The Crappie Compass

Crappie Fishing with Straw – Part 3 of 4

Matt Straw is among a handful of true authentic and effective crappie anglers who are willing to share the passion for crappie fishing as well as some of the deepest secrets of just how to catch these tasty and often finicky fish.

Kirk Hansen, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Mississippi River research biologist, has been conducting a tracking study with crappies in river backwaters for many years now.  During the harsh winter of 2013-2014, he watched helplessly as most of the crappies he tracked were destroyed in an extreme high-water event.

“When the islands flood during winter, crappies die,” Hansen said. “They absolutely need to be out of the current when the water is in the 30°F range.  They need current breaks behind islands, in backwaters, completely out of the flow.”

Laboratory observations reveal that crappies can’t even swim upright in water temperatures of 35°F or less.  Crappies just might be the most temperature sensitive fish found in the northern United States, especially when the water is cold.  Crappies spawn in water temperatures approaching and surpassing 70°F, and almost right up to that point they are seeking the warmest water and the greatest stability they can find.

Now look at your boat and all the electronic gadgetry attached.  In spring, the only tools really required to find crappies are the temperature gauge and the trolling motor.  Put the trolling motor down and start hunting for the warmest water in the bay or backwater near those areas where they eventually spawn, fishing as you go.  Where to start?  Two keys:
1) Areas with the most sun exposure
2)    Areas where the wind has been blowing in to shore.

The north side of any lake, bay, or backwater gets the most sun throughout the day.  In the absence of wind, start on the north side.  But if it’s cloudy and windy, the warmest water will be where gentle breezes are blowing into shore.  Heavy winds create waveforms that reach down and pull cold water up to the surface.  On windy days, find areas where the wind has less fetch.

Matt Straw and whopper crappie in spring have met many times, especially when warm pockets of water are found in the back end of quiet bays that are out of the wind.

So many times in spring, a spot 2°F warmer than the rest of the bay will seem to hold 80-percent of all the crappies in that bay.  Crappies move into spawning areas during pre-spawn, but only to feed.  They’re feeding on minnows and invertebrates that are also drawn to the warmest spots, so the draw for crappies is two-fold.  Crappies despise instability.  When temperatures are fluctuating, when cold fronts pass through, when the wind is swirling and gusting from all directions, crappies often move out of the shallows altogether, seeking more stable temperatures and conditions in deeper water.  Which is why crappies are so attracted to narrow boat canals and tiny bays-within-bays during spring—shallow areas that warm quickly with very little exposure to wind.

Working along slowly in the right areas, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, I like to pitch little 2-inch, white grubs on 1/32-ounce jigs and swim them slowly and horizontally.  Or, I toss slip-float rigs with light jigs tipped with minnows or wax worms.  Pitching jigs and plastics is best with 4 to 6-pound mono, which is thicker and resists the water, keeping the jig from sinking or moving too fast.  With floats I use 4 to 8-pound braided lines, which float, and the jig is tied to a short 6-pound fluorocarbon leader.  The heavier leaders are needed because largemouth bass tend to use the same areas, and crappies need to be pulled away from wood cover quickly.

No matter wind, rain or cold, when Mary Savage and Matt Straw combine for a day of crappie fishing in northern climates, it will be a good day to bring a camera!
No matter wind, rain or cold, when Mary Savage and Matt Straw combine for a day of crappie fishing in northern climates, it will be a good day to bring a camera!

Amazing how often crappies completely reject minnows and respond only to the wax worm offerings, and vice-versa. They may not be as selective as trout, but when the menu in the area features an abundance of invertebrates—maggots, wax worms, and angle worms typically out-produce minnows.  If minnows are thick in the area, crappies will ignore those other baits.

To find the best crappie fishing available in any lake, reservoir, or backwater area during spring, keep one eye glued to the temperature readout on the depth finder as you fish.  Pick the right areas to start—where wind and sun work together to warm the water quickest—move slowly, and look for surface disturbances.  Amazing how, some days, finding a spot 1°F warmer than everywhere else makes all the difference.