It’s been a long winter, but the trees are finally budding and fields are being plowed and planted. It hardly felt like spring throughout much of April, but the average daily temperatures are beginning to climb, and so are the water temperatures in area lakes across the Midwest. In the angling world, springtime means one thing – the spawn – and it ramps up by specie without a lot of overlap. What does that mean? With the perch and walleye spawn fizzling out in the rivers, white bass will begin their annual spawning run in those same river systems, while area lakes begin to see crappie staging in the shallows. It’s an exciting time of year for anglers, so why not take advantage of some of the best fishing of the year?
When to Find and Fish for Crappies
As a rule of thumb, when surface temperatures in area lakes rise to a steady upper-forties to low-fifty degrees, crappies begin to migrate from deeper water pockets into the shallows to stage for the spawn. Staging crappies are often very lethargic and inactive. It’s not uncommon to pull up to a pod of suspending crappies staging in the shallows prior to the actual spawn and mark areas to go back on in a week or two once the water heats up to the optimal mid-sixties when they begin to spawn.
Before all the fancy gadgets and electronics anglers equip their boats with today, my father relied on the blooming pussy willows to tell him the white bass were running and the crappies were spawning. Today, it’s much easier to get a bead on water temperatures. Whether you rely on electronics in your boat or internet reports found on various forum websites related to fishing, water temperatures are commonly available.
Where to Find Crappies
Now that we know crappies migrate from deeper water to the shallows to spawn, just how shallow is shallow?
Throughout the reaches of the upper Midwest, spawning crappies are typically found in depths less than six feet of water, whereas crappies are known to stage and spawn in depths twice that in lakes and reservoirs in the southern states. The difference between the north and the south is easily explained by the consistently warmer climates of the south, versus fall and spring turnovers and lake stratification resulting from the four-season climate in the north.
Crappies love cover, whether it’s clusters of weeds, underneath piers and swimming rafts, or timber downfalls extending into the water from shore – if you find cover, you’ll find crappies in the spring.
If you look close, you’ll notice they are fishing right along a shallow weed line. PHOTO: Trevor Olson Photography
What if you’re fishing a lake that lacks significant cover? Typically, in the upper Midwest, bog lakes and marshy lakes will lack any real significant cover during spring. Cattails surrounding a waterbody prevents timber from laying down into the water from shore, and the typically soggy silt substrate on the bottom is not as conducive to heavy weed growth. In these types of lakes, or bogs, I like to fish as close to the cattail edge as I can. I find that crappies will relate to the next best thing if cover isn’t readily available, and that’s structure. Structure comes in several forms, whether it’s bottom substrate transitions, like sand to silt, or edges, reefs, and submerged humps. Since marsh lakes tend to be shallow and lacking any real bottom contour structure, the shoreline, or cattail edges tend to be the best place to find crappies in the spring.
Clear water is your best friend in the spring. It’s early enough that pleasure boaters haven’t churned things up yet, and fishermen are using trolling motors in shallow to avoid spooking out the spawning fish they’re targeting. Use the clear water to your advantage by sight-fishing with a good pair of polarized sunglasses to cut the surface glare and maximize visibility into the water.
How to Catch Springtime Crappies
Staging crappies are finicky, at best. In other words, you can dangle and dance a smorgasbord of options in front of their face and they’ll just suspend and stare at it. When the spawn begins, however, be prepared for finicky, yet, active feeding windows. Finicky eaters aren’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as they’re actively feeding and you offer them what they want. Always bring a combination of live bait like small crappie minnows, in addition to a selection of artificial options.
A healthy box of artificials targeting spawning crappies would include small jig and plastic combinations, like the Mini-Mite, or mini tube jigs under a slip bobber. Another option to try if the fish are avoiding plastic is a small hair jig under a slip bobber. If you notice fish are spooking or avoiding your offering altogether, it may be that they’re skittish. Fishing shallow water means you must be delicate with not only how close you’re positioning your boat to the area you’re casting, but how loud your splashdown is after repeating your casts, and even the visibility of your float. Consider bringing a clear slip bobber along on your next outing as a stealthy means of getting over a pod of shallow water crappies. Clear floats look like a bubble floating on the surface and are much less intrusive than your traditional colored float.
For live bait rigging, I like to use small fatheads, or crappie minnows, under a clear slip bobber to entice the picky eaters. Live bait runs out and costs money to replace constantly, so I tend to use artificials as my first approach, but if I know the fish are there and they won’t commit to my offering, a small minnow lightly hooked through both lips by a number 8 plain Aberdeen hook below a clear slip bobber with a small split shot is a solid bet!
Tackle for Spring Crappies
They’re called papermouth’s for a reason – crappies’ have a very thin skin on the upper mandible that is easily torn by hooks. A tear in the skin makes it easy for the hook to slip out during the battle back to the boat, so take these precautions to avoid lip ripping.
Check out how thin those lips are! You can practically see through them! PHOTO: Joel Michael
A longer rod will be your best friend as they are more forgiving, have better hook sets from afar, and allow for longer casts with finesse. The best rod for the job without going too over the top is a 10-foot slow action high modulus graphite rod that has just enough spine to maintain sensitivity and not be too whippy, yet a fast-enough tip to have good flexibility while maintaining enough spring to embed your hook in the crappies mouth. A rod that is too stiff will increase the odds of you overpowering a thin-skinned crappie lip and losing it. The shorter the rod, often the stiffer it is. Some prefer short ultra-light rods, and while they maintain sensitivity and a slow action, hooksets are less effective at distances greater than several yards away and you can’t cast as far with the finesse you’re looking for.
Don’t be a lip-ripper, equip yourself with a long graphite rod with a slow action and fast tip.
So, go ahead now and blow the dust off your outboard, empty that minnow bucket you’ve been storing odds and ends in all winter, and check your pantry stock for flour and frying oil because it’s fish fry season!