King of Panfish: How to Catch Crappies

King of Panfish: How to Catch Crappies

You might not see a lot of crappie-shaped logos on hats or stickers on trucks. You won’t see crappie tournaments on TV, although they do exist. Slabs may never capture the imaginations of all serious anglers anywhere muskie, bass, trout, walleye, or other large and charismatic fishes swim—but that can work to your advantage. Crappies may be overlooked as a sportfish, but they’re not as tablefare.

Jesse Griffiths, owner of the popular Dai Due Restaurant in Austin, Texas, and a James Beard-award winning chef, loves crappie so much he adopted one of their many names for his Instagram handle: Sac-a-lait. It means “bag of milk” in French and is thought to be a Cajun bastardization of the Choctaw word for trout: “sakli.” Many folks in Louisiana and across the South use that name and argue about its derivation.

“I’ve been nuts about crappies since I was a kid. I don’t know what exactly it is about them,” Griffiths told MeatEater. “Just something about that fish I have always loved. They have a reputation for being easy and I just have never really understood that. I mean, there’s days where you get into ‘em, but those days are just glorious. And then there’s a lot of days where you can just work really hard.

“They just fascinating to me. I mean, they’re gregarious, they school up a lot. They can bite very aggressively and then they can turn off. They have like kind of a groupthink. And just the way they bite.”

Miles Nolte, MeatEater’s director of fishing, has a similar, enduring fondness for the black-and-white sunfish: “The biggest crappie I ever caught was brought to hand on a Popeil Pocket Fishermen when I was about 11. It went nearly 15 inches. I’m still proud of that fish.

“They’re like the walleye of panfish: they can be technical, sometimes even a little mysterious; they have soft mouths and subtle bites, and everyone wants to eat them,” Nolte said.

Ryan Callaghan, MeatEater’s director of conservation, didn’t appreciate these fish until later in life, but now he gets it.

“Crappies are kind of like turkeys for me, I never knew how revered they were until I travelled outside of my home state of Montana,” Callaghan said. “In Tennessee for instance, the average angler of simple means has an endless choice of fine fish for the table, yet crappie is undeniably king.”

Crappie Facts
There are two species of crappie, black and white—Pomoxis nigromaculatus and Pomoxis annularis—members of the family Centrarchidae, which includes bass and the other sunfish species. Both known by many names—sac-a-lait, speck, papermouth, calico—they are alike in many ways, save for a lighter or darker appearance. White crappies are rather silvery with dark bars along their flanks, while black crappies are covered in black flecks over a generally darker exterior. White crappies have a slightly longer facial profile and fewer spiny rays. You’ll often catch the two species side by side. They have been extensively stocked across the contiguous United States, both as a food fish and food for other fish, primarily largemouth bass. Crappies thrive in warmer waters, often large lakes and slow-moving rivers, and often associate with structure like weed beds or sunken trees.

In most places, crappies average between 4 and 8 inches in length, though in prime waters an average of 10 or 11 is common and fish up to and beyond 15 are not unheard of. The current IGFA world record black crappie out of Tennessee weighed a shocking 5.7 pounds and taped 19.25 inches. The record white was 5.3 pounds and 21 inches.

In many larger and deeper lakes where they reside, crappies migrate throughout the year, especially in relation to their spawn cycle. Reproduction is triggered by water temperature, and they will begin to stage for pre-spawn when the water reaches about 58 degrees in the spring. They’ll move into shallow bays, flooded timber, weed beds, riprap, and other structure to dig nests and lay eggs, with peak spawning activity around 68 to 70 degrees. That can happen as early as February where Griffiths lives in Texas, and as late as July where I live in Montana. Most crappie fishing nationwide happens before and during the spawning periods when the fish are more aggressive and accessible in shallow water near structure and shoreline. The rest of the year they’ll generally reside in deeper water, as much as 30 feet deep over humps and rock piles, and become much more difficult to locate—though not impossible.

While many anglers move on to other species once the best crappie fishing ends, there are some diehards who stay on them all year, even through the ice. Tommy Thornton of Crappie Hunters Guide Service on Patoka Lake, Indiana, used to compete in crappie tournaments but now works hard to stay dialed on his home water fish year round.

“Here in the Midwest it’s huge. It’s a pretty popular fish and it seems like it’s growing,” Thornton told MeatEater. “And you don’t get crucified for taking a limit home and put them into grease. They’re fun to catch, no matter what age you are, and sometimes they’re not easy to catch. They’re influenced by cold fronts. They’re preyed upon. There’s a lot of different variables.”

Water temperature is the factor Thornton pays attention to the most: “In the springtime, you gotta be ready. This year it wasn’t really warm, but then had three absolutely beautiful, mid-70 to 80-degree days. And it seemed like a water temp just like jumped overnight. Those are the times that, man, if you can call in sick or whatever you need to do if it’s in the middle of the week, it’s a good time to be there.”

Though the springtime bonanza gets the most attention, Thornton does very well the rest of the year too: “Post spawn, when these fish kind of back off and we start getting into summer and a lot of people leave the lake, that’s the time I start just whacking them. I can pattern these crappies much better, just because I’m not dealing with [cold] fronts. I’m not dealing with the water influx coming in from big rains that we get in the spring.”

