July 12, 2012
"Get ready!" Gregg Meyer shouted, scanning the graph screen. "They're stacked at 13 to 16 feet." At a trolling speed of 2 miles an hour, our lures were due to pass through the school in seconds.
On cue, the pole in the starboard holder bent over, and then the one on the port side. Having pulled in twin pound-size slabs, we turned the boat in a wide sweep and idled again over the fish. Another double-header. Two more passes netted three more fish, and we began thinking about how many we wanted to keep for dinner.
It was May, and we were fishing a southern Colorado irrigation impoundment, one of Meyer's favorite waters for crappies as well as catfish and wipers. The savvy angler had predicted the pattern before we got to the lake, though I expressed some doubt. "As soon as the spawn is done," he'd said, "these crappies move off the banks and suspend in open water, but close to a steep wall that restricts their movements.
"For crappies, the Postspawn Period has a bad reputation, similar to the report for bass and walleyes, and other species as well. For crappies, the major challenge for anglers is finding the fish after the spawn.
"Crappies rather swiftly switch from shallow cover to nowhere land, and all the popular spots suddenly fall flat. A lot of folks give up on crappies and await the fall Coolwater Period. That's a mistake, because the fish actually can be more concentrated than in spring."
Meyer's point was well taken, for the school we marked looked to contain at least two dozen crappies in an area not three times larger than his boat. In Colorado, the steep wall barrier to movement was the dam itself. Crappies aggressively bit our trolled Tiny Traps -- miniature Rat-L-Traps measuring just 1 1/2 inches in length.
In this type of impoundment, formed by flooding parched rolling flatlands, the fish have little cover to gather near. That scenario differs from what we find in natural lakes, or in many other impoundments where I've fished for crappies after the spawn. There, vegetation and wood cover provide shelter, though the postspawn transitional location shifts remain similar.
FOLLOWING THE TRANSITION
To figure out where something is going, it helps to know where it has been. Following that logic means defining briefly the areas crappies seek during spring, prior to spreading out into the main lake or reservoir after the spawn. The springtime shift of crappies from deep to shallow water varies among the diverse waters they inhabit -- clear natural lakes, murky oxbows, and reservoirs of every category.
We'll save an in-depth examination of the prespawn particulars for an In-Fisherman feature next spring, which will focus on finding the biggest crappies in a body of water. For the present discussion, an overview of favored spring habitats serves to orient us into the postspawn transition.
Crappies often make a gradual transition from deep wintering areas to their eventual spawning grounds, staging on mid-depth flats (8 to 15 feet in most cases) that offer substantial weedgrowth or wood cover such as manmade brushpiles or stumps and timber. They seek coves, which offer protection from prevailing winds, and also are associated with large flats with cover. This combination gives crappies all they need in spring, first to feed and gradually adjust to warming waters, and then to build nests, spawn, and guard fry.
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Crappies choose spawning locations protected from wave action, often moving up creek arms or passing through channels into connected bays or ponds. These areas warm quickly and often offer abundant minnows to feed on. On the way out, crappies move across flats and tend to hold at the first major drop outside spawning areas.
Cover in the form of newly emerging cabbage, deep bulrushes, stumps, or brushpiles attracts large groups of crappies and holds them for a time. Water flowing into or out of the bay or creek arm often attracts minnows and shad during late spring and early summer.
Compared to spring fishing, tackle selection for the Postspawn and Summer Periods is straight-forward.
Float Fishing: The tendency to suspend at particular depths suggests several tried and true methods. For crappies, float fishing is a staple, and the same equipment used to hang a minnow by a lily pad or tree branch in spring works when fish move to confined open water. Adjust the slip bobber to place the bait or lure slightly above the level where crappies are holding.
Their typical Christmas-tree shaped formations should show well on graphs or flashers. Even without electronics, count on fish holding from 12 to 22 feet down in clear to slightly stained water during the day. At dusk, crappies typically shift closer to a boundary like a bluff bank or structural corner, simultaneously rising in the water column.
At times during the day, and particularly at dusk, postspawn crappies move close to the surface or even gulp minnows on top. This behavior usually occurs in lakes and reservoirs with dense weedbeds growing in depths of 10 to 16 feet and forming a thick outside edge. When crappies isolate a school of shiners outside the weeds, they'll at times chase them to the surface, bringing into play an additional edge to increase their feeding efficiency.
