March 24, 2020
By Cory Schmidt
Crappies are one of the most ubiquitous, easy-to-catch fish species in freshwater. Their fillets don’t taste good said no one, ever. What’s always amazed me—and what separates populations of larger crappies from full-grown sunfish or perch—is their propensity to replenish themselves, even amid intense harvest. This doesn’t mean crappies can’t be overharvested. But as biologists have often told me, given suitable spawning habitat, crappies exhibit a miraculous capacity to sustain and replenish themselves.
One of the most interesting studies in crappie population dynamics occurred about 20 years ago on Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake. When commercial fishing on the colossal water body nearly eliminated the walleye population, crappies filled in the blanks, producing in 1995 one of the most prodigious year-classes of what would quickly become hubcap-sized black crappies. Anglers flocked to the lake from all over North America, driving home with buckets of 13- to 16-inch crappies. Visiting anglers were encouraged to harvest limits by the Minnesota DNR, who told us the crappie fishery wouldn’t last long, once a massive walleye stocking program took root and a strong walleye population reestablished. It’s a take about which I’ve long been suspicious, particularly given Upper Red’s vast shallow spawning habitat.
Crappie Collapse and Resurrection
In its heyday, Upper Red probably was the greatest trophy black crappie fishery in modern history. But as thousands of visiting anglers continued harvesting the fish in bulk, the bite faded. With each passing year since about 2005, anglers increasingly forgot about Red Lake’s crappies.
The fish are still there, however. Big ones, too. And as Tyler Brasel of Bear Paw Guides notes, the lake has in recent years been kicking out plenty of smaller fish, indicating respectable up-and-coming year-classes for the first time since the “collapse.”
“No one targets crappies on Upper Red anymore,” says Brasel, who’s guided on the big lake for 17 years. “In the last three or four years, I’ve started to see smaller fish from multiple year-classes. Ordinarily, you’re not excited to see 7- and 8-inch crappies. Here, it’s a big deal.”
He pursues crappies through the ice once the walleye season closes in February. He also fishes for them in May and June, particularly just prior to the Minnesota walleye opener. “For the past 16 years, I’ve fished the same six or seven bulrush beds each spring, and they always produce,” he says. “Some of my best beds have rocks mixed in with the rushes. On calmer days, you can catch over a hundred fish. On windy or flat-calm days (Upper Red is shaped like a big oval), that number might drop to 15. So, you hope for just enough breeze to activate your bobber and jig. The fish school by size. In one area, all you’ll catch are 12- and 13-inchers. On another spot, it’s nothing but 15s.”
Once water temperatures rise into the upper 50s, Brasel nearly always finds crappies in rush-peppered flats spanning 3- to 4-foot depths. After the fish spawn in late May and June, they disperse and become tricky to find. “Often while fishing for walleyes, we’ve landed on big crappies on rockpiles in 9 and 10 feet of water. Years ago, the DNR also placed artificial cribs in the main lake. They’re only fishable when the lake is calm. If crappies are on the cribs, we’ll see them on side-imaging sonar. Then we’ll sit over them and vertically jig. The fishing isn’t usually a big numbers thing. Thirty fish off a crib is a good day. In the glory days, everyone used to harvest a limit of big fish every day on the water. Now, I choose to keep probably no more than 10 to 15 crappies all year.”
When you’ve experienced the lake’s heyday, during which 50 to 100 fish days of 13- to 16-inch crappies represented the norm, 15 to 30 slabs might sound like a letdown. The secret, though, is that Upper Red still harbors a special black crappie fishery, albeit one with a healthy population of fish hiding among 120,000 acres.
Habitat and High Water
Quality crappie fishing depends on habitat. Successful reproduction depends on suitable spawning habitat, which on many waters depends on water levels. If it’s there, crappies will come. Without it, the lake’s a crappie-free zone. Beyond habitat alone, environmental conditions, such as the timing of severe cold fronts in spring can cause mass mortality of juvenile crappies and drive recruitment—survival beyond a critical size at which mortality declines and crappies enter the fishery.
An hour’s drive south of massive Upper Red Lake, for three decades I’ve observed a small lake as it’s experienced boom-and-bust crappie cycles. On roughly a 5- to 7-year cycle, water levels on this spring-fed lake have tended to fluctuate plus or minus 5 feet. The lake’s water level has depended more on the underlying water table than local, seasonal precipitation.
During the mid- to late 1990s, robust year-classes of crappies swarmed to and from spawning areas—primarily 3- to 5-foot-deep bulrush beds rooted in sand, marl, and gravel. The lake suffused with crappies between 12 and 15 inches. Just as the water began dropping in 1996, I caught a mammoth 18-inch crappie there.
Two years later, the lake had dropped 6 feet below its high-water mark. Ninety-five percent of the spawning habitat was either high and dry or surrounded by mere inches of water. For most of the next decade, crappie numbers slowly dwindled, as fish from holdover year-classes succumbed either to harvest or old age. A lone tiny bulrush stand in the lake’s northern bay continued to afford limited reproduction, but by 2007, catching a crappie here was rare. The lake level rose to its previous high-water mark again in 2015. Each of the past several springs, friends and I have begun to see more spawning fish. And yet, it may take another decade of stable water to replenish the spawning stock and return the lake to its glory years.
