Fishing for crappies offers a spectacular opportunity for early-season fun throughout the upper Midwest. The enjoyment includes not only catching, but eating them as well. Crappies are considered some of the best-tasting fish that swim. Early in spring is a peak time to get them while they’re schooled on structure and holding around cover that makes them relatively easy to find.
On larger lakes, crappies will hold in the same bays where anglers were cutting holes in the ice to reach them just a few weeks earlier. The best bays feature water shallower than 10 feet and dark, sandy points and flats where they’ll soon be laying their eggs.
Look for the warmest water you can find. Northern (south-facing) dark-bottom bays warm first. Be sure to check bays that receive wind-blown warm surface water. Larger lakes sometimes have smaller lakes attached to them. That’s where you’ll find early-season crappies.
Anglers often overlook a key location in Midwestern reservoirs: feeder creeks. Water warms there first in reservoir systems, so baitfish–followed by crappies–move up to take advantage of food they find there.
If you’re unfamiliar with the creeks, go slow to avoid knocking a lower unit against a stump or a tree that’s blown down. The wood, especially wood in very shallow water, will hold crappies. Travel as far back as you can into the creeks and start fishing. Shore anglers can target these areas, too.
On main lakes, shallow water takes time to warm early in the year. Save shallow targets until the sun does its job. Early in the day, crappies will merely move higher in the water column over deeper water. Also find crappies along rocky shoreline riprap, if present.
Cover is usually key. Crappies love wood, whether fallen timber or submerged brush. Exposed wood collects heat from the sun and radiates it to nearby water to ignite the plankton-baitfish-predator food chain. Deeper brush offers concealment as fish move toward the shallows to feed.
The shallows can be sight fished, but deeper brush piles can be harder to find. Old-timers know to go to likely points, lower a jig and move slowly with the electric trolling motor. This is when a snag is a good thing, because it signals that you’ve found a brush pile. Toss a buoy and you’re in business.
Good news for today’s anglers: there are easier ways to find deeper brush and other cover. Enter the next generation of electronics, such as Humminbird’s Side Imaging technology. The screen details cover like brush piles, stumps, or rocks out to the sides of the boat, up to 240 feet away. Once you spot a brush pile on the side imager, just drag your cursor over to the brush pile and hit a waypoint. It automatically saves the spot in memory, making it easy to find later. Being able to do this might tick off some old timers, but we always say they have access to the same technology, too!
If the lake features a lot of boat docks, focus on the ones with deep water nearby. Another important spot to check: old weed beds that survived the winter. Methods will vary depending on where and how deep the target is.
One fun way to fish shallow wood is to use a long rod with a quick tip and some backbone, in order to reach out over tree limbs and drop a Lindy jig with a small crappie minnow into spaces between the branches.
If you need to stay away to avoid spooking fish, use a slip-bobber rig with the Thill Pro Weighted series to let you stay back and still get where you need to go. Use a thread-style bobber stop, a bead, the float and a barrel swivel to a leader of line lighter than the main one. If you get snagged, you can break off without losing the entire setup. Use enough split-shot in order to balance the float. The key is to get the float to ride just high enough in the water so that you can see it, yet low enough to allow a light-biting crappie to pull it under easily.
During especially tough bites, downsize. Try an ice-style jig, like a Lindy Bug or Toad, dressed with a wax worm under small, Thill floats like the Mini Stealth or Shy Bite.
Riprap, which warms the water, often holds the most aggressive fish. Use a small jig dressed with a small plastic grub and/or a wax worm or piece of nightcrawler. Move fast along the rocky faces of dams or bridges, casting and let the bait fall to the bottom before slowly retrieving it just over the rocks. Count it down for two reasons.
- If the bait stops short of the last count, set the hook, because a crappie probably took it while it was falling.
- Counting down also lets you test shallower depths on subsequent casts to see if crappies are suspended.
Use the same setup to cast over the tops of submerged weeds. Or, drift over the top with slip-bobber rigs. Drop a buoy or enter a waypoint on the GPS when you connect with fish. Soon, you’ll have an idea of the size, shape and even direction of travel of the school.
Shallow weeds can be fished like bass anglers do. Simply flip a small jig and plastic into holes in the weeds and reel it back through natural avenues through the weed bed. Target docks by using light, flexible, short rods to “sling-shot” Little Nippers underneath.
As the water continues to warm, look for crappies suspended off the outside weed lines. Cast a Fuzz-E-Grub jig tipped with a minnow and let it fall. Also check fish cribs with the jig/spinner or a slip-bobber rig. Drifting areas off weed lines with slip-bobbers can also be productive.
One word off caution: contrary to what some believe, panfish populations can take a beating from more and smarter fishermen equipped with the latest technologies. Take only enough for a meal or two. That way, there’ll be more for you when you return next weekend–not to mention next spring.