Learning the String of Seasonal Transitions
Dogwoods and wild flowers punctuate the forest with color, yet crappies remain in pre-spawn mode. Spring is well underway before crappies begin to crowd ever-closer to spawning habitat. Foraging remains the priority.
In many environments, crappies begin to filter out of dense wood cover as new weed growth rises from the bottom. Plants offer an entirely new menu of invertebrates and the minnows that pursue them. New cabbage growth is especially attractive for crappies, but elodea, coontail and other weeds, will draw them too. Not unusual to see crappies in two feet of water or even shallower when the first weeds pop up and many anglers fail to search for these extremely shallow fish.
Reeds become increasingly important to crappies as water temperatures approach 65°F. The relatively hard bottom that reeds thrive in is preferred by nesting crappies. In the absence of reeds, crappies may move back into wood to spawn. Reeds, stickups and wood cover offer the kind of vertical cover they like for spawning.
Before spawning, crappies are moving around from wood to weed cover and back. They also move shallow during stable weather, then move out past the first breaks into 10 or 15 feet of water to suspend lethargically during cold fronts. Then, as the spawn progresses, not all crappies spawn at the same time. Crappies that use small bays and canals spawn early, followed by crappies in larger bays, and finally by main-lake spawners, where the water warms slowest.
Soon after spawning, female crappies abruptly leave to sulk and recuperate in deeper water, while males remain to guard the nests for several days. Soon after, all crappies begin to spread out into various summer patterns. Some go to breaks near deep weed lines. Some follow plankton veils in open water. Some find brush piles, lay downs, or stake beds. Some may relate to boulder fields, rocky points, or off-shore humps. In most cases, crappies alternate between suspending near those cover options and burying themselves within that cover.
So these many movements within such a short period of time keeps anglers on their toes. My favorite program for finding crappies fast, then catching numbers, from this point in the season (early/mid-May) right through fall is the same every year.
I start each day with a fast, 7-foot ultralight rod from G. Loomis or the St. Croix Panfish Series coupled with a spinning reel the size of a Pflueger President ESP30—not a tiny reel, but not a big one either. The spool is filled with 4-pound Maxima Ultra-green monofilament and the lure of choice is a 2-inch Kalin, Berkley or Yamamoto Grub, on a 1/32-ounce jig head from Gopher Tackle or Northland.
The idea is to swim the jig slowly on a horizontal plane and the 1/32-ounce head creates the perfect speed for crappies. Not too fast and not too slow. The presentation is simple. Cast, allow the jig to sink anywhere from a foot to 8 feet, depending on the depth of the cover or bottom in the area, point the rod tip down and slowly reel. Keeping the lure horizontal, not rising or dropping, requires a very slow retrieve. Watch beside the boat to create the cadence.
Monofilament line keeps the light jig from falling too fast in spring and as the water warms into the high 70°F range, I switch to 4 or 6-pound Berkley Fireline in order to speed things up.
Even when crappies won’t bite the grub, the most active fish will follow it, so wear polarized sunglasses and watch closely. A white, yellow, or chartreuse grub is easy to spot, providing a better chance to scan behind it before crappies spook from the boat.
Once crappies are found, the jig-grub combo may keep right on catching them and may not. I always have an 8-foot St Croix Panfish Series rod rigged with a small Thill or Northland slip float handy, just in case most of the crappies are spooky or less active. And, it’s critical this time of year, to be prepared with 2 or 3 different kinds of bait. Crappies can switch overnight from minnows to invertebrates and back again. Typical on my boat to find a scoop of crappie minnows, a few dozen panfish leeches, and at least 100 wax worms, maggots, or angle worms on board when chasing crappies.
Critical, too, to use jigs with at least a size #4 hook for crappies, or size #4 to size #2 Aberdeen hooks. Big crappies can shake loose or rip free from those smaller hooks on the 1/64 to 1/16-ounce jigs we commonly use.
As the blooms of spring fade and the greens of the forest darken, crappies make all kinds of movements involving transitions between different forms of cover and from one kind of forage to the next. They won’t move far, but anglers have to be prepared to search a little every day. The rewards are resplendent in sparkling hues of green, gray, blue, and purple, not to mention those golden-brown fillets sizzling in the pan.