By Jeff Samsel
When Jim Duckworth’s electronics show him that most crappie have moved up onto spawning flats, he begins fishing shallow cover.
Despite air temps in the 70s and the sun shining brightly, the water temp remained in the high 50s. A friend felt confident that while the crappie would be near the channel edge and moving toward spawning grounds, most would not have moved onto the shallow stuff. Exactly where they’d be along that edge was uncertain, so we began the day trolling, pulling both minnows and jigs along the edge.
His strategy was on target and it didn’t take long to find fish. There were no huge concentrations, so we continued to troll, and by day’s end we’d caught a lot of fish. Therefore, we were surprised to hear mostly grumbling about a slow bite back at the dock. When we thought about things, though, we realized most crappie anglers we’d seen that day had been tight to the bank, seemingly duped by the warm weather.
By scouting first with Side and Down Imaging to see how fish are positioned, Jim Duckworth can then turn off his sonar and use his mapping to follow contours and work the zone the crappie are using.
Spring brings out the crappie fishing masses. That’s understandable as the fishing can be outstanding, with the crappie in places where they are easy to locate and catch. Too often, though, anglers just go to their regular spots when spring arrives, and if they don’t catch fish, they assume the fish aren’t biting.
The truth is that predictable spring opportunities begin well before the fish move to the shallowest, most obvious spots and continues well after they move out. It’s a progression, though, that highly dynamic. Finding and catching fish consistently throughout spring and getting the most out of the season begins with learning about the fish’s normal spring behavior and often involves an analysis of the situation and methodical looking.
Before digging into phases of the spawn and how to follow them, it’s important to note a couple of things. First, crappie don’t all spawn at once in any given river or lake. Otherwise, a giant flood that occurred the week after they dropped eggs could wipe out an entire year-class. A staggered spawn is a built-in protection. What that means from a practical standpoint is that no matter what conditions dictate, some fish will be in different stages most of the time.
Also, not all crappie follow the rules. Some fish stay shallow and up creeks year ’round in most systems, and some spawn in unlikely seeming places. Similarly, every river, lake or reservoir sets up somewhat differently in terms of layout, cover and structure, and that impacts the fish’s movements.
Duckworth, who has been guiding for more than 30 years, begins fishing prespawn crappie when the water is around 55 degree in the spring and stays with them through the pre-spawn, when the water is 20 degrees warmer.
As a rule, crappie spend winter in relatively deep water, often in the main basin of a natural lake or in the main body of a reservoir. With the first hints of late-winter warming they begin moving out of the deepest water. Some stage initially on fairly deep structures like humps or the ends of points. Some use the deep sides of channel edges. Deeper water is usually near, and they move up and down with changing weather.
As warming days become more frequent and cold nights less severe, the crappie gradually move farther up slopes in lake basins or up creek channels of reservoirs, toward edges that are adjacent to spawning flats. Movement may begin with water temperatures in the mid- to upper 40s, but it normally needs to get into the 50s before the fish begin relating predictably to drops and legitimately working their way closer to spawning flats.
Jim Duckworth, who has been guiding in Middle Tennessee for more than three decades, begins looking for pre-spawn crappie when the water temperature reaches about 55 degrees. At that point he looks for fish just off the first main drop from a spawning flat, which is normally a creek channel edge. At around 60 degrees, the fish will move to the tops of the same drops and start spreading onto the flats.
Duckworth’s technique for figuring out whether the fish have moved close to any given drop and whether they are atop it or below it is pretty straight-forward. He looks.
“With today’s electronics, there’s no guessing,” he said. “I can see exactly where the fish are and plan my approach,” he said.
Duckworth, who runs a Humminbird 1195, positions his boat about 15 yards from the drop and sets the view to show him Down Imaging as well as Side Imaging, only on the side of the drop. That shows him fish on top of the drop and beneath the boat, which tells him everything he needs to know.
Lacking that level of technology, an alternative approach is to troll along the same edges once the water temperatures begin moving up through the 50s, crisscrossing the break some and watching electronics to determine where the most fish are holding.
The earliest spawners will actually select spots and build nests soon after the first fish move onto a spawning flat, but Duckworth expects to find the most fish the shallowest once the water has reached the 65- to 70-degree range. He knows the moon phase also has some influence, but he considers water temperature a far more important factor, so that is what he watches.
Crappie prefer to build nests in gaps in vegetation or tight to cover, which could be brush, a downed tree, the base of a riprap slope or a dock support, to name a few things. The males move up first and stay around the longest, so if you’re catching all smaller fish around shallow cover, chances are good that the largest females are staged along the nearest drop.
When the fish Duckworth seeks are in the shallow cover, he concentrates on stakebeds and brush and casts to them with a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce Road Runner, suspended a couple of feet beneath a float.
By the time the water temperature reaches the 70s, some fish will have finishing spawning and will be moving off the beds. As they do, they return to the same drops where they staged just before the spawn, normally holding just off the deep side. It’s a gradual process that begins with most fish shallow and a few on the drops.
When the shallow bite begins to taper, Duckworth again uses his electronics to see how the fish are positioned, and if he sees that most fish have moved out, he slow-trolls off the edge of the drop.
Crappie commonly hold along creek channel edges for quite a while after the spawn, and they’ll gradually follow those edges toward deeper summer haunts. They’re especially likely to hang around if they find plentiful shad.
Whatever the stage of the spawn, when Duckworth searches for fish with Side- and Down Imaging, he drops buoys wherever he finds specific crappie congregations. He also takes careful note of the position of most fish, relative to breaks. That allows him to use his Navionics mapping to follow the edge or stay over the flat and to concentrate on groups of fish when he is actually fishing, but to keep his sonar off.
“I believe the sonar can spook the fish, especially when they are shallow, so if I can fish effectively without it on, that’s what I always do,” he said.