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How to Catch Crappies All Spring

How to Catch Crappies All Spring

Posted 2024-02-28  by  Joe Balog

Learn the seasonal movements and use the appropriate lures and presentations for each phase

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Crappies are popular springtime targets wherever they swim. Here’s how to stay on them all season. Image by Joe Balog

Crappies are a springtime favorite. All across North America, hopeful anglers take to the lake in early season with plans for a fish fry. They’ll score best by keying into the seasonal migration that puts crappie on the move. Things change in a hurry this time of year, so being successful takes a little know-how of your quarry.

Crappies, much like bass, are nest builders. This means that the fish move shallow to set up a spawning location, which they defend against predators. Knowing all of that aids us in finding the fish this time of year. But first, let’s rewind, as many crappie anglers are just now digging out of winter. Waters are cold, but the fishing is heating up.

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Finding crappies in the spring depends on knowing which stage of the spawn they’re in. Image by Joe Balog


If the waters in your neck of the woods are still a bit slushy, have no fear. Crappies bite well early on. Immediately following ice-out, crappies will still be holding in deep basin areas. But with the first warming trend, the fish will begin to move toward areas where they’ll ultimately spawn. The key is to find the first stopover points.

Reservoirs find crappies in the mouths of large creeks. Steep, brushy shorelines, points and creek channels hold fish. Think vertical structure in areas between the deepest basin areas and shallower spawning locations. Bridges can be dynamite. Water depth is relative to location, but fish holding in 8 to 20 feet is fairly common.

The same principle applies to natural lakes. Start in the deepest main-lake basins, and move in toward shallow flats and coves. Whatever cover or structure you hit first will likely hold the fish. Outside weed edges are the natural go-to, but don’t overlook deep marinas. These can be real sleepers as they often hold fish all winter, but seldom attract much fishing pressure.

River crappies can be found migrating from slow moving deep water toward the backwaters, again stopping over on the first good feeding grounds with mixed cover.

In any case, the colder the water, the slower you’ll need to fish. With waters still in the 30s, crappies will eat, but they won’t be in any hurry to do so. Cold-water crappies are notorious for studying a bait before inhaling it. You’ll watch them approach on sonar, get close, and examine your offering for eternity.

Live minnows can be helpful in this scenario. While I shun live bait for crappies most times, this is one scenario where it can really pay off, especially in clear water.

Today’s plastic lures also trigger strikes due to their quivering tails. Choose long, thin baits that mimic minnows, and fish them directly on a jighead to match your depth and weather. Remaining vertical is key this time of year. Light line in the 4-pound range helps the cause.

Hovering vertically over structure, letting the bait work its magic while you feel for the light bite, is what ice-out crappies are all about. Less is more in terms of lure action.

In parts of the country where ultra-cold waters aren’t a factor, most fish are still relating to open water areas, and are susceptible to spider rigging and trolling techniques.


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Once crappies begin spawning, it’s time to head shallow. Image by Joe Balog

Early Spring

Once water temps settle into the mid-40s and 50s, crappies have made their move shallow, and are beginning to investigate likely spawning locations. If you found a few of those places last year, they often repeat. We’re looking for shallow banks with abundant cover in depths that allow light penetration. That could be anywhere from 18 inches to 8 feet, depending on water clarity.

Hard-bottom areas are a precursor for locating productive areas. In lakes with soft muck, crappies will set up shop around objects; stumps, lily pad roots, and rip-rap shorelines attract the most fish. There needs to be something for crappies to spawn on or around.

Regardless of bottom type, cover plays a key role in successful spawns. Nest building fish prefer a place where an object can give them bit of seclusion, and provide a backdrop for the nest, so crappies begin to gravitate there. Willow bushes are hotspots for spring crappies, as are the shallower sections of boat docks featuring lots of pilings. Reeds can be great in certain areas, like in the upper Midwest. Hard-stem reeds, like bullrush, far outproduce cattails.