Through its boom-and-bust cycles, that little lake taught me much about following crappie movements through the seasons. One of the first lessons I learned was the habitat fidelity of springtime crappies. So long as spring-fresh pondweed plants had grown to at least 3 feet tall in the 7- to 12-foot-depths, crappies would flock to this particular cabbage bed at the mouth of the northern bay, once water temperatures pushed into the low 50s. Days with south winds produced the best fishing, while north winds almost always pushed crappies back out into the main lake, where they were be impossible to pinpoint with regularity.
Over the quarter century I’ve fished this lake, dates of plant growth spurts and subsequent fish use have varied by as much as three weeks. But sometime between April 20 and May 15, prespawn crappies would be there, and you could catch them on a variety of presentations. By contrast, on a reservoir I frequently fish in Arizona, we nearly always contact crappies on the same bunch of five brushpiles, just inside a shallow creek arm, year after year. Before and after the spawn, I can go to yet another small reservoir in Colorado and find a dozen or more crappies on the same row of boat docks they’ve used since 1985.
On all three of these lakes, my favorite presentations have long been a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce ball-head jig and a 11/2- or 2-inch black tube jig (white works when the water is off-color). In 50°F to 60°F water, a 1/32-ounce black marabou jig never fails. On windy or cold-front days, a tube or other softbait worked gingerly below a slipfloat also accounts for plenty of bites. When crappies are sluggish, spooky, extra shallow, or tight to cover, a stationary approach with a jig under a Thill Stealth or Super Shy Bite float shines. It’s hard to imagine a better under-float bait than a slow-gliding, 11/2-inch Puddle Jumper on a 1/32-ounce jig. Or, for less-active fish, a B-Y Baits Mega Mudbug.
The rest of the time, I prefer casting little jigs on light mono and a feathery 61/2- to 7-foot crappie rod. Maxima Ultragreen in 2- and 3-pound test fishes exceptionally, spooled on a Shimano Stradic CI4+ 1000. St. Croix’s Legend Elite Panfish and G. Loomis Trout Series are two of the most wonderful panfish rods I’ve ever used.
Prior to the pondweed growth, crappies could still be located around the mouth of the bay, typically just outside the bay and hovering out in deeper 10-foot-plus depths beyond the edge of the eventual plant growth. But in water colder than 48°F or 50°F, most of the fish might still be suspended out over deeper water, or even glued to soft substrate in these 20- to 30-foot zones.
Nowadays, we use side-imaging sonar or Panoptix to locate crappies. Before, we’d creep along with the trolling motor, two anglers surveying the waterscape with slowly retrieved jigs. Catch one fish and you might catch a dozen or more, before the group moves or spooks or you catch all the active biters.
Pre- and Postspawn Perspectives
On some lakes, prespawn crappies stage at the mouths of bays or feeder creeks, and then move into bays and feed in a few feet of water. My little Minnesota lake, however, never seemed to host a shallow or bay-oriented prespawn bite. The fish rarely moved into the shallows or penetrated bulrush beds until just days before spawning. When they did, the fish arrived in groups—the fish light-colored and highly spooky. I suspect the water may be too clear to provide concealment from winged predators (ospreys and bald eagles). Whereas on other lakes with less clarity, shallow prespawn bites can be the rule, with shallow bay bites lasting for two to three weeks prior to spawning.
The In-Fisherman Calendar Periods are a guide to fish location and response. But as most anglers know, variables such as day length and weather can trump indicators like water temperature. I’ve long adhered to the In-Fisherman rule that 62°F signals the beginning of the crappie Spawn Period. We’ve witnessed crappies in north-central Minnesota spawning in 57°F water, particularly in late, cooler springs. On the flip side, we’ve seen crappies spawning in 74°F water following a protracted period of early spring heat. It happens here as early as mid-May and as late as the first week of June. In central Florida, spawning may commence in late February to March. While spawning on Kentucky Lake often begins in late March and peaks during the first two weeks of April. Crappies mostly build nests around willow and cypress trees in 1 to 3 feet of water.
On larger reservoirs such as Kentucky Lake, anglers spider-rig with jigs and live minnows during prespawn in an effort to cover wide swaths of terrain. The best areas are often large baitfish-rich flats in 5 to 15 feet of water, particularly those on the shallow side of secondary creek arms.
Once spawning season ends, you can often get back on biting fish within a week or less by cycling back through some of the same deeper prespawn locations close to spawning zones. Eventually, the fish may also move to middepth flats, particularly those with stands of pondweed. On flats, a Rapala Ultra Light Shad trolled a long cast length behind the boat can work well, especially for locating scattered fish.
Once crappies are found, it can be fun to get up on the front deck and cast little jigs while moving around an area with the trolling motor. By now, deeper pondweed might have grown to within a foot of the surface, where you can spot plants with sunglasses. On calm days, you might even be able to sight-fish, as crappies often hover among the upper plant leaves. Especially in morning and evening, you can quickly catch a dozen or more fish, casting small jigs or 2-inch paddletail swimbaits on 1/16-ounce jighead. The 18-incher I mentioned earlier ate a 3-inch Castaic Jerky-J Swim on a 1/8-ounce mushroom head in early June.
I find cast-and-probe fishing with a jig more fun than plucking individual crappies off spawning nests. I like watching a big black crappie nudge up close to my bait and inhale it. But it can also be too easy to target and keep too many big fish this way. To me, it’s always felt a little unfair because the fish often bite even though they know you’re there.
I’ve always been a sucker for these special fish. Maybe it’s a fair chase thing. If crappies ever became this predictable in any and all seasons, it might feel like a different ballgame, and maybe a little less fun.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the crappie-rich Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota.