate the crappies. Maybe this spring we’ll see the Bee Hive return to crappie glory.
Bulrushes aren’t the only places crappies spawn. But in lakes lacking adequate shallow vegetation, particularly rhizomes of white water lily, black crappies must find alternative nesting sites. We’ve occasionally found crappies building nests on rocky, sandy shores close to a dock or fallen tree. You might also occasionally locate bedding crappies around spring-fresh pondweed (cabbage) stalks, but only if plants root in harder bottom substrates.
Even in lakes with plenty of bulrush fields, the wrong combination of depth, substrate, and intermixed plant species can prevent crappies from visiting these zones, either for spawning or for feeding. You have to get on the water, survey the terrain, and as panfish guide Brian Brosdahl says, “start shopping for the best stuff.”
Where they occur naturally, the plants anglers alternatively call rushes, reeds, tules, and pencil reeds can refer to any number of different species. Most often, they’re describing the hardstem bulrush, the tallest (up to 10 feet) and most ubiquitous species among narrow-leaved emerging aquatic plants. This important member of the sedge family is widespread across North America, absent only from Louisiana to Florida, and north to Tennessee. Occasionally intertwined with hardstem rushes are plants such as flowering rush, reed canary grass, river bulrush, and wild rice. Rice-and-rush zones often attract big crappies, even into late summer on occasion.
Mixes of hardstem bulrush with white lily or smaller watershield can harbor crappies, prespawn through spawn. Patches of small rock and submersed elodea (Canada waterweed) or northern watermilfoil within rush beds can also be crappie magnets. Though not often associated with bulrushes, one frequently attractive location is a large crater or series of craters formed by the rhizomes (root-like stems) of water lilies. Crappies hide in and hover around these shallow nooks and crannies, and also spawn there.
The same idea of relative habitat availability applies earlier in spring, when crappies make an initial push into shallow bulrush beds. Particularly where you have at least 10 feet of water within a short cast of a bulrush bed, I’ve found crappies pushing into the shallow habitat as early as a week after ice-out.
Shallow Water Migrations
Brosdahl, who also keeps a close eye on such things, offers an alternative perspective. “In lakes with very little submerged vegetation, crappies might already be up and around deeper bulrush beds as ice leaves the lake,” he says. “By deep, I’m talking any rush bed rooted in at least 5 feet of water. On most lakes, though, ice-out crappies want to be around softer, deeper, mud-bottom areas. You first start seeing waves of crappies showing up in rushes when water temps approach the mid- to upper 50s.”
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor Mike Knapp says his team of biologists almost never catches crappies in shallow survey nets until water is in the low 50s.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange calls early May an average arrival period for the first waves of prespawn crappies. I’d say Stange’s right. I also recall spring 2017 when friends and I were already on a good bulrush bite around tax day.
“May 7 has long been a memorable date for crappies for me because it was the day around 1988 when my son and I shot a segment for In-Fisherman TV, flipping small jigs for crappies in hardstem rushes on a lake in western Minnesota,” he says. “Not many good polarized glasses for kids in those days, so I taped a pair of my glasses to his head and he could see fish and caught a couple big ones for the camera.
“I remember thinking that might be a key average date to find spawning crappies in Central Minnesota, because the fish seemed fairly established in specific spots within rush beds and at least some of the males had turned darker. Now, however, I’m certain that’s too early to have spawning fish in our area. I think prespawn males often turn darker in response to their shallow habitat change.
Knapp, an astute biologist and longtime In-Fisherman confidant, delves deeper into crappie spawning behavior. “Though fish can and do change color in response to their surroundings, sexual dichromatism (sex-related color variation) relates to sexual selection between males and females,” he says. “Hormonal color change in males serves as a signal to females as well as a message to other males to seek alternate spawning sites without resorting aggression. This behavior is especially evident in sunfish populations. If color change were related directly to depth or habitat, we would expect to see it anytime through the year, in females as well as in males. But we don’t see this happening.
“Based in part on field sampling, the color change happens within a few days of actual spawning. Spawning cues are related to photoperiod (day length) and water temperature. You can expect considerable variation from one year to the next regarding timing and the duration of the spawn, which can occur at water temperatures anywhere from the upper 50s to the low 70s. In cooler, later springs, crappies likely spawn at cooler water temperatures. In warmer or earlier springs, they spawn at warmer temps. If a cool spring suddenly turns very warm, spawning can happen quickly, with females coming in and vacating the shallows within a day or two.”
