I’m not bragging, but I’ve eaten a lot of fresh fish—Columbia River sturgeon, Alaskan silver salmon, Lake Erie walleyes, and cold-water channel cats. But without question, nothing compares to early spring crappies when it comes to setting one of the finest tables possible.
Unfortunately though, and as my Pop always told me, “You can’t eat ‘em until you catch ‘em.”
On the plus side, catching spring crappies doesn’t require you hold a PhD in fisheries management. In fact, few things can be as easy as catching spring crappies during the spawn; that is once you’ve found them. Crappies, regardless of the season, are structure-oriented fish. Some of this is what I’ll call traditional, that being flooded timber, bridge abutments, visible pilings, and stumps. However, crappies will also congregate around non-traditional structure such as manmade fish attractors, rock piles, and changes in water depth and bottom contour. Here, traditional relates to easy, whereas non-traditional refers to a little more difficult in terms of locating fish. In other words, flooded timber and willows are easy even for the crappie fishing novice to see; underwater rock piles are not.
In most cases, finding spring crappies involves little more than finding structure. Northeastern Ohio’s Berlin Reservoir, a long-time favorite of mine, for years has provided a simple solution to locating crappies, willows. At about the same time as the willow buds unfold and turn yellow, the lake’s crappie population moves into shallow areas to spawn. Likewise in neighboring Lake Milton, Interstate 76’s bridge abutments attract hoards of fish during the spring spawn, as well as during pre- and post-spawn periods. Both willows and abutments are traditional and easy to see.
Non-traditional structure, or that not readily visible, can be uncovered in several ways. Electronics and depth finders are often used to pinpoint potential crappie hideouts as are maps. When used in conjunction with electronics, lake maps can be invaluable tools. These high-detail maps will show river and creek channels; often, these two-dimensional guides will also reveal man-made fish structure such as sunken trees or wooden pallets.
Sooner or later, the crappie discussion will turn to the age-old debate of live bait versus artificial. According to many avid anglers, there is no debate. There’s simply minnows, and everything else. Still, there’s the question about which is better. The answer, to be brave, deals with semantics. It’s not better, just more effective.
Minnows lead the live bait list. Typically, the tiny baitfish are hooked under the dorsal fin or through the lips with a light Aberdeen-style hook, either in No. 4 or No. 6. Such hooks provide positive sets, but will pull free from snags with only light pressure. With some quick sharpening, and most hooks are ready again for action.
As for weight, experimentation is key. Too much, and the natural movement of the minnow is compromised; too little, and the minnow can easily swim the line around snags. Floats, too, are trial and error. Aggressive fish can be taken under a relatively large bobber; however, less aggressive fish or those in shallow water often require subtler corks. Under these conditions, pencil-type bobbers or one of Mick Thill’s euro-corks can sometimes make all the difference.
But minnows aren’t the only way to a crappie’s heart. Jigs, too, take their fair share of fish, with some saying a jig and a practiced hand will out-fish live bait any day. Crappie jigs need not be fancy to work well. Most anglers carry a selection to include painted and unpainted leadheads in weights from 1/4 to 1/32 ounce. Some say light wire gold hooks work best; others fish more substantial hooks. Either way, the common denominator in any type of jig fishing is a sharp hook.
In many cases, the plain leadheads are tipped with a lively minnow or a 2-inch twistertail grub, and fished either under a bobber or tight lined. Grub colors vary with water turbidity and sunlight; however, most won’t go wrong with chartreuse, yellow, white, blue/white, and red/white.
More traditional than the grub tails are so-called crappie jigs. Again, these will range in size from 1/4 to 1/32 ounce, and will feature maribou dressings in a variety of colors. These maribou jigs are often tipped with a small minnow, and worked around cover slowly and thoroughly.
Just as world-champion duck caller, Buck Gardner said, “duck calling isn’t rocket science, it’s just calling ducks,” the same can be said about catching crappies in the spring. It’s all a matter of finding where they live, and then going about your business slowly.