Story & photos by Kenneth L. Kieser
Most crappie are caught in the spring when mature fish move into the shallows to spawn. The average date for fishing crappie spawns is generally around April 15 (in middle Missouri, sooner in the south, later in the north). Most fisherman can fill a spawning-season fish sack, but finding pre-spawn crappie in big numbers is a different story.
Pre-Spawn Timber Tactics
Crappie move from the shallow to deeper water when winter temperatures take over. Submerged standing timber found on deep flats becomes a favorite crappie haunt. They have food and a safe place to live.
I seldom miss an opportunity to crappie fish, especially with friends. I gratefully accepted Jeff Falkenberry’s generous invitation to join him for a pre-spawn trip on Truman Lake where he is an accomplished guide.
The day started with short strikes and no hooked fish. We floated up several creeks fishing tube jigs around submerged trees and bushes in open water with some luck, but not what Faulkenberry was looking for. We moved farther down the creek while fishing closer to cover, in fact, as close as you can get.
“Let your Roadrunner bounce down the sides of each stump and tree,” Faulkenberry said. “I think the bigger crappie may be hugging bark today.”
We immediately started catching crappie. His idea was correct and the crappie cooperated with this young guide who was teaching a veteran fisherman of 60-plus years new tricks.
We caught several “keeper” crappie that were indeed “hugging bark” when my lightweight rod suddenly doubled. I mumbled something about a nice bass when the sun illuminated silver flashing just under the surface. I had hooked a bigger crappie that was diving for tree limbs.
I could only hold on and fight out the fish, while putting frightening pressure on four-pound test line. Luckily Faulkenberry had a long-handled net and soon I held a 2-1/2-pound crappie. I took a couple pictures of the big female before releasing her to spawn and fight again. The old girl looked well fed after feeding off of tree-bark minnows and insects.
Sonar is useful in determining how many branches are on a submerged tree or even how many fish are suspended around the trunk. Fishermen without sonar learn to find likely looking cover and drop anchors and dip minnows or jigs.
Determining fish productivity around a tree is easy with sonar. Circle the tree while making sure your transducer, the submerged part that send signals back to your screen, passes within a few feet of the trunk. This will allow you to find where branches are thickest and where fishing will be the best. Stay within fishing distance to the tree and continue watching your screen.
Next, let your jig rub down the tree trunk and on the branches. Crappie may hit that jig, but pass on one a couple inches off the wood, depending on their feeding desires. You will likely lose more jigs, but more crappie will be caught.
Crappie occasionally locate close to cliffs and submerged rock islands. Small pockets of brush around these long, rocky expanses attract crappie and are easily located by sonar. I discovered this years ago when the air temperature was about 30 degrees. Crappie disappeared from the beds and a friend’s depth finder found fish scattered in groups along a long, rocky flat. We cruised back and forth, watching the depth finder and catching a crappie every time we stopped or paused over a spot that showed fish on his screen. Open water crappie usually school in big numbers and are easily found on a sonar screen, especially today’s modern versions that can almost count the spots on a fish.
Crappie, too, suspend around giant bridge pillars or suspended bridges over lakes and rivers. Pillars illuminated from bridge lights attract insects and small fish. These sound structures, with or without illumination, attracts various species of game fish.
Anchor close to pillars throughout the day and cast a 1/16-ounce plastic jig just past the concrete. Retrieve slowly after the jig sinks a few feet and rub against the pillar where predator fish are waiting to ambush unsuspecting minnows. Not rubbing the pillar may mean no strikes when the bite is slow or it may not matter if the bite is aggressive.
One night a 12-pound walleye took my bridge pillar jig and fought a savage fight to the net before being released. Fortunately, we were fishing murky water and using six-pound test line. I doubt two-pound test would have held her, although it has been done—but not by me. Chances are the walleye were feeding on suspended crappie. That was the only “eye” we hooked that night, but there were likely more.
Finding early-spring crappie feeding areas requires electronic aids. Sonar units are important for navigating at night, a common time to fish for hot-weather crappie.
A sonar unit’s depth perception remains near perfect on the darkest night by tracing the bottom contour and displaying fish and structure with normal accuracy.
Be warned that different types of sonar are never equal in performance, especially after sundown. The newer versions with adequate backlighting and controls work great, while models with poor lighting systems are useless.
Trolling is another great crappie fishing technique in early spring. Many troll under structures like bridges and along submerged creek channels. Suspended crappie sometimes hit passing jigs or minnows lightly, so move you bait slowly
Minnows, jigs tipped or not tipped and small lures work best. Try heavier jigs when fishing depths. Tip jigs with minnows, generally hooked behind the head, euro larva, meal worms, small pieces of night crawler, commercial baits and some use crickets for early spring crappie. The key is an extra incentive for the crappie to bite your jig.
SCENT–Scents are used for two reasons: to smell like natural bait or to cover human scent. Many fishermen do not realize the importance of camouflaging odors on their hands.
Have you ever noticed that some fishermen catch fish while the person sitting next to them using the same bait and technique are skunked? I smoke cigars and use scent to cover up tobacco odor on my hands. Others might fill their vehicle up with gasoline, a strong smell. Odors that we take for granted can be transmitted to lures or baits. Crappie don’t like foreign smells and will shy away.
Most tournament professionals use commercial scents on jigs or lures. But when none are available, a fisherman can literally wipe a small bit of slime from crappie sides on his lure or bait. Only use slime off fish you keep to avoid damaging released crappie.
The second phase of cover scents are odors that imitate shad or other live prey. Crappie are well acquainted with the strong odor of shad that they follow in large schools throughout the year. Fruit flavored scents used mainly by bass fishermen will occasionally give crappie a sweet flavor they are not used to. This may or may not be productive, depending on what the fish want or don’t want.
Early spring crappie fishing success is possible by finding productive feeding spots with sonar. The key is staying out long periods of time while finding active fish.