By now, crappies are shallow and relating strongly to cover along the shoreline. Here, it’s often best to utilize a jig and float. Think of it like pitching for bass on the bank. You want your bait to get right in on top of the fish. Work it a bit, reel it in, and make another presentation. The fish are spread out this time of year, and any cover item can hold a crappie.

Set your cork so your bait is about 6 inches off the bottom, and keep moving. In parts the of the country where long-pole fishing is effective, this is the time of year to score big. Keep moving.

Crankbaits and small spinnerbaits can be effective around rocky shorelines, as the exact whereabouts of the fish is harder to determine. Swimming just above bottom is more effective for crappies than rooting up the bottom, as for bass. Stop and go retrieves also help. A Road-Runner style jig is often productive in these same areas.


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Spawning fish frequently congregate in the areas with the best cover and bottom composition. Image by Joe Balog

The Spawn

Where fish are spread everywhere just a week prior, the actual spawning cycle usually finds crappies more concentrated. Not everywhere is suitable for nest building so, when conducive regions are found, crappies use them en mass.

It’s often surprising just how shallow crappies will spawn. I suppose this is due to the fact that these panfish are equally prey as much as predator, and taking up shop with big bass, pike and muskies is a good way to get eaten, especially when spawning. For that reason, crappies often spawn in the shallowest areas.

Again, willow bushes are key places, same with very shallow docks, even floating models. The very last section of a walkway — where it meets the shoreline — is a known hot-spot on boat docks. Shallow stumps, duck blinds, reeds, seawalls, culverts; anything in a foot or so of water can be a great place to find spawning crappies. Roadbeds produce in certain reservoirs. Cypress knees are quintessential spawning grounds in the Deep South.

In waters with abundant vegetation around the shoreline, crappie will often spawn beneath floating mats. I know it sounds counterproductive, since the thought of deep, dark weed mats doesn’t go with successful spawns. In reality, though, the weed mats let a lot of light through. Same for lily pads. From below, there’s ample light to incubate eggs, and the cover provided by the vegetation is a needed bonus.

A couple lures make for great search-and destroy combos this time of year. The Beetle-Spin gets a few laughs these days, but it remains a solid panfish staple. Spawning crappies thump it, especially on a yo-yo retrieve.

Another winner is a standard 2-inch twister tail on a 1/16-ounce jighead. This combo is best worked with a swim-and-pendulum action. Crappies hit on the fall. Be sure to choose curly-tails with a lot of action, and experiment with colors until you find the best for your waters. Often times, it’s a gaudy hue.


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Summertime crappie fishing means heading back to deeper waters. Image by Joe Balog

Summer Transition

Following the spawn, crappies will begin moving to main-lake areas where they will school and set up for the summer. Your goal is find them as they begin this migration, again at their stop-over location. Deep docks are often fantastic, especial those on the outer reaches of main creeks. Same for deep laydown timber, and deep weed edges in natural lakes.

River crappies will be moving out of the backwaters and more toward the main channel, and into a bit of current. Again, bridges can be great, as well as barge tie-off areas and sections of pilings.

We’re back in the 8-foot and greater depths again now, but the fish are much more aggressive. The key factor is the schooling tendency of warm-water crappies. Either you’re on them, or you’re not. It’s imperative to keep moving. A little more time with the depth finder can help, as baitfish schools draw the fish.

Look for cover on the bottom, or the top. Floating boat docks are great, as they often attract small shad and panfish — favorite foods of post-spawn crappie. If you’re still searching flooded bushes and treetops, key on those on main lake points. Again, roadbeds can be outstanding.

Lure choices will need to match depth and casting ability. For dock fishing, choose a bait you can skip underhand to the far reaches, like a 1/8-ounce jig and body. Other places, again consider trolling. Natural-hair jigs are making a resurgence, too, especially when fished deep. And big slabs are being caught on small swimbaits in early-summer, using high-tech sonar.

Through the spring season, we’ve come full circle in our quest for crappies. We started out, moved in, further back yet, and then returned out. Keeping up with these migrating fish isn’t easy, but it pays off with a little searching.

Spring is right around the corner, and with it comes the best time to be on the water.


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