How to Catch Spring Crappie

How to Catch Spring Crappie

Whether you call them slabs, specks, calico, or sac-a-lait, there is no doubt that crappie are the most pursued and popular panfish in North America. With a range that extends from Southern Canada all the way to the Texas Panhandle, crappie are found in almost every state in the US. Though not quite as popular as bass or trout, crappie are a niche fish that have climbed their way to the top of the panfish hierarchy by being one of the best-tasting fish in freshwater.

Both serious crappie anglers and dedicated fish eaters are always looking to fill their freezers with crappie fillets, inspiring an almost fanatical dedication among anglers that can border on obsession. Crappie fishermen set tip-ups and jig all winter and hunt suspended fish with electronics from boats throughout the summer and fall. Yet, there’s no doubt that the absolute best time to fill a stringer with some fat papermouths is during the spring.

Finding Spring Crappie

Spring is the season when crappies move from their deep wintering holes in large schools to gather in the shallows for the spawn. It’s a time of fantastic fishing when, so long as you’re in the right spot, you can catch a limit of crappie in only a few minutes. However, spring crappie fishing still has its challenges, principally finding where to start fishing.

“It can definitely be a feast or famine type of situation,” said Minnesota fishing guide Wil Neururer. “With all the crappie in the water gathered in one place, not fishing in the exact right spot means you’re going to come up empty. But it also means that when you find the fish, you’re going to catch a hell of a lot of them.”

With the fish moving en masse from deeper to shallower water, Neururer and many other crappie anglers can find and stay on top of migrating springtime crappie schools by following the water temperature.

“Water temperature is vital to catching spring crappie,” Neururer said. “In the early part of the season, when the water is in the 40s, the fish will push into the shallowest and warmest water possible. I concentrate on shallow, northern bays in lakes and ponds with dark bottoms that will lose ice quickly and absorb and hold a lot of heat. You’ll find crappie in less than six inches of water in spots like that. Then once the water starts tickling the 50-degree mark, they’ll start moving into slightly deeper water in those same bays, and all you have to do is follow them out.”

Once the water temperatures rise into the mid-50s and 60s, crappie will begin to gather and spawn in one to six feet of water, concentrating in areas with lots of weed beds, brush piles, and other cover. Once water temps reach the mid-60s, the fish will move into deeper water between eight to 15 feet immediately adjacent to their spawning areas to feed. The easiest way to pinpoint these roaming crappie schools is by using electronics and marking the fish as they migrate. However, if you don’t have a boat equipped with sonar or are fishing from shore, you can still find crappie by casting and fishing from shallower to deeper water until you find the fish.

“It usually doesn’t take long for crappie to bite,” Neururer told MeatEater. “Patience is not the key in this sort of fishing. Spring crappies are hungry and aggressive, so if you don’t get a bite in a spot in 10 minutes or so, try moving the boat or casting 10 or 15 feet incrementally further out until you get a strike. Once you get on top of the fish, you’re definitely going to know it.”

Spring Crappie Equipment

Crappie are a small fish, even the largest specimens rarely growing larger than a few pounds. In addition, spring crappie can be sluggish, and their strikes can be incredibly subtle. Consequently, you’re going to want to target them with the lightest equipment possible.

Crappie rods should be light or even ultra-light action and between five and eight feet long. These rods are ideal for detecting gentle strikes and feeling for structure along the bottom while still giving you enough leverage to keep the struggling fish under control. Pair your rod with light 2- to 6-pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon line, and you’ll have the perfect set-up for catching crappie no matter what fishing method you’re using.

Best Techniques for Spring Crappie

There are a lot of different techniques for spring crappie that vary in effectiveness depending on when and where you’re fishing. In the early part of the season, you’ll want to use stationary methods that easily allow sluggish crappie to find and eat your bait without having to chase it down. For this kind of fishing, nothing works better than a slip-bobber rig.

“Slip-bobber rigs are a tried-and-true crappie killer,” Neururer said. “You can set two or three of them out at a time (where legal) and cover a variety of different depths all at once. It’s a great way for kids to get into fishing because they’re easy to set up and it doesn’t take a lot of waiting around to get a crappie to strike. When you fish slip bobbers in the right place, you can have almost constant action.”

To set up a slip-bobber rig, attach a bobber stop to your line about 3 to 6 inches shorter than the depth of the water you’re fishing. Slide a 1- to 3½-inch slip bobber to your line below the bobber stop and then tie on a size 10 to 6 bait hook. Clip a BB-size split shot to your line about 2 to 3 inches above your hook, then add your bait, and you’ll be ready to go.

As far as baits for crappie go, you have several options, including worms, hellgrammites, or leeches. However, unlike other panfish like bluegill, which eat a lot of insect nymphs and larvae, crappie are baitfish hunting predators, making small minnows your best bet for success. Hook minnows to your line by pushing the hook through the bait’s mouth and out through its nostril so it can swim freely and struggle—impossible for a hungry crappie to resist.

Later in the spring when the water gets warmer and crappie begin to move into deeper water and become more aggressive, you can have great luck using lures and baits with a little more action. Small 1/16-ounce jigs tipped with minnows or worms or even soft-plastics like the Squirmin Grub or a Paddletail are fantastic for fishing in warmer and deeper water. You can cast these lures quite a distance and jig them back along the bottom or drop them vertically from a boat and jig them in the middle of a crappie school you’ve located on your sonar.

If you’re searching for a spring crappie school by trying to cover water, casting and retrieving small jerkbaits and crankbaits like a Scatter Rap Countdown or an Ultra Light can be incredibly effective. If you’re trying to prob a greater variety of depths while still covering water, you can also use small inline trout spinners like the Panther Martin and the Roostertail. These lures can be fished just beneath the surface on a fast retrieval or sunk and fished near the bottom when retrieved slowly. Both techniques work well for finding spring crappie moving between deeper and shallower water.

Rolling the Dice

Fishing is always a gamble. You can go out for hours and even days at a time and come up completely empty. But when it comes to the game of spring crappie fishing, you can win big. With the fish stacked up all together and actively feeding, the action can be fast and furious and make any time spent looking for the fish entirely worth it.

Crappie are widespread and very easy to catch. This means that no matter where you live, spring crappie are probably close by and waiting to provide some of the best days on the water you’ll ever have, so it’s best to go all in every time you’re on the water because eventually, it’s going to pay off.

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