The right depth is vital, as small marabou jigs, live minnows, tube baits, and other offerings from 3/4 to 2 inches are eagerly taken, especially during early morning, evening, and after dark. Switching to slightly larger baits improves the average size of the catch, while decreasing catch rates somewhat.
Trolling: The way we practiced it in Colorado, trolling open water is an efficient way to find crappies, define their preferred feeding depth, and learn what baits they bite best. Depth control is again critical, but in trolling, speed control can be just as decisive. In Colorado, we were fairly zipping, as far as crappie fishing goes, about 2 miles per hour. The success of float fishing from an anchored position verifies the effectiveness of still baits, too. At times, any speed in between can prove most popular with the goggle-eyed crowd.
In general, though, slow speeds work best. Run a trolling motor on low, so tiny crankbaits barely pulse the rod. Select bait according to crappie depth. For fish near the surface, try a small Rebel Ghost Minnow or 1/16-ounce #3 or #5 Rapala Minnow. Rebel's Ultralight Series and the Bagley Honey B dig a bit deeper, along with Yo-Zuri's new Aile Killifish and Strike King's Bitsy Pond Minnow.
Sinking minnows like the L & S MM-size MirrOlure or Yo-Zuri Goby, or the Tiny Trap can be worked down to about 8 feet by letting them fall before trolling. Hair or plastic jigs cover the mid-depth well. Use metal baits like Reef Runner's Cicada or Cordell's 1 1/2-inch Gay Blade for deep fish.
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We could get real technical here, but remember you're crappie fishing (fun and lots of fish, right). Save the planer boards and dive planers for the Crappie-Thon Championship. With any trolled baits, though, use line as light as possible, to give the little lures maximum action. Fine-diameter brands like Silver Thread, Stren MagnaThin, and Trilene SensiThin are ideal.
Spider rigging with 6 to 12 poles set around the bow, as practiced at Kentucky Lake and other crappie meccas, is a deadly tactic. Multiple poles allow for experimenting with depths as well as lure colors. Forget this technique, of course, in states where only one or two lines are legal. Or maybe invite the local Boy Scout troop on your pontoon boat. Hmmm.
Casting: Occasionally, casting is the most efficient way to catch crappies. When they move up toward weededges in the evening, try a Beetle Spin or Zetabait Wobbly Eye Minnow, which have small overhead spinners to provide vibration and to keep the lure running true at the slowest retrieve.
I've caught loads of offshore crappies by counting down a marabou leadhead, too. Catching them this way is far more fun than trolling, so if you find a real pod of crapsters, turn the boat around and try casting instead. At times, the mini-divers mentioned above work, too, along with downsized spinnerbaits.
Gauging the activity level of crappies helps in selecting the proper presentation. You can guess that in the early morning and evening, crappies are shallower and more active, readier to take faster-moving lures and also slightly larger baits. Flashy or bright colors may help, too. Inactive fish, holding deep and loosely schooled, are the most challenging for the postspawn crappie chaser.
Crappie minnows on a plain hook, or small natural-color plastic baits on a plain jighead will take fish under these conditions. Small-diameter green monofilaments or new castable fluorocarbon lines like Berkley Vanish, Stren Fluorocarbon, and Yo-Zuri Hybrid may help trick finicky fish.
The postspawn transition is one of the trickiest moves crappies pull all year, except for the times, of course, when they just refuse to bite. Happily, this usually occurs only during the dead of winter or when heavy rains turn reservoir waters murky.
During postspawn, plan to do lots of looking, first at maps and then at sonar screens. On a new or unfamiliar lake or reservoir, choose general areas with spawning habitat, extensive flats, and confined open water. Then idle off the break, scanning for cover and for schools of fish. Crappies usually are most visible on sonar during midday, when they tend to hold deepest and farthest from the break. Once a school is established in an area, they usually remain for several weeks, as long as prey is available. And general patterns may hold until turnover in fall, or when vegetation begins to decay.
The Postspawn Period isn't recognized as a prime time for big crappies. But choosing lakes with lunker potential and fishing slightly deeper and with larger baits and lures can tilt the odds in your favor. When you catch 'em, remember harvest selectively. Let those lunkers live!
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 'œEarthquake Lake' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11â„4 pounds and catches up to 23â„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 'œCrappie 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 13â„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 11â„4 to 21â„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