May 10, 2015

Crappie Madness  

By: Pat Kalmerton 

I was born and raised with a passion for the outdoors. My father brought me along on fishing trips before I could even walk. Now I am blessed with opportunities to hunt and fish nationwide. And one thing I’ve noticed is that this country is crazy about crappies!

Like a true Wisconsin boy, perch were the panfish to chase. Bluegills were a close second. Crappies sat at the bottom of the list. Until recently, I had no idea that crappies are second only to bass as the most sought-after fish in the country. There are magazines, television shows, blogs, websites, clubs, tournaments and championships devoted to crappies. It’s true and it makes sense. They are fun to catch, fight hard and are incredible table fare.

Crappies are found all over the United States and into Canada, and even hold their same name. Unlike bluegills – bluegill in the Midwest; brim in the south – a crappie is a crappie no matter where you are.

Full-grown crappies average 6 to 11 inches, but with enough food and cover they can reach lengths up to 17 inches. A large crappie is referred to as a "slab.” In most waters, crappies with a weight of 1/2 to 1 pound are considered good fish. In other waters, crappie are not considered large until they hit the 1-1/2 or 2 pound mark. Did you know that crappies have even been caught as large as 5 pounds?

There are two sub-species to the common crappie. The black crappie which gets its name from its slightly darker appearance, and the white crappie. The black crappie is usually white or gray with dark gray or black spots covering most of its sides. It has 7 or 8 dorsal spines on the top of its back. The white crappie tends to be lighter in color and often has distinct vertical bars of gray extending down its sides. It has 5 or 6 dorsal spines. These sub-species are found in the same waters and like the same things. When you find one, you will likely find the other.

WHERE AND WHEN

Crappies like to hang out together and school up. If you see a big blob on your Humminbird suspended in 35 feet of water sitting 18 feet down, drop your Aqua-Vu down to see what you are dealing with.

As the water temps start to warm, crappies will be moving toward shallow water for spawning. Move with them and seek cover. Cover may include, but is not limited to, docks, trees, cribs, brush, stump fields, weed edges, bull rush…the possibilities are endless. I can tell you from personal experience that downed wood, stump fields and bull rush have always held the best concentration of spawning crappies for me.

When the water temperature reaches 47 to 50 degrees, you better have some vacation days left. You’re going to want to take them! The feeding frenzy will be on. Minnows under slip bobbers is the way to go. These paper-mouthed creatures are on the prowl and will eat anything in their path. You will want to be in 5 to 10 feet of water and just outside the structure where they will be spawning.

Typically, crappies spawn when the water temperature reaches about 51 to 58 degrees; in Wisconsin a good rule of thumb is Memorial Day weekend. At this time, the females go up very shallow – anywhere from a half foot of water out to 5 feet – and lay their eggs. This will happen quickly. If you find all males in the shallow it is because the ladies have left the house and Dad is babysitting the eggs. Like most things in life, Mom’s watchful eye is never far away. You will find her in the same depth range she was at for the pre-spawn – that 5 to 10 foot range.

BAITS

Now that we know where and when to find crappies, let’s establish some bait selections. I mentioned the crappie minnow under the slip bobber, but what else will be successful? Well, the sky is the limit. I always have a Frabill Bait Station with a variety of minnows and the aerator running to keep them lively. Tie on a horizontal jig with a loop knot using 2 pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon. Hook the minnow through the mouth and out the gill plate to avoid the spine and keep them alive. That way the minnow is swimming naturally with a bit of color. I use small #10 Rat Finkees by Custom Jigs and Spins and they are lights out! If the jig is just too much, I down-size to an aberdeen or blood red plain hook and hook the minnow right below the dorsal fin. This is probably the most common way to fish crappies in the Midwest, but there are certainly other ways to fish them as well.

If you are searching for crappies, cast and retrieve. Cast out using an ultra-light rod – I prefer the 6-foot ultra-light fast action St. Croix rod. I use the cast and countdown method – you know, cast and count 1-2-3-4-5, then start reeling. Try different counts to find where they are sitting and then adjust your baits. I like starting with twister tails, rooster tails, beetle spins or Spin-E-Miny’s and retrieve slowly. When you find the school, you can bobber them or vertical jig with Maxi Jigs tipped with minnows or Gulp and be more productive. If the crappies are sitting tight to the bottom, cast out and pop the jig off the bottom while retrieving slowly with the rod tip high in the air.

If casting is not your forte, an alternative method for finding schools of crappies on a new lake is by trolling. Use small presentations like 3-inch Yakima Mag lips, 1.5- to 2.5-inch Berkley Flicker Shads, or crawler harnesses tipped with minnows led with weight. Pull them directly behind the boat going 0.5-0.7 mph. Turn off your big motor to reduce noise and use your Minn-Kota trolling motor to control speed and direction. Crappies are very skittish; the last thing you want to do is spook them. You could also use Off Shore mini planer boards or set the standard planer board with a tattle flag to indicate bites. Tattle flags will also alert you if your bait is bumping the weeds and not running true anymore.

So, forget the perch, bluegills and walleyes. Go get your fix of crappies! Anglers across the country chase crappies for a reason. In Wisconsin, you may want to point your vehicle in the direction of Lake Winnebago, the Mississippi River, Fox Lake, Black Hawk Lake, Namekagon, Mineral Lake, Lake Owen, Delavan, Lake Onalaska, the Wolf River, White Clay and Shawano.

These destinations have different features. Go to Lake-Link.com before you plan your trip, look at fishing reports, visit their map section and do your research. If you are targeting a big body of water, in most cases the north end of the lake is a great place to start because the sun will be beating down on it all day. This is where you will find the warmest water early in the season! It’s also not be a bad idea to hire a local guide to show you successful tips and tactics for that particular lake. It will save you a lifetime of trying to figure it out on your own.

GOOD LUCK ON THE WATER AND TAKE A KID FISHING!