Spring is here. You can feel it in the air. Water temperatures are rising, and fish and anglers alike have one thing on their mind: the spawn.
Depending on where you live, game fish opportunities are likely limited to a few areas or completely closed altogether. However, panfish opportunities are among the best they’ll be all year long. Springtime panfish — crappies in particular — are no secret. However, there are some factors that can really influence your success. Water temperature and daily weather conditions are among the leading influencers on fish location and temperament.
At ice out, crappies can be found in areas similar to those in the winter and fall. Depending on the lake, it’s usually a sure option to start your search in the areas where you had success at late ice. Deep basins and thick vegetation are all fair game. Spend a little time checking these areas with electronics, but if you’re not marking fish it may be necessary to move shallower.
As the season progresses, fish will continue on their pilgrimage to skinnier water. When the water temperatures are consistently less than 50 degrees, it is important to focus on transition areas which will likely hold the majority of fish. Mid-range depths between wintering locations and the shallows are often a safe bet (10-20 feet of water). Look for something specific to help congregate fish — rock piles, sharp breaks, points, cribs. I’ve personally found that this period provides some great opportunities to target giant schools of crappies staging on cribs and submerged wood in particular.
Water temperatures in the mid-50s will show signs of life as crappies make their moves. It is important to understand how a lakes warms and that specific areas of lakes tend to warm faster than others. Shallow dark bottom bays tend to soak up the most sunlight. Additionally, the northernmost portions of the lake will typically see the most direct sunlight and as a result have the warmest water. Areas adjacent to spawning grounds — less than 10 feet of water — can hold large schools of fish before they spend some time in the shallows.
When seeking out spawning grounds, it is crucial to study water temperature and structure. Do your homework — use lake maps to identify high probability areas where fish are likely to reside. Crappies tend to seek out warmest water and will generally look for some sort of protection (structure). While on the water, rely on electronics to identify the areas with the warmest water. Side imaging technology is an astounding tool for locating mass schools of crappies working their way to shallows. Crappies will typically begin to spawn when water temperatures reach 55 to 65 degrees.
The spring season is known for varying degrees of weather patterns. It may be 65 degrees and sunny one day, and 35 degrees and rainy the next. These drastic changes in weather can cause some shifting in fish patterns. Warm, sunny days will typically drive crappies to shallower water, meanwhile, cooler days will tend to have the opposite effect. Sometimes all it takes to find fish is the right wind and/or temperatures.
There are more than a few rod options available to the panfish angler. Spring panfish don’t require high end equipment. That being said, higher end rods can give you an edge over the competition. If you’re in the market for a new rod, look for rods with fast to extra fast actions and ultralight to light powers. Faster action means getting to the meat of the rod quicker, and in turn will help with quicker hook sets. The proper power will help cushion headshakes and keep fish pinned on the way to the boat. Longer rods excel at making long casts with light tackle. My personal rod choices: St. Croix Rods Panfish Series 7’ LXF.
There is an endless list of panfish lures on the market. Countless varieties, colors, and styles are available. Tubes, paddletails, and hair jigs are among some of the top artificial choices for springtime crappie fishing. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll likely hear a different favorite. Due to the shallow water action, it’s essential to make long casts with light lures. Light jigs — 1/64 to 1/16 ounce — will allow for a soft landing and prevent spooking fish.
Cast and retrieval methods can be extremely effective during this time period. My number one choice: the Eurotackle B-Vibe threaded on a 1/32 ounce jig. A lure of this size can be worked at variable speeds in extremely shallow water, and still provide enough action to entice fish to bite.
Floats — or bobbers — are an effective tool for shallow water crappies. They allow anglers to present light lures effectively and suspend baits anywhere in the water column. Ice plastics are a great choice to run under floats. For example, the Y-Fry is a great minnow imitation early in the season. As long as these baits are fished as designed, they can be more effective than live bait. Small pops or jerks of the rod give the plastics all the action they need.
With large congregations of fish in shallow water, it’s likely that you may have some pretty impressive days as far as overall numbers and quality of fish goes. If you have interest in preserving these resources for future generations, it is important to develop a conservation mindset. Consider releasing all larger fish, especially those greater than 12 inches. Depending on the body of water, fish of that caliber are a valuable resource and are becoming increasingly less available. Also, put some thought into how many fish you plan on keeping. There’s no reason to keep a limit every time you’re out — it only takes a handful of 9 to 11 inch crappies to feed a family of four.