Terry Blankenship with proof-positive that spring crappie can still be caught when those pesky cold fronts come through.
The Cold Facts About the Crappie Spawn
by Brent Frazee
It was one of those, ”You-should-have-been-here-yesterday” moments.
The day before, spring was in full swing. A warm breeze pushed the temperature into the 70s, and crappies hovered over their nests in the shallows, biting anything thrown their way.
But on this day, a major cold front blew in, putting the brakes on the crappie spawn.
Fishermen still pounded the banks where the speckled fish had been, only to meet with frustration. The crappies seemingly vanished.
But Terry Blankenship had a good idea of where they went. He left the spawning bank in his wake, and headed to a brush pile in 15 feet of water.
“A major cold front can really knock them back during the spawn,” said Blankenship, a guide and nationally known crappie fisherman who lives on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. “But it’s not like they disappear.
“They leave the shallows, but they don’t go far. Usually, they just drop back to the nearest brush pile out from a spawning bank,” he said. “They’ll drop back to deeper water and just wait for things to stabilize again.”
Blankenship knew where to look. He sunk several brush piles In Lake of the Ozarks for this very situation.
When he looked at the screen of his fish finder, he knew he made the right decision. A cloud of dots hovered around the jagged limbs of the brush, like bees buzzing around a hive.
Blankenship cast out his Bobby Garland Baby Shad, and counted to 12 as it descended. Then he started slowly bringing it back.
The ice-blue colored bait didn’t get far before Blankenship felt a tap. He set the hook and reeled in a 12-inch fish.
Blankenship repeated that process several times and added several more fish to the live well on his boat. All while fishermen working the shallows failed to get so much as a bite.
“Some people think the only place you can catch crappies is in in the shallows,” Blankenship said. “But really, spring is about the only time when they’ll be in there. The rest of the year, they’re usually off-shore. And that’s where I like to fish for them.”
Even during the spawn, the biggest fish – the females – don’t spend much of their time in the shallows. They often gather in the brush just off the spawning banks and wait for conditions to get right, then they’ll join the males in the shallows.
“The females are only there for a few hours to a day,“ Blankenship said. “They spawn, then they move out again.”
The males, dressed in their dark spawning colors, are the ones that will gather en masse in the shallows. It starts when the water temperatures climb into the mid-50s. That’s when the males move to the pea-gravel and rock banks in coves to scout for nesting sites.
When the weather is stable, that can lead to some outstanding fishing. Because crappies are easily accessible to both bank and boat fishermen, many limits are often caught.
But every crappie fisherman knows that the fish can be fickle. Conditions such as flooding, dropping water levels, a change in water clarity and cold fronts can cause the fish to leave the shallows.
Determining at what level the crappies are spawning in the first place is a starting point. Blankenship uses what he calls “the white jig trick.”
“You drop a white jig down and when it disappears from sight, you fish a foot or more under that to find where the crappies are spawning,” Blankenship said.
Daily conditions such as the sun and wind can affect where the fish will be. If its bright and sunny, the crappies often move deeper during the day and wait until the low-light hours of evening to move shallower to the spawning banks.
Similarly, when the water is murky and there is little light penetration, crappies often will move so shallow that their backs are barely covered by water
Spring cold fronts are inevitable, though, and fishermen such as Blankenship plan ahead.
“You need to give them something to relate to when they back off the bank,” he said. “If you don’t, they’ll just suspend in open water and you’ll have to chase them, and that can be tough.
’When I put brush right off a spawning bank. It will pay off for either me or someone else. With the electronics we have today, it’s not hard to find a brush pile that someone else has sunk.”
That is why Blankenship sinks brush out from spawning banks in many coves. (Before doing that yourself, make sure you know the policy for sinking cover in the lake you fish. Some government agencies require permits; others don’t allow it at all.)
Blankenship uses large cedar trees, which will last a long time. He says the tighter limbs of those trees give crappies plenty of places to ambush baitfish and to hide from predators.
Blankenship uses a 7-foot 4-inch ultralight FX Custom rod and a Daiwa Procyon spinning rod spooled with 6-pound Vicious Hi-Vis yellow monofilament line to cast to the crappies. His tackle boxes are filled with Bobby Garland Baits, his sponsor.
He lets water clarity guide him to his choice of color. If the water is dingy, he will use a chartreuse and white or a chartreuse and black Baby Shad or Baby Shad Swim’R. If the water is clear, he likes to use a Blue Ice, Monkey Milk or Monkey Milk Purple color.
“During the spawn, I try to go a little bit bigger bait,” he said. “The shad haven’t spawned yet, so they’re feeding on the hatch from last year.”
(Brent Frazee is an award-winning writer and photographer from Kansas City, Mo. He was the outdoors editor for The Kansas City Star for 36 years before retiring in 2016. He continues to freelance for many magazines, websites and blogs.)