By Matt Straw
If you planned on following the spring crappie bite from Florida to the far frontier in southern Canada this spring, sorry, you're too late. I'm kidding. But I'm not. All will be explained as we track prespawn crappie movements from Florida to Canada, spotlighting unique and unusual tactics along the way.
Tactics morph gradually for spring crappies. The process unfolds over decades. Today, spider-rigging seems to predominate from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the southern tier of states. It's been the primary tactic for so many and for so long it's hard to remember things being done differently. What will the next transformation be? Some of the best crappie fishermen we know have a few suggestions.
Roger Bullock, retired postal worker, hunter of big fish, and longtime correspondent to In-Fisherman, sees crappies spawning in December every year. I talked to him in late November. "It's 79°F out right now," he laughed. "When the water finally gets around to dropping and hits 70°F, usually in December, crappies begin spawning. They stop spawning in early January and don't pick up again for six weeks or more. The biggest spawning push takes place between late February and early March. Up by Tallahassee they start later than down here at Vero Beach."
Florida crappies don't need to move far to reach the shallows. Most habitats are no deeper than 15 feet. But classic prespawn aggression becomes noticeable in February, when the water starts to warm again. "We have some 17-inch crappies in the Stick Marsh," Bullock says. "You want to be there when they turn on. Most people spider-rig with minnows.
Night-fishing is common in spring. I use tubes or marabou jigs, but I put a safety-pin spinner ahead of them a lot and present the package with a float-and-fly rod. They really like jigs with a spinner in front during the Prespawn Period. They're aggressive at that point.
When they're actually spawning you can move it even faster, as they get even more aggressive in the warming water. Most of our lakes are tannic-stained with maidencane on the edges. Some have flooded timber, and most are very shallow. They spawn in shallow brush."
Bullock uses a Northland Tackle Mimic Minnow Spin or a Strike King Minnow Spin to increase the range of attraction. "My Bass Pro Shops 9½-foot float-and-fly rod is long enough that I can put an angle on it and lift big crappies over the brush," he says. "It's great for crappies all year. I use 8-pound mono to negotiate weeds and brush. I use it for tubes, grubs, suspending baits, and cranks later in the year."
The chief of police in Derma, Mississippi, moonlights as a crappie guide. "I've been guiding for 9 years," says John Harrison of JH Guide Service. "I've fished Grenada for over 40 years. I guide 12 months for crappies on Sardis, Enid, Arkabutla, and Grenada lakes.
"The earliest shallow movements in these lakes happen around the first of March," Harrison reports. "The best prespawn fishing occurs mid-March, depending on weather. When the water hits the upper-50°F range, males flock to the banks. When it hits 63°F, the females begin to arrive. The timing is similar on all four lakes."
Harrison's technique may not be new, but where he applies it is rather unique. "In March, I go as far up a creek channel as the boat can go, where the water is the warmest," he says. "I typically start in about 3 feet. As the water warms, I may move into 1½ feet of water, jigging vertically. Even in 8 or 10 inches, I vertically jig.
I look for stumps with branches and piles of trash on them. I call them drifts. A log floats down in high water and lodges on a stump. Once something hangs up there, it begins catching everything that drifts down. The biggest pile of debris is what we're looking for."
Harrison doesn't jig right under the boat, but reaches out with a 10-foot B&M BBUL (Bug's Best Ultralight), with 8- or 10-pound test in that heavy cover, jigging with a Southern Pro or Mister Twister 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs. "A heavier jig sometimes shakes loose better than a 1/16-ounce one," he notes. "I tip it with a Mister Twister 2-inch Sassy Shad or 2-inch Southern Pro tube and fish all the way around the drift. There's usually a sweet spot and crappies hold around it; males pack in tight to small areas.
"They back into the cover and quit biting during cold fronts, but it has to get really cold for a week to pull them out of a good drift. They spawn in those leaves, sticks, and limbs beginning in the mid-60°F range, usually in the last week of March to the first week in April."
Mitch Looper, a PRADCO pro staffer and native of Arkansas, starts crappie fishing in spring with a 41â'„2-inch Smithwick Rogue. "The biggest fish eat it," he says. "I never know what I'm fishing for until the first fish hits. When bass move in, crappies move out, and you have to move out with them to the creek channels. It's a week-to-week thing. This little dance between bass and crappies extends from 40°F water in January to 65°F water in March. Sometimes bass push the shad right out of a cove, and the crappies leave.
"It happens 2 or 3 times every winter," he adds. "Bass crash in like bulls in a China shop and eventually chase all the shad out. That's why crappies are the ultimate predators, in my mind. They hang around the edges and don't disperse the school. It might take 2 or 3 days for shad to regroup after bass crash into them in a cove. The bass spawn first, and crappies hold in the adjacent channel, moving back in as bass slip into a postspawn mode."
Looper likes Lake Hinkle these days, a 964-acre slab factory that also offers fine bass fishing. "Crappies first move up in January, setting up in depths of 5 or 6 feet," Looper says. "They remain as long as the bait's there. If the shad are in cover, crappies are in cover. If shad are in the open, crappies move there, too. February and March are good months."