Stange suggests that most of the heavy spawning activity in Central Minnesota often happens around June 7 to 10. “It takes good weather to get fish into rushes in early May to feed and lounge and, I think, to socialize with other fish. You get lots of fry around the rush beds, particularly once the water warms to near 60°F. Wind drives them back out, especially a cold north wind. They don’t like heavy rain, either. But in those conditions, it’s almost impossible to see into the rushes to know for certain if crappies stay put.”
In terms of crappie location within a vast rush bed, Stange and Brosdahl look to some of the same spots. “First, find the biggest, most expansive rush fields,” Stange says. “Then look for small, dense patches within the field. But it’s also possible for plants to grow too thick together; crappies need a little room to maneuver. Fish also don’t stick in spots that aren’t dense enough to protect them. Thicker patches protect fish from wind, too. At times, crappies are roaming more than sticking to spots. Other times, they’re moving along the front face of the beds, typically in small schools.”
Brosdahl, who’s often tasked with finding spring crappies on massive rush fields within large lakes, prefers irregular features. “Finding a little cabbage within a rush bed can be gold. Same deal if you can find some rock or a few big logs or old root balls. Blank areas or little depressions within a rush bed can also be hot. I call them Jacuzzis. A batch of pads inside or just outside the rushes indicates a small muddy area, offering a fountain of bugs coming through. I’m also finding that crappies treat Eurasian milfoil like Club Med. Bug life is insane in milfoil. Similarly, if you see midges flying out of the rushes, crappies will be there plucking them like grapes off the vine. Always, big crappies claim the best habitat first.”
Brosdahl generally likes to focus on deeper beds in 5 to 8 feet. He prefers diverse beds with a mixture of hardstem bulrushes and other plant species. Less variety means fewer nooks, crannies, and fish-holding edges. “On a big bed, I focus on areas where the rushes form a point, or even a sharp inside cup—both ideal if they’re bordered by deeper water.”
Putting baits in front of crappie snouts relates to fish position within the rush bed, seasonal phase (prespawn versus spawn) and density of the school. Prespawn fish are ghosts, often acting super spooky. Sight-fishing individual crappies isn’t the main program at this point. Rather, slow-swimming tiny jig-plastic pairings helps find fish. All you’re often looking for is one bite—or the appearance of a shallow school—to give a clue.
One great search lure that selects for bigger crappies is Z-Man’s ChatterBait Mini Flashback. The 1/16-ounce vibrating jig snakes through rush stalks and can be fished slow, with frequent twitches or lifts and falls, or with just enough forward momentum to make the fingernail-sized blade wobble and pulse. For tantalizing tail movement, replace the pre-rigged plastic minnow with the back half of a 2-inch grub or a similar softbait. Brosdahl also likes bladed jigs, often adding a tiny spinner blade to the line, just above the jighead, for added attraction.
Once you’re locked in on a pod of fish, you can work them with a slipfloat and a bait like a 1.5-inch tube or the classic Puddle Jumper. An invertebrate-imitating bait such as B-Y Baits Mega MudBug can also shine. Last spring, this bait excelled beneath a Thill Mini Stealth for me, often outcompeting other plastics.
“Let the float slide all the way down to the bait so you’re delivering a unified package into the rushes,” Brosdahl says. “Pick a small balsa float that doesn’t land like a meteorite. Cast past the zone and bring the float slowly past them. Stop and let the bait drop, stop, and glide. Set the float stop so the bait rides just inches above crappie snouts. If you’re unsure, set the stop to position the bait halfway down in the water column.”
For all rush fishing, soft, round braid excels and won’t cut into plant stalks. Six-pound Sufix 832 is as thin as 2-pound mono with extra toughness. Standard Power Pro in 5-pound test is soft and round yet even thinner than 832, an ideal choice for float fishing. Red 8-pound-test Power Pro is my favorite for casting plain jigs or lures in rushes because it floats, acting as a sort of strike indicator.
Brosdahl prefers an 8- or 9-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rod for float-fishing, or for dipping plain jigs into open pockets. The moderately-fast blanks allow for precision pitches, while tip sections are soft enough to work with braid and light, sweeping hook-sets.
For short-pitching plain jig-softbaits into pockets or along outside or inside edges, or snaking a ChatterBait mini through an open channel, I use the 7-foot St. Croix Legend Elite Panfish rod. I think it’s the nicest crappie rod I’ve ever cast. It fishes like a quill—lightweight and soft in the tip without being whippy or sloppy. This precision and sensitivity is largely due to the minimalist Fuji AT guide train running down the length of the graphite blank. You’ll find this same rod in Brosdahl’s boat.
