Roger Bullock, Greenbrier, Arkansas, is about the most traveled angler I know, save for fishing-show hosts and tournament pros who travel and fish for a living. In his career, he's caught 242 fish species from marine and fresh waters, the largest a 740-pound white sturgeon over 11 feet long. But he's at least as proud of having caught both black and white crappie over 3 pounds, and spends a large portion of his time pursuing these fascinating panfish.
Depending on where you fish, the period from February into April covers the transition from winter location patterns to the Prespawn for early spring crappies. In February, even late January, dedicated crappie anglers begin their annual quest for a hot bite and for giant fish. Roger Bullock looks to several key locations in this coldwater period of the pre-Prespawn.
Marinas and Boat Docks -- According to Bullock, there's a marked similarity between crappie behavior in summer and winter -- they crave the cover of boat docks and the overhead shading provided by big marinas in those divergent seasons. "Docks with brushpiles under them may attract more fish at times, but almost any marina or dock complex holds crappie during the late-winter period," Bullock notes. "In large, deep reservoirs, marinas located near creek channels typically produce better, while in shallower lakes, they all are worth checking. Also, lighted docks typically hold more fish, both night and day.
"More so than bass, crappie use ambush tactics to feed, and shadows give them a predatory advantage in sneaking up on baitfish. I can't tell you how many crappie trips have been saved by visiting marinas when offshore fish proved elusive. I've seen it happen from Lake Shasta in California to Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, and at many lakes in between. And though we're getting ahead of the story, when severe cold fronts drive crappies out of the shallows as they get ready to spawn, they often head to nearby marinas and suspend under floating docks."
Plankton and shad are attracted to lighted areas at night, and crappies inevitably follow. The fish become accustomed to feeding in that area and remain for extended periods. The late winter marina bite may last until water warms into the 50F range, summoning fish to shallower locales.
But in many highland and hill-land impoundments of the central U.S. and mid-South, this pattern can last several months. In some areas, marina operators take advantage of the crappie's habits and set up winter fishing stations at marinas, complete with hanging brushpiles, bait for sale, convenient lighting, fish cleaning stations, and even heated rails.
Creek Channels and Bluff Banks -- During this period, you can also find crappies bunched up along creek channels, holding from 15 to 50 feet down, depending on reservoir type, structure, and position of shad schools. In clearer waters, schooling typically is deeper during the day, as well. Bullock also looks to bluffs as a key early prespawn location.
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"Crappies are prone to dramatic shifts in depth," he says, "and vertical structure like a bluff bank allows them to shift shallower and deeper without having to move over a broad area. In Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River, it's not uncommon to find fish 12 feet down one day and holding at 40 feet the next; at night, they may feed near the surface. Crappies shift depth in response to temperature changes or to follow the shad, which in turn are tracking zooplankton."
Bluff banks abound on reservoirs throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, even Georgia and Alabama, as well as Arkansas and Missouri. And in western impoundments, steep canyon walls or plateaus function the same way, attracting crappie during this period.
As Bullock notes, crappies like to sit quietly and wait until baitfish wander close, then slip up to inhale them. Bluff banks endowed with chunk rock, fallen trees, or brush offer crappies little nooks to await their prey and are key prespawn locations.
APPROACHING THE SPAWN
"One of the best all-time spring crappie locations is a bluff area that tapers shallower at one end," Bullock continues, "leading to a pocket with timber, stumps, or brush. The fish gradually move closer to the bay as the water warms, then into it as the urge to spawn increases. If a cold spell drives them from the shallows, chances are they moved back to that bluff, where you can continue to catch them."
As waters warm through the 50F range, crappies move shallower, generally following routes that offer cover -- downed timber or stumps, or structure that also provides vertical edges and cover such as major points, rock ridges, or creek channels. Under a sustained warming trend, crappie may move directly into shallow protected pockets long before the actual spawn, taking advantage of minnows and schooling baitfish that gather there. These spots typically hold crappies of all sizes, but most anglers primarily catch little ones. Bigger crappies are notoriously spooky, shying from shadows, boat noises, trolling motors, or lure splashes.
Recognizing this tendency, Bullock has defined times that offer better odds for outsized fish. "The bigger ones come up and are easier to catch on warm, cloudy afternoons or at night," he says. "Cold wind or rain associated with cold fronts chases them back to their deeper staging areas."
In addition to frequent cold fronts, substantial water-level fluctuations also stymie a good spring crappie bite. Reservoir management agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may alter water levels substantially in spring, often lowering the water level in anticipation of heavy rain. Such a drawdown occurred last spring when Editor In Chief Doug Stange visited Arkansas to fish with Bullock at DeGray Lake. An abrupt, 3-foot water-level drop shifted the prespawn fish to deep weedbeds, where they went into a sulk.
Bullock notes, too, that in another type of prime crappie habitat, oxbow lakes, rising water can be equally damaging to a good bite. "Oxbows, such as those in Mississippi and Arkansas associated with the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, can be affected by heavy rains far upstream. The rush of cold water enters the backwaters, cooling them and elevating the water. You can forget about catching much for days after that occurs.
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"Be patient, as the best prespawn oxbow bite typically occurs when the water level remains stable, or falls slowly several weeks after a big rise. If you live nearby, you can track the flow. If you're on a trip, you'd better have back-up plans to check other types of lakes to the north or south.
"Oxbows not accessible to the main river remain more stable in temperature and water level, and they offer more predictable spring action. When oxbows are right, they offer the best crappie fishing you'll ever see, both for numbers and for big fish."
For coldwater crappie fishing, traditionalists rely on a dropper rig and minnow, switching to floats as fish move shallower. Bullock counters that even at night in cold water, crappies are suckers for a light-colored jig cast and retrieved slowly, particularly around lighted areas. "In bright moonlight, crappies move shallow and eat jigs fished with a very slow retrieve near the surface, over water less than about 7 feet deep. They move in to feed on baitfish, using their excellent low-light vision. My favorite colors are pearltreuse, hot pink, and white, maybe with a little flashabou or crystal flash tied in the tails.
"My two top soft plastics are the Panfish Shad Assassin from Bass Assassin, and Lunker City's 1 3/4-inch Fin-S Shad. Deadsticking these baits above coldwater crappies in marinas or in open areas is deadly. Rig them on 1/32- and 1/64-ounce jigheads and 4-pound-test mono. Both have a rounded shadlike body and a tail that tapers, so they quiver even if the lures aren't moved." Many anglers rely on crappie minnows and they work fine, too. But on a cold night, keeping your hands dry has advantages.
The early spring crappie bite isn't as easy as the spring spawn situation. It demands reading deep structure with sonar and fishing beyond the usual 3- to 5-foot depths at which most crappies are caught. But the lure of schools of megacrappies adds all the attraction we need.
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