A key location is a cove extending off a creek channel. "They go where the main river or creek channel runs close to a cove," he says. "It's even better if the creek channel makes a bend toward the cove. Water is generally 6 feet deep. They hold wherever the shad are in that cove, so you have to find them.
"A Rogue on 8-pound mono always seems to attract the biggest crappies in the group, many over 2 pounds. I fish it with a snap-snap cadence followed by a long pause. Once I find fish, I begin downsizing — first to a Rebel Tracdown Minnow. At 2¼ inches, it weighs 1/8 ounce. I tie it on 4-pound mono and fish it with a medium-light 6½-foot rod with a size 40 Quantum spinning reel. That wide spool provides better casting distance.
"I switch to a 4-inch Kalin's Grub on a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce head," he continues. "I swim it along at a slow, steady pace, just like I would for smallmouth bass. Then I drop to a 3-inch Yum Tube on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce head. It seems the shad always relate to a corner or inside turn. It could be the corner of a weedbed, the edge of a channel, an inside turn on a brushline, or merely a bend in contours between 4 and 6 feet.
"Shad and crappies find the warmest water in that cove, when there's a temperature difference," Looper adds. "I pay attention to the wind. The earliest spawning activity takes place as the water reaches 68°F, usually during a full or new moon. They move back in to spawn in those same coves."
Famous angler and outdoor writer Jim Gronaw lives on the Mason-Dixon line. "Mid-Atlantic prespawn crappie activity starts as early as mid-February and as late as the last week of March," he says. "By the first of April, crappies are in prespawn phase from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. In Delaware, where winters are mild, February is good, with many fish shallow and spawning by the first week of April. Throughout the Mid-Atlantic, water temps in the upper-50°F to mid-60°F range mean consistent action."
Gronaw covers a lot of ground. In Virginia, he likes Kerr Reservoir and Lake Anna, where crappies move shallow around mid-March and stay through April. In Delaware, he fishes tidal flows on the Broadkill, Marshyhope, and Christiana rivers north of Richmond. "Maryland's most overlooked crappie fishing takes place in the many tidal rivers and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay system, including the Pocomoke River, on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore."
In Pennsylvania, Pinchot Lake in Pinchot State Park, near Lewisberry, is a favorite haunt. "Every year some 16- to 18-inch giants show up and the lake record stands at 4 pounds. It's a good spot for trophy hunters."
Tactics are similar wherever he travels in this region. "Jig-minnow combos, taking advantage of the local species, are as effective as everywhere else in the country," he says. "In Delaware, we use small tidal minnows, known as killifish or 'bull minnows.' Because active crappies are always shallow in these waters, we use my 1/32- to 1/16-ounce River Critter jigs under fixed floats. In other areas, we use slipfloats to fish brush that's a little deeper, but a fixed float works best for active, shallow crappies."
In central Minnesota, where I live, ice generally leaves the lakes between early and mid-April, sometimes not until May. You can find big fish on Leech and Red lakes, and on the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Crappies are already shallow, under the ice, before ice-out in many lakes, though spawning doesn't take place until late May in most cases.
A 5-hour drive north takes us to the crappie frontier. In the bays of Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, Ontario, ice-out occurs around the end of April most years, and spawning doesn't take place until early to mid-June.
Like Looper, I want to find fish fast. The areas we hunt are huge. The tactical key has nothing to do with rods, reels, lines, or lures. The key is on the console. Following temperature gradients leads you to the hottest prespawn bites fastest. Until water temperatures rise over 60°F, a 1°F temperature change can be pivotal. You need to watch the temp gauge and find the warmest water in northern bays or secluded basins that warm fastest. If the entire bay is 49°F, a spot the size of a dump truck that's 51°F could hold seemingly every crappie in the area, likely the most dense concentration found all year.
And, like Looper, I use hardbaits to find crappies quickly, then I swim grubs to work them over. Once they've decided to move into areas less than 8 feet deep, they're aggressive enough to catch with lures most of the time. I scale back a bit, using G. Loomis' new TSR 791, rated for 4-pound PowerPro braid that throws a little #4 Rapala X-Rap out of sight. I reel it down to depth then barely twitch it between long pauses. I make one more little snap, followed by another pause, then reel in while stepping on the trolling motor. Looking for aggressive northern crappies against rocky banks and old reed beds, the lure doesn't need to stay in a spot for long.
Every expert quoted here mentioned how unstable conditions or predators can drive crappies to deeper water. When walleyes and smallmouths chase them from the shallows, you find crappies, marking like Christmas trees on sonar, in 12 to 25 feet of water. We employ the same tactics we use to catch them under the ice. Using the 7-foot 9-inch Loomis outfit, I vertically jig a Northland Forage Minnow, PK Spoon, or Lindy Rattlin' Flyer. Crappies stage on the closest inside turn of deeper water bending toward a shallow bay.
If you missed that December bite in Florida, or the January bite in Arkansas, no worries. The prespawn crappie train is rolling through town almost everywhere on the continent right now.
*Matt Straw is an In-Fisherman field editor and dedicated year-round panfish angler.