Catching Spring Crappie
Location and timing are the keys to getting this favorite to bite in February.
By Paul Cañada
Springtime crappie fishing is a longstanding tradition in the Lone Star State. Anglers begin venturing out at most fisheries in February and March, and at local fuel stations, buckets of minnows edge out breakfast burritos as top sellers.
Fishing a minnow under a slip cork for slabs can trigger strong memories of childhood days and times spent with dad watching that bobber dance. Neighborhood kids running home after school, grabbing their Zebcos and a bucket and pooling their change for a dozen minnows — these were common sights in the old days. For many anglers, the springtime crappie spawn remains an annual event.
There are numerous reasons why folks enjoy fishing for crappie at this time of year. First, panfish are actively feeding and willing to inhale a minnow or jig offering. Second, crappies crowd prime spawning areas, making them easy to find and exploit. Finally, post-spawn males and females remain fairly aggressive, extending the great fishing action for a few more weeks. All of these add up to a lot of fun and good eating.
However, as any experienced crappie angler knows, the great fishing days are matched by slow days. Timing and location are the keys to catching crappie in spring. The angler who understands when, where and why the fish move along the routes between their deep, cold-water homes and warm spawning flats has a much better chance of catching fish.
The pre-spawning period is a time of preparation and transition. Actively feeding crappie congregate in tight schools and are found in relatively deep water. They move up and down in the water column, following their food source.
As spring progresses and water surface temperatures rise, schools of crappie begin the journey to spawning areas. This journey starts at the upper end of a lake, in areas protected from wave action and cold north winds.
Greg Crafts has been fishing Toledo Bend Reservoir since 1968. Shortly after retiring from a successful career in the oil business, he took up full-time guiding for crappie on the East Texas impoundment in 1986. He begins searching for concentrations of transition fish by first locating subtle changes along a channel’s edge.
Crafts’ submerged target might be a secondary point along the channel, a large tree, a rockslide, a drainage ditch, a smaller creek bisecting the larger channel or a bend in the channel. The fish will collect and feed in great numbers over these types of bottom features.
“Everything is contingent on water temperature and the number of hours of daylight,” Crafts says. “The movement of these fish will start at different times every year dependent on how cold the water is and how quickly it warms up. When water temperatures reach the low 50s and the number of daylight hours increase, the fish begin migrating back to spawning areas.”
As water temperatures continue to rise, the fish move closer to the protected area where they will eventually spawn. After a mild winter, the impoundment’s water reaches the desired temperature faster and fish start moving back sooner. Depending on the fishery’s location in the state, this period of movement occurs between late January and early February.
As the fish make their way back into the creeks, they continue to relate to channel bends and points. Surprisingly large concentrations of crappie will relate to any cover found near the deeper channel. The key to locating the pre-spawn slabs is finding that cover over structure.
“People often get structure and cover confused,” Crafts says. “When talking about structure, we’re talking about the contour of the lake bottom, the lay of the land, if you will. It might be a ledge, hump or drop, or whatever. Your cover is going to be what’s found on top of the structure. It may be stumps, standing timber, brush, hydrilla or man-created cover dropped in the lake to attract crappie.”
The water depth the fish are found in is normally just below the depth of maximum sunlight penetration. Prevailing weather patterns also influence fish location. While warm, stable weather will encourage crappie to move to shallower water, cold-front conditions will push fish into deeper water.
As a general rule, crappies don’t all spawn at the same time. On impoundments with limited spawning areas, groups of fish move into spawning areas in waves.
Because of this, it’s possible to find fish at various stages and locations along the larger creeks.
“Usually, when you hook one, you’ll find more in that same area because the crappie will stack up,” Crafts says. “Throughout the migration, the fish are usually gathered together. The one exception occurs following a strong cold front, when they may scatter out until the water stabilizes.”
Keeping It Real
During the pre-spawn period, when crappies congregate near channel edges, Crafts fishes a minnow vertically down to the relatively deep cover. He rigs his presentation with a split-shot weight, crimped to his line, three to four inches above the hook. The East Texas guide prefers 10-pound test, braided line.
Braided fishing line affords anglers many advantages when fishing vertically to relatively deep cover. When a big female is hooked, it’s important to turn her upward and out before she has a chance to wrap up in the cover itself. Because braided line has very little stretch, it’s more sensitive, making it easier to detect strikes in deep water.
