May 13, 2020

Springtime Crappie Secrets

Tested tips for landing pre spawn slabs

By: Sara Trampe

Contributed: Tyler Trampe

Photos by: Jeff Klugiewicz 

Read carefully, because I’m giving away a secret. One thing we do every spring when we see the right signs from Mother Nature, is seek out the big crappie, that elusive 15-inch slab. (Usually early May here in the Fox Valley.)

We watch for the late signs of spring; not the ones that spring is about to arrive, but signs that summer is truly on its way. The countryside turns greener, the breeze is warmer and the spring peepers are lulling us to sleep at night. The buds on the oak trees are the size of squirrel ears, and there is no mistaking the primitive call of sandhill cranes as they migrate north or the sweet scent of the blooming lilacs filling the air. This is when the slab crappies are beginning to feed and there are three important aspects that will increase your chances of success.

Warm shallows

There is a distinct difference between how to target shallow ice out crappies vs pre-spawn fish. Ice out crappies are moving into the shallows very quickly searching for warm water, while pre-spawn crappies are migrating back into shallow water to feed before the spawn. You could spend a lot of hours on the water in early spring pitching at shallow fish that just won’t bite, because shallow fish does not necessarily mean hungry fish. You can absolutely still catch ice-out crappies, but it is a different, very slow and methodical technique.

Pre-spawn crappies move back into the shallows when the water temperature reaches the upper 50s to low 60s due to high and bright sunshine; combine the water temp with emerging weed growth and moon phase for the best result. Once you see the signs of spring and the water temperature is prime, the fish still require about 3 or 4 additional days of consistent sun penetration with warmer air temps to get their metabolism up making this presentation irresistible.

The crappies are searching out shallow cover in warmer water, such as docks, downed trees, bull rush or lily pad stumps (the depth of the fish is determined by the size of the body of water and water clarity.) First look to the North shoreline where the water usually warms up faster and the fish should be more active. The fish will always hold tight to the dark organic bottom initially because it absorbs warmth and it provides cover for them to ambush their prey.

Now that the fish are where you want them, you need the perfect presentation. Because pre-spawn slabs are just coming into the shallow and aren’t gulping down everything they see, slip bobbers work great for action-oriented fishing, but they can lack the crucial element needed to trigger the bigger fish.

Small and wacky

Several years ago, while spring fishing for finicky crappies in Iowa, my husband, Tyler, could see suspended crappies in the downed trees but they wouldn’t hit. He wanted a slow falling lure with enough action to trigger the pressured fish to strike and other presentations weren’t getting the job done. So, he rigged a soft plastic wacky-style on his smallest jighead to allow for a slow falling presentation that still produced the pulsating action to trigger a bite. It worked! The number one secret is keeping the lure in the strike zone long enough, but also being able to work the lure to trigger a reaction. He taught me, we worked to perfect the technique, and now we use it every spring. 

Use anywhere from a 1/80th-ounce to a 1/32nd-ounce jighead – determined by the depth