When casting or short-pitching, sans slipfloat, Brosdahl typically uses a short fluorocarbon leader beyond the braid, via tiny swivel. “Sometimes, you need an easy snapping point, so you can sacrifice a jig and save from spooking the school.” He uses a 2-foot section of 4-pound fluoro leader material for abrasion resistance.
Relative to the inevitable snag (green bulrushes are tough), it’s always surprised me that more anglers don’t rig weedless or at least Texposed when casting to crappies in this vegetation. You can rig most any 1- to 3-inch softbait to ride the jig-hook in Texas or Texposed (slightly exposed hookpoint) fashion.
With a pointed nose that slides through vegetation, a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce Bait Rigs Slo-Poke jig is a good option for Texposing many softbaits. It’s also possible to rig by punching the jig’s eyelet sideways through the bait’s head and then impaling the hook point Texas-rig style. Pull the hook point completely through the material, so just a hangnail of a point is exposed. Hook-sets require a bit more of a forceful snap, but hookup rates shouldn’t suffer—and snags all but vanish.
Brosdahl rigs similarly when arming clients with live minnows. “I like a longer shank jighook such as a 1/32-ounce Northland RZ Jig. Using a slightly larger crappie minnow, I hook it under the jaw and out the mouth. Then turn the hook and slide the minnow up the shank and lightly plant the hook point behind the dorsal fin and back out, so the point is barely exposed.”
Stange, who’s spent appreciable time stalking spawntime black crappies, says your first order of business is getting the sun at your back, over your shoulder. “You need to see the fish before they see you,” he says. “In the morning, that means moving east to west or south to north. Later, you’re moving west to east, or southwest to northeast. Wind’s always a factor. With a slight breeze, you may need to move slowly into the wind with a bowmount trolling motor. Move forward in small increments, letting the boat barely glide. Let the boat come to a stop. Sometimes it helps to get up as high as you can on the bow to help you see fish.”
“Don’t mow the rushes like a lawn,” Brosdahl says. “Disrupting the bed or uprooting plants destroys valuable habitat. I slow-coast in with a thrust of the bowmount, then Talon-down.”
Stange: “On one occasion, a beautiful calm day with sunshine, I eventually checked every rush bed on the lake, with probably 20 beds checked and only two beds—both about 50 yards long—holding fish. One was on the south shore. Another spot was on the west shore. Shoreline location isn’t as vital as the make up of the bed.
“On May 11, with the water temperature at 50°F, the two beds were full of shallow fish. Some fish roamed the front face of the beds in small schools. Inside the rushes, many individual fish were holding stationary, here and there. I’d pitch a 1/32-ounce jig and 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow to smaller fish, eventually harvesting 10 crappies—all 10 or 11 inches—for dinner. Bigger fish went back or I just didn’t pitch to them.”
He returned to the lake on June 1 to shoot TV and found a different scenario. “Water temperature was now at 60°F or so—generally the perfect time for prespawn fish to congregate, mill, and socialize. Fishing was tougher, but we caught seven good fish needed to complete our TV segment, again pitching a tiny jig to individual fish.”
Stange: “I don’t see many situations once fish are inside a bed, when anything other than tiny jig does the job catching fish. A tiny jig is a necessity because it lands softly in front of fish. Sneaking up with the jig from behind the fish is a no-no. I often use a 9-foot medium-light-power, medium-action rod (Berkley Air Series) to pitch 1/32- or 1/64-ounce jigs on 4-pound Trilene XL. Fishing without a float lets me quickly adjust lure depth, which is critical for reluctant crappies. Again, this is all sight fishing. The jig body has to imitate a tiny fish fry, or something buggy (try a Gulp! Hellgramite trimmed to 1 inch). I also use Johnson Crappie Buster bodies, the Tube and the Shad Swimmer, but it’s the Curltail that’s truly been productive for me most of the time.”
He returned on June 6, to find water temperature at 68°F with lots of bluegills building beds just off the outer edge of the bed. “Loads of crappies were up in the rushes, spawning or finished spawning, with lots of dark males protecting nests,” he says. “We could have caught enough fish in 30 minutes to shoot another TV segment, but we did a bluegill segment instead.”
There’s always something exciting happening once fish have moved into beds. Bluegills and, on some lakes also rock bass, along with the crappies. And largemouth bass. Harvest selectively and have fun.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, contributor to all In-Fisherman publications, lives in the panfish-rich Brainerd Lakes area of Central Minnesota.