A Fish For All Seasons
By Rod Woten
Crappies are very near the top of almost every angler’s “favorite fish” list. With that in mind, I find it very surprising how few anglers chase crappies year-round. For most anglers, “crappie season” consists of the few weeks during the spring when the crappies are spawning. This is unfortunate because crappies follow a very predictable pattern of shallow-deep-shallow-deep movement in a lake as the seasons progress. Sure at some points they aren’t as concentrated as they may be during the spawn, but if you’re aware of this cycle of movement you have a very high probability of being able to predict where the crappies are located and search them out.
As far as most are concerned, spring IS crappie fishing. As lakes begin to lose their ceiling of ice, the water in the shallow areas of the lake begins to warm. This warming along with the lengthening hours of daylight begin to awaken crappies from their state of near suspended animation out in the main lake basin and they start a slow and steady movement towards those warming shallow areas for the impending spawn. As the crappies make this trek, any downturns in the weather may cause them to stall at a given depth until things stabilize, or in some instances may even push them back to deeper water. So if inclement weather hits during your early spring crappie fishing campaign, it might not be a bad idea to revisit some of the areas they were being caught in a week or two before the weather set in. Eventually the crappies will arrive in their shallow spawning areas with the smaller males often preceding the females by days or even a couple of weeks. By the time water temperatures reach 60° the spawn gets rolling in earnest. Once the crappies do arrive, they are usually very hungry as their metabolisms continue to kick into high gear from their winter low, so the fishing can be fantastic during this time period. Just about any tactic you can imagine for crappies can be effective during this period. From pitching jigs or rolling spinner baits to retrieving small crankbaits or minnow under a slip bobber, they all work very well during the spawn. The important thing to remember is to not be afraid to go shallow…sometimes so shallow that you wouldn’t think a crappie could be there. In fact, one of my favorite presentations during the spawn is pitching jigs to brush standing in 2-3 feet of water because it almost always holds crappies during the spawn.
Eventually, and usually way too soon for most angler’s tastes, the spawn will begin to wind down. As spring warms into summer, the crappies begin another transition from their shallow spawning areas to deeper parts of the lake. This is similar to the transition the crappies make in mid-winter from shallow to the basin areas of the lake, except that during this summer transition the crappies tend to remain more scattered along points, humps and drop-offs rather than the large suspended schools they transition to in the winter. Crappies can be harder to pin down over the summer months because of their scattered nature. This is why many anglers’ crappie fishing ends with the end of the spawn, but knowing where to look is half the battle. Because they are so scattered, covering lots of water is the name of the game. This is when tactics like spider-rigging, drifting crappie rigs and trolling small crankbaits, jigs and spinners can be used to track down those roaming fish. When doing this it is important to remember to cover all depths. Not only are crappies scattered across the area of the lake during the summer, but they can also be scattered anywhere vertically in the water column at various depths. Whether spider-rigging, drifting or trolling, each one of your rigs should be offered at a different depth to ensure that you are covering the entire water column. Speed is also another variable to experiment with. Vary trolling speeds until you determine exactly how aggressive the fish are and how fast they want the presentation to be. If you’re drifting, try employing a drift sock to slow your drift to a mere crawl. If you’re lucky enough to fish water with sunken brushpiles or submerged timber, this is one of my favorite times to fish those types of scenarios with a minnow under a slip-bobber.
Crappies will maintain their summer locations until the water begins to cool. This will begin to draw crappies from the deeper water they’ve been in for the past several weeks and toward the shallow water again. Fall is considered by many to be some of the best crappie fishing next to the spawn because the crappies are shallow again, which makes them easier to locate. Fall is similar to the spawn in that they are shallow again, but unlike the spawn, they are not as concentrated. Many anglers are still using trolling, drifting and spider-rigging techniques to find and catch these fish, but they are adapting them to the shallower depths. The crappies are also feeding heavily in order to build up energy reserves to help them survive the coming winter months, so they will pretty willingly bite almost anything you drop in front of them. Because the baitfish in the lake have had all season to grow, they are larger, on average, than many of the baitfish the crappies were eating in the spring. This coupled with the crappies’ voracious appetite at this time of the year, make it a great time to upsize the baits you’re showing them as well.
Fall is also a dynamite time to fish any standing timber you can find. Crappie seem to have an affinity for woody cover at any time, but with the fish moving shallow in the fall, it makes it a great opportunity to pitch jigs in any of that shallow standing timber you’ve been eyeing all summer. This is also a great time to fish shallow weeds for crappies. Since bluegills and crappies both like this kind of cover in the fall and early winter, you can often spend a full day pulling crappies out of shallow weedy water and catch just as many bluegills right along with them as an added bonus! If I have the choice between shallow weedy water in the fall and a shallow bay devoid of weeds, I’ll fish the weeds every time.
As the water continues to cool and fall turns into winter, the surface begins to ice up. When we punch those first holes through the early ice, we usually find the crappie (and bluegills) right where we left them just prior to ice up. If we have a winter with little snow and good clear ice, the weeds below will receive enough sunlight to stay fairly healthy and green all winter long. If this happens the crappies may just stay in the shallow weeds for most of the winter. More typically, however, snow will cut off sunlight to the weeds, and they will begin to die and decay. This decay process consumes oxygen and as oxygen levels drop, crappies will begin to migrate out of the shallower water towards the deeper mid-lake water. By mid-winter, the crappies will more than likely be suspending over these basin areas of the lake en masse. While many think the fall period is the second best time to catch crappies, I have to say mid-winter is the best time to do so. Unlike the summertime weeks when the crappies spend time in this deeper water, these fish are concentrated into big schools so once you find them you’ve definitely FOUND them.
Additionally these fish are usually suspended somewhere above the bottom of the lake which means we can drill lots of holes over the basin and move quickly from hole to hole without stopping to fish until our electronics show these suspended schools of fish. This makes for a very fast and efficient way to eliminate unproductive water. The final factor is that fact that these fish are in a state of suspended animation now because the cold water has their metabolism slowed to a crawl; they are basically just wandering around avoiding predators and feeding while expending as little energy as possible. This means they will be very opportunistic eaters, so while they may not be willing to chase bait very far, if you put a bait in front of their face they almost HAVE to eat it rather than let an opportunity for precious calories to pass them by. Fortunately, with the crappies being so concentrated and so easy to pin down, putting it right in front of their face isn’t an issue.
Catch Crappies ALL Year Long!
I’m never sure why so many anglers give up on crappies after the spawn ends. I’m not sure if they’re just not familiar with where to find them after the spawn or if they’re just not willing to put in the extra effort to catch them when the fishing is NOT as easy as during the spawn. Whatever the reason, they are really missing out on some excellent fishing opportunities. In my humble opinion, the crappie fishing in the fall and winter can almost rival what it is in the spring. I’ve given you the foundations to find crappies regardless of what time of year it is, so I highly encourage you to get out there and give it a try. I’ll leave you with one last thought to ponder as a good reason to chase crappies year-round; by the time winter rolls around the crappies have had an entire season to grow, so the longer into the year you chase them, the better your chances at catching a true trophy fish. Just let that thought settle in. You can thank me later!