Okay folks, the ice is out, and typical nesting areas are beginning to swell in most areas of the north, so let’s wet your appetite for the highly sought after and often elusive black crappie.
Where are they now? When will they be on their nests? When will they move out to deeper water? Let’s look at the factors that will determine the pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn locations of crappie and of course, how to tempt these attractive, tasty “slabs”.
Although black crappie can adapt to a wide variety of habitats, they are structure/cover oriented fish when these elements are available. In natural lakes and rivers, black crappie relate to available aquatic vegetation, especially when this element is adjacent to break lines, points, sunken islands and humps. They can however thrive in any environment, even controlled waterways such as reservoirs and canals that are devoid of aquatic vegetation. In these bodies of water, flooded timber will be the preferred cover. One thing to note is that black crappie and their cousins (white crappie) favor areas absent of current. As far as bottom composition is concerned, these fish prefer muddy or sandy substrates and, depending on water temperature, clarity, seasonal movements and available forage, black crappie can inhabit depths ranging from 1-50+ feet throughout the year.
What’s On The Menu
By nature, black crappie will show a propensity to actively feed in the low light conditions of the early morning and late into nightfall, particularly between 12-2:00 am. On the other hand, they will show short windows of activity throughout the day and will be particularly more susceptible to your offerings during the spawning period as they become increasingly defensive and reactionary. Immature crappie will forage upon emerging insects, plankton and minuscule crustaceans while larger mature crappie lean towards small fish (fingerlings), shad (if available) and minnows such as emerald and golden shiners etc. It is also said that adult black crappie will also consume larger volumes of insects, small invertebrates and crustaceans compared to white crappie.
As the winter comes to an end, runoff and longer photoperiods will push black crappie to staging grounds in preparation for the spawn. This is a transitional period that will last until prime locations become ideal for their annual spawn.
Black crappie are known to actively forage throughout the winter season, so there isn’t a necessity for a sudden feeding frenzy in early spring before the spawn. This factor can make pre-spawn a challenge, along with the fact that they are out in open water, thus harder to locate. The use of electronics is paramount here as they are suspended in deeper water (especially mid-day) and positioned below schools of baitfish which can be spotted using sonar. This pre-spawn area can be defined as the first transitional depth change adjacent to preferred spawning grounds.
Chris Huskilson and well-traveled Kawartha angler Aaron Jolicoeur both venture out in search of black crappie during the spring, as do I, so let’s break it down for you.
Chris explains “with water temps around 48-50 degrees, these fish are positioned just outside the prime shallow spawning areas. In my go-to lakes, black crappie are suspended in 15’ of water in thick schools. I catch active fish on a 1/32oz jig paired with a Lake Fork trophy Lures ‘Baby Shad’ with a mild coating of Liquid Mayhem ‘Garlic Minnow’ attractant”. Chris will locate and then mark the school of crappie on the sonar, drop a waypoint on his GPS unit and then he will simply back off and retrieve the chosen rig through the school. He continues “as the bite tapers off/slows down I will switch to a jig and float system consisting of a 1/16oz Lake Fork ‘Sickle Rig’ paired with the same ‘Baby Shad’. These fish are very finicky, so to up the odds I’ll mold a pinch of Fizards attractant onto the jighead. I’ll run this bait 7’ under a float, which keeps it in the strike zone of the suspended crappie”. Other bait options for myself include both weighted and un-weighted streamer flies such as ‘woolly buggers’, ‘clousers’ and any other minnow imitations.
The breeding season will differ geographically as black crappie are so widely distributed. Spawning occurs shortly after water temperatures reach 55 degrees with optimal temps being about 58-68 degrees. Males will fan the nest in mud, sand or gravel, in close proximity to the shoreline, in the most
protected areas near timber and/or active vegetation. Females drop their eggs and males will then guard the nest until the eggs hatch within 3-5 days. The newly hatched larvae are approximately 2.32mm long and appear translucent. These offspring will remain under the watchful eye of the male for several days before moving to the shallow protected waters such as flooded timber, vegetation and undercut banks.
To target them, keep in mind that once water temps hit 55 degrees, black crappie will stack up in the shallows. This is when most anglers begin to go after them. Chris Huskilson explains “they will stack up on laydowns and overhanging timber, over a mud bottom which is the key, and will also use vegetation and undercuts during the afternoon periods. Also, the north shore of the lake is the perfect place to look as waters will warm faster there”.
In this situation/spawning period, Chris likes to swim the same baits he leans on in the pre-spawn, as opposed to float fishing as he finds it more exciting to feel the aggressive strikes indicative to spawning crappie. Also, Aaron Jolicoeur makes a great point about this. “Sometimes taking the float off and sight fishing for the bigger fish is the deal. I often spot bigger crappie sitting lower in the school. To get access to these larger fish, I will cast over the school and let the bait sink down past the ankle biters. I can then retrieve the bait, targeting the bigger fish”. Aaron favors micro-jigs, hair-jigs and marabou jigs in this case. To present these rigs, a 7’ medium light rod, paired with a 1000 series spinning reel spooled with 6-8lb braid tied to a 4-5-6lb fluorocarbon leader will be sufficient. Chris favors Power Pro braid and has been using Lake Fork Trophy Lures leader material.
Post-Spawn and Beyond
Once crappie are finished procreating, they will transition back out into the depths to suspend. This post spawn period can be challenging as these fish will occupy a much greater expanse of water. Large tightly woven schools are the norm so the use of sonar
will become more important. Spotting bait balls and schools of crappie in open water is the game plan so do not be intimidated, it will simply take more time to locate them. But before you decide to head out to the main-lake basin, stop off at the first depth transition that the crappie were staging on before the spawn. Use the same tactics associated with pre-spawn such as long leads from the floats to the bait and so on. Keep in mind, some of the males will potentially show a negative response but those larger females may be ready to engorge themselves on bait until the cows come home so don’t put your gear away and give up. You might just catch them moving out before they arrive at the great blue yonder.
Once they hit their summer spots, all bets are off. As the water warms to 70 degrees and above, you can bet that black crappie will then occupy much deeper water columns. Look at your electronics very closely throughout the day then return to adjacent shallow water to where you have marked them on the aforementioned low light feeding locations.
It seems like a large undertaking but really, it isn’t. The best way to be an effective crappie angler is to understand their movements throughout the year. Take this information that Chris, Aaron and yours truly shared today and run with it. Trust me, it’s worth it.
See you out there.