He says the fish become more predictable after the spawn and through most of the rest of the year. With good electronics and/or a good bathymetric map, he targets the old creek channels running through reservoirs and any adjacent rocks or brush piles. They can be anywhere from 12 to 30 feet down, but at least they’re predictable—and the schools light up the sonar like fireworks. Then you just need to drop a jig or a minnow and get to work.

How to Catch Crappies
Crappies are either pretty easy to catch or pretty tricky. They’re biting or they’re lock-jawed. They’re everywhere or they’re nowhere to be found. In some smaller waters, crappies will distribute and remain catchable all year. In many bigger lakes, however, they amass into large schools that move together and can often make the water feel devoid of fish—until it doesn’t.

“For me, the most enjoyable part of crappie fishing is catching that first one,” said Joe Cermele, MeatEater senior fishing editor. “You spend all this time dropping jigs in brush piles and fan casting around a cove, and suddenly you connect and you know you just found the pile. A big bass or trout is a loner, but you find one big crappie, you found them all.”

So, if you don’t quickly find them hanging around that nice looking brush pile, keep moving. Prior to that perfect spawn-time water temp, they’ll be staging in deeper water adjacent to nesting areas—anywhere from 10 to 20 feet down and often suspended. Good electronics are very helpful for locating offshore schools, but trolling, fan casting, drifting, or otherwise efficiently covering water will work as well.

Once they find fish, most anglers will stay put until they’ve reached their legal or responsible harvest. Some folks still use an old-school trick called “ballooning.” When they catch one crappie while prospecting, they’ll re-hook it securely and tie a length of line from the hook to a small balloon, then release the fish. It will try to rejoin and follow the school, so the angler simply has to follow the floating balloon to stay in the action. Make sure to check your state’s regulations to see if this trick is legal before trying it.

As with other panfish, larger age-class males are important to the population structure. Average size can quickly collapse if they are overharvested. It’s always valuable to get to know the management goals your state game agency has for your local crappie population.

Best Lures and Baits for Crappies
Right up front: crappies are not known for selectivity. As they invade the shallows to spawn, or remain there to guard their nests, they’ll eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths—and often things they can’t. I’ve caught crappies on huge, pike-caliber spinnerbaits with a profile as long and tall and the crappie trying to eat it. Lures and baits in the 2- to 4-inch range are much more practical, however.

It’s hard to beat a simple curly-tail grub on a jig head. A standby for these and many other warmwater fishes, this rig in 3/8 or 1/4 ounce is highly versatile for jigging, casting, or even dipping into lily pads or brush piles. I personally like paddle-tail swim jigs for the action and vibration they provide, and I’ve noticed that larger baits often produce larger crappie—as if that were some sort of revelation.

Long of the short, plastics of many styles fished with a bouncing action will often catch crappies. Color may not be of much import, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment. Crankbaits are effective too, especially when searching open water. Spinnerbaits, tubes, and many other small bass lures can get it done as well.

Many serious crappie anglers across the country and especially in the South prefer live bait—minnows, leeches, worms—suspended under stick bobbers or off several long poles fanned out around a boat in what’s known as a “spider rig.” When I find them around structure in the spring, I often reach for a 3-weight fly rod and a small leech fly to get the most out of the crappies’ scrappy fight.

Crappie are known far and wide as “papermouths” for a reason. Their lips and maxillaries are very delicate and thin and rip out easily. It’s important to not set the hook too hard, and not horse them back to the boat or bank.

How to Cook Crappies
Chef Jesse Griffiths’ affinity for crappie goes a lot deeper than the fun of catching them. He’s won acclaim and awards for cooking all manner of wild game and fish, but crappies hold a special place in his heart. Their sweet flavor and delicate texture make crappie extremely popular for eating, anywhere they’re found. But Griffiths says cooking crappies shouldn’t be too complicated.

I like them fried a lot,” he said. “This year we did a lot of beer batters, just really light beer batter on crappie and I loved it.”

All that batter consists of is beer, white flour or rice flour, and a pinch of baking powder. He directly seasons the fillets first, keeps the batter very cold, and then fries the battered fish very hot to yield the best texture.

Griffiths says one of the most important considerations for putting the highest-quality crappie on the plate is how you handle the fish out on the water: “I feel like I struggle with crappie the most of all the freshwater fish, primarily where we’re catching them in warmer water. We don’t have a boat with a livewell, and I think that really is pretty detrimental because most of the time when you’re eating crappie they’re relatively soft. You know, we’re dragging them around stringers for a while because we hiked in a mile. I like to get them cold as possible, as soon as possible.”

When you can, it’s best to keep crappies alive in a livewell or fish basket—or bleed them and put them on ice in a cooler. Fish laying dead in 70-degree water on a stringer or in a bucket will soften by the minute.

Griffiths does plenty of other crappie recipes including fish cakes, croquettes, and sandwiches. They’re somewhat of a blank slate, and any way you like to cook other white meat fish from fresh or saltwater will likely work with crappies. So, when your trout streams get too hot or your bass move offshore this summer, give sac-a-lait a try. You’ll appreciate the challenge and your friends and family will appreciate the yield.

Feature image by Emma Lungren.

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