By: Blake Tollefson
Spring is here. You can feel it in the air. A feeling of rejuvenation has been breathed into the natural world. Water temperatures are rising, and fish and anglers alike have one thing on their mind: the spawn.
Drones of antsy anglers are anxiously awaiting their chance to wet a line in an unfrozen body of water for the first time in several months. 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 crappies are no secret, but there are some factors that can really influence your success. Water temperature and weather are among the leading influencers.
At ice out, crappies can be found in areas similar to those in the winter and fall. Depending on the conditions, it is usually a safe bet to start your search in the areas where you had some success at late ice. Featureless basins and deep weeds are all fair game. Spend a little time checking these areas with electronics, but if you’re not marking fish it’s likely necessary to move shallower.
As the season progresses, fish continue their trek to skinnier water. During the timeframe when waters remain less than 50 degrees, it is important to look towards transition areas which will likely hold the majority of fish. Mid-range depths between the basins and the shallows are usually the best bet (10-20 feet of water). Look for something specific to help congregate fish (ex. rock piles, sharp breaks, cribs, etc.). 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 move. It is important to note that specific areas of lakes tend to warm much 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 will hold warmer water. When seeking out spawning grounds, it is important to depend primarily on water temperature and structure. Structure can be identified as anything from manmade structures (such as docks and cribs) to natural habitat (such as submerged wood and rock piles). Do your homework: Using lake maps, identify high probability areas where fish are likely to reside. The fish tend to seek out warmest water and will typically look for some sort of protection. While on the water, rely on your electronics to identify the areas with the warmest water. Side imaging technology does a fantastic job of 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.
There is a plethora of rod options available to the average panfish angler. One of the real advantages to targeting spring panfish is that high end equipment isn’t necessary. However, it shouldn’t go without saying that certain features will give you an edge over the competition. Look for fast to extra fast rods in the ultralight to light variety. Faster actions allow for quicker hooksets and the proper power will help keep fish pinned on their way back to boat. Rely on rods long enough to make long casts with light jigs (6’9” to 7’3”).
When it comes to panfish lures, this list is truly endless. Countless varieties, colors, and styles are available in any bait shop. Tubes, paddletails, and hair jigs are among some of the top artificial choices for springtime crappie fishing. Due to the shallow water action, it is necessary to make long casts with light lures. Light jigs (1/64 ounce to 1/16 ounce) will allow for a soft landing and not spook as many fish. Cast and retrieval methods can be extremely effective during this time period. My person favorite is a 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. Bobber presentations are another effective choice for shallow water crappies. Bobbers allow anglers to present light lures in an effective manner, and have the ability to suspend baits anywhere in the water column. Typical bobber presentations include a jig or plain hook and minnow, or a jig and plastic or hair jig. Both styles of fishing have their time and place in which they are most effective.
An often overlooked method for spring crappies is presenting light lures via a fly rod. A lightweight fly rod (3WT – 5 WT) allows anglers the ability to present essentially weightless lures with ease. Not to mention, the fight of a big crappie on a fly rod is hard to beat.
With large congregations of fish in shallow water, it’s likely that you’ll 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. It only takes a handful of 9 – 11 inch crappies to feed a family of four.
Springtime crappies are truly a treasure to the angling world. They can provide some of the most exciting and fast paced action anglers will find all season long. Gear requirements are minimal, and opportunities are plentiful. Be sure to have fun, and do your best to protect those resources for generations to come.