By Steve Weisman
As winter draws to a close and ice fishing ends, anglers begin looking toward open water. This is especially true for those searching for big slab crappies. Water temperature and timing are huge keys, and both can happen at different times throughout the Hawkeye state. Obviously, ice-out happens much sooner the further south you go, and as a result water temperatures also warm sooner. However, crappie fishing is crappie fishing and if a person really wanted to, you could spend the months of April through June chasing crappies during prespawn and spawn seasons. It’s really about studying the body of water you will be fishing and learning its little secrets!
When it all begins
In early spring, look for crappies to move into shallow water areas where the water temperature will rise more rapidly, especially when the day is sunny with little wind. Since I fish the natural lakes like West Okoboji and Big Spirit here in northwest Iowa, I will target inlets, areas where water is entering the lake, canals and marinas. If the canals and marinas have wood docks, that makes it all the better. The wood warms from the sun’s rays, and that attracts the crappies. Best fishing days will be warm, sunny and calm.
In small lakes look for shallow coves, brush piles or near the rocks along the dam. In large flood control reservoirs springtime crappie frequently congregate near submerged structure such as trees. With spring runoff, water flowing into these areas from feeder creeks warms the lake water faster than the deep water of the main lake, which attracts crappies. Springtime crappies will also concentrate in the backwaters of the Mississippi River.
Rod Woten, a pro staffer for a number of ice fishing manufacturers and a professional guide during the open water season, says this about the bodies of water he targets in the spring. Two of his prime crappie locations include Lake Rathbun and Big Creek. “I start chasing crappie in earnest almost immediately after ice out. If I draw lines directly between the basin areas where I had been catching suspended crappies through ice and the shallow weedy or woody areas where they will spawn, I can feel pretty confident that I will find crappies somewhere along that line.”
According to Woten, spring weather swings will play a huge role in how crappies react. “If the weather has been fairly stable and the water is warming rapidly they will be much closer to the shallow areas, probably staging in intermediate depths adjacent to the bays. If the weather suddenly turns cold or windy, it’s not at all uncommon for the crappies to slide backwards towards the deeper water.”
As water continues to warm, the crappies will become more and more aggressive. As temperatures climb toward the upper 50s, the crappies will be moving toward their spawning grounds. Spawning often takes place near the base of vegetation stands, such as stands of bulrushs or cattails. The males will move to the grounds first, creating bowl-shaped nests over gravel, sand and even muck substrates. Although both males and females can be caught, the males actively defend the nest and will pretty much strike at anything that comes near the nest itself.
Shore or boat
Early in the spring, when the crappies are in the canals and marinas, accessing the docks and other “man-made” structure is as simple as walking and fishing from the docks and piers. However, if they are private docks, being able to use a boat becomes extremely important. When the fish are in the shallow bays, inlets, etc., anglers can often don a pair of chest waders to reach the fish. Again, the answer often becomes access via boat!
One of the traditional favorite artificial lures is the 1/16-ounce and 1/32-ounce leadhead jig with either a feathered or plastic-body such as a mini-jig. Although a variety of colors work, the most consistent producers are white, yellow and chartreuse. They can be fished with or without a bobber, but the bobberless rig has more flexibility in trying different depths. Many anglers will choose to suspend their jig from a small bobber, because crappies often move up from beneath to take the bait. The bobber can either be a clip-on bobber or a slip bobber. In the shallow water, I prefer an egg shaped clip on bobber, because I feel I can detect a bite more easily. Whether a bobber is used or not, jigs are most often fished 6-12 inches off the bottom.
Another group of lures gaining popularity are the many tungsten “ice fishing” jigs. Used either as straight-lining or beneath a bobber, a subtle jiggle, jiggle, jiggle is often something crappies cannot resist.
Finally, there is the traditional bobber and plain hook (size #4, 6, 8). A light splitshot is placed about a foot above the hook to make sure the minnow stays in the strike zone.
Woten shares his thoughts on his favorite lures. “It’s hard to beat a minnow suspended below a slip bobber when crappies are spawning or staging to spawn. When the big females finally move into the spawning beds is my favorite time to fish a jig head with a small plastic tail about 8 inches below a float. In this application I’ll use a standard clip on float rather than a slip bobber, because I’m fishing shallow and also don’t want the bobber sliding up and down the line.”
As for technique, Woten says, “I fish this rig similarly to the way a bass angler might fish a top water bait, retrieving the bobber a couple of cranks and then letting it sit for a second or two. Sometimes I’ll even give the bobber a sharp tug like I would a popper and then let it sit between cranks. 9 times out of 10, a crappie will take the jig on the pause, but it’s also not uncommon to see your float start moving the other direction as you’re retrieving it.”
Being an avid fly fisherman, Woten adds, “When the fish are shallow like this it’s also a great time to catch some crappies on the fly rod. It’s hard to beat the thrill of a crappie slurping a foam popper fly off the surface. I also like to fish medium sized streamers for crappies with my fly rod during this time. Simply cast, let it sink a few inches and start stripping line to retrieve. When a crappie slams a streamer being stripped by them, it can be bone jarring, so hang on! ”
Small minnows are, by far, one of the best live bait for crappies. Selection of the proper-sized minnow is very important. Most bait shops will carry several sizes and generally refer to the smallest size as crappie minnows. Some anglers also tip a leadhead jig with a small minnow on occasion when fishing is slow. When using a jig and minnow combination, hook the minnow through both lips instead of in the back.
Other popular live baits for crappies include a large assortment of insect larvae such as waxworms, mousies, mealworms, and silver wigglers all work well. Plastics also work well when tipped to the jig or ice fishing lure.
Woten shares his favorite baits and his presentation methods. “I grew up fishing with minnows, and there are still times when that’s the best way to put crappies in the boat. I’ve become such a devotee to plastics though when I ice fish and that has definitely carried over to the soft water for me. Whether I’m drifting crappie rigs trying to find exactly where on that ‘line’ the crappies are holding, or casting to structure that holds fish, I like to go with a small horse’s head jig with a small willow blade and a curl tail plastic laced onto that. The blade gives just enough extra flash and vibration that I feel it triggers more strikes. I’m also a big fan of contrasting color for crappies, often opting for a pink or red jig head with a white plastic tail. I don’t know exactly what it is about this color combo, but crappies really want to eat it! ”
A final thought
Getting excited? Open water is just around the corner, and those big slab crappies will be just waiting for that bait to drop in front of them. As with any type of fishing, the more you go and the more you become proficient with your presentations, the better luck you will have. The chase is on!