“It’s hard to beat fishing with live bait during the pre-spawn period,” added Crafts. “I have found live bait outfishes artificial lures 90 percent of the time. And there are times when using too large of a minnow will greatly reduce the number of bites you get. So typically, I use the smallest minnow I can buy when fishing vertically for staging crappies.”
There are exceptions to Crafts’ live bait rule. When targeting slabs in flooded, shallow brush or timber, a minnow and bobber rig are impractical because they hang up in the cover. Under these conditions, “doodle-socking” a jig is a more efficient way to catch the big fish from heavy cover.
Doodle-socking is a technique Texans perfected specifically for brush-filled impoundments. The angler uses a long cane pole or rod, 10 to 12 feet long, and line only, no reel. Pulling the line out and away from the rod, the jig is drawn up to the rod tip. The angler then pokes the rod tip into an opening in the cover and feeds line, lowering the jig into the water.
Unlike Crafts, Guy Skinner, a retired aeronautical engineer who guides on the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s lakes, prefers artificial lures to live bait in spring. He believes the artificial offerings allow him to cover water faster and fish more efficiently.
“When fishing the shallow water in the back of spawning areas, I’m either casting or doodle-socking a jig,” explained Skinner. “For example, if I find a log in shallow water and suspect crappie are on it, I am going to get right over it and drop the jig down in there. I am going to walk the jig all over that log. If there’s a female or two down there, they will knock the snot out of it.”
Males are the first to enter the spawning areas, moving to the spawning flats when water temperatures reach the mid- to upper 50s. Females move in and out of these same areas, or stay a bit deeper until they’re actually ready to spawn. The males locate a nesting site and spend their time preparing it, fanning away silt and debris. During this time, both males and females will readily take live bait and lures, answering the question regarding using live bait or jigs.
Skinner first looks for males because they are a good indicator of what’s happening in the area. If he finds an area with a concentration of males in it, he backs off the bank and fishes in eight to 12 feet of water for the larger females. Using his electronics, Skinner looks for structure features.
“I don’t care what it is,” added Skinner. “If I find any kind of structure in the area of the males, there will be females on it. I am not looking for anything in particular, but rather for any kind of irregularity along the bottom. You’ll know when you found them, because they will readily move to your bait if in the area.”
Because crappies prefer a relatively silt-free bottom to spawn on, spawning flats are typically few and far between on lowland reservoirs with muddy bottoms. In this case, crappie will spawn on timber or human-created structures. On Toledo Bend, the fish will spawn on the knees of cypress trees in two to six feet of water.
The actual spawning location is also influenced by lake water levels. If the lake is high and the backs of coves and pockets are flooded, the fish will typically go as far back as they can get. If the impoundment’s water level is lower than normal, the fish will spawn farther out from the very back of the pocket.
When water temperatures reach the mid- to upper 60s, the females join the males over the nest. The spawning act may take only an hour or two to complete, but a spawning pair may continue several days as more eggs and milt ripen in the fish. On a small body of water, the entire spawn may be over in a couple of weeks, but on large impoundments like Toledo Bend or Sam Rayburn, a crappie spawn may take a month or more to complete.
After doing their part, females move off to nearby deeper water to feed. The males stay behind to fan the nest to keep the roe oxygenated and to guard eggs against predation. The eggs take about a week to hatch, but males will remain to guard the fry until they disperse from the nesting area.
Crappie don’t feed during the actual spawning activity. However, males guarding nests remain aggressive and post-spawn females do feed. Because not all crappies spawn at the same time, anglers can find lots of cooperative fish that haven’t yet spawned nearby.
“Locating crappie in spawning areas isn’t normally that hard,” Crafts says. “When you catch one fish, you can often catch a hundred of them sitting in one spot.
You can almost stay in a single spawning area all day long and catch fish.”
Once the fish have moved on to the shallow flats, Crafts fan-casts until he locates them. When fishing nesting areas, he switches to a slip cork and minnow rig. A moveable cork stop allows the angler to precisely set the depth at which the bait is fished.
Skinner fishes for shallow spawners with a rig similar to Crafts’ slip cork rig. However, he fishes a jig, about six inches off the lake bottom, on the business end of his shallow-water rig. Whether he’s fishing from a boat or wading, the North Texas guide moves and fishes parallel to the bank.
“The spring spawn is the most unreliable time of the year to fish for crappie,” Skinner says. “You might knock the stuffing out of them one day, then come up empty the next. But, if everything is right — the weather, timing and location — you can go home with some very impressive strings. If everything isn’t right, well, you still got to go crappie fishing.”