Crappies love cover, most of the time. Sure, I've found them bunched in open water in both summer and winter. And they sometimes scatter across shallow flats. When given their druthers, though, they nestle among branches or lurk by stands of tall vegetation.
To fish this sort of cover, long poles excel, the reason they've been popular among crappie anglers since our ancestors trimmed willow branches and made sinewy lines from bark. Today's no different, except for the fine new tools we dip and dabble with.
On backwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin, black crappies push into sloughs and old oxbows soon after river ice breaks up. They head for black-bottom areas with old marsh grass, stumps, and beaver lodges — spots you can't even get to in July in boats larger than a kayak.
When they first arrive, fish hold in deeper channels and holes that may separate floating bogs, or in feeder creeks margined by lilypad rhizomes. In darker waters, pole fishing works well, as productive locations typically are confined. It's often best to anchor since fish can be spooky. Moreover, crappies continue to cycle into these areas, so it's often better to sit and wait than to run from spot to spot.
As vegetation sprouts and thickens, poles continue to be ideal for probing pockets back behind the edge of bulrushes, wild rice, and lilypads. Among emergent vegetation like bulrushes, you often can find a lane to swing a lure, using the pole's length to propel it back into a productive hole. In thicker grass like cattails and maidencane, you may have to lower baits vertically into the spot.
In reservoirs across the Heartland, brushpiles have become key crappie locations from early spring through winter. Anglers place them from shallow banks out to creek channels. During low water, the brushy tip-tops give them away, but sonar reveals deeper piles on key spots. The best tool for finding brushpiles is side-imaging sonar — Lowrance's new Gen2 HDS units with StructureScan or Humminbird's Side Imaging Sonar. You can nearly count how many crappies inhabit a particular pile.
To fish deep brushpiles, most anglers favor poles in the 8- to 12-foot range equipped with spinning reels. Open the bail and the jig plummets straight to the bottom, sometimes between limbs, down where the big ones hold. Experiment with depth, though, as crappies may suspend well above bottom at times, and sometimes wander out beyond the edges of the pile, though still relating to it.
In spring, shallow piles typically are best, as fish move to warm pockets and creek banks. Fish may spawn around shallow piles as well. During winter, piles from 20 to 30 feet often are productive.
Piers and boat docks represent key crappie cover on lakes and reservoirs. Pitch jigs beneath docks or adjacent to boat lifts and in slips to entice fish. In some reservoirs, floating docks are more common and crappies flock to the shade and baitfish they offer. While some anglers shoot jigs between floats and next to platforms, poles work, too. Swinging a jig with an 8- to 10-foot pole effectively places it into corners. Then, once it's several feet down, let it glide back toward you.
To reach beyond a dock structure or far beneath a walkway, reel the jig to the tiptop, position the pole, then release the bail to drop the lure into a shaded nook. Let it fall to the level of the fish and keep probing. Crappies tend to bite right away in those situations so keep moving until you find a concentration of fish.
Around shallow docks in natural lakes, crappies may hold in weed clumps next to or below docks. It often pays to use a slipfloat or fixed float to keep baits above bottom, allowing time for fish to notice them and come to feed. Pitch the rig into place and let it rest.
Sun and wind often determine crappie position around docks. When wind pushes into docks, they often feed on the outside edges, while in calm, sunny conditions, they push deeper beneath platforms and canopies.
Several companies offer great selections of poles ideal for probing crappie lairs of all sorts. B 'n' M Pole Company's name says it all, and their large pro staff continues to expand their lineup, including specialized models for dabbling and dipping. Their new 8-foot Buck's New Graphite Jig Pole and 10-foot Buck's Gold Jig Pole are particularly well suited to this technique.
With the addition of Wally Marshall to the pro staff and design team, Lew's becomes a big player in the crappie market. Available for this season are Wally Marshall Signature Lite Rods and Signature Series Crappie Rods, along with some for trolling. Models from 4½ to 14 feet are available, in light and medium-light actions. Cabela's maintains their tradition of producing an array of panfish poles, with the Classic Crappie Pole available in lengths from 10 to 16½ feet, as well as the popular Cabela's Crappie Rod by B 'n' M, in lengths from 7 to 12 feet. And Shakespeare's Crappie Hunter poles range from 9 to 12 feet.
Pole fishing is fun for anglers of all ages. Telescopic models store anywhere so you're always ready to whip one out and start dippin' and lippin' some fine crappies. Dip Fishing Crappie
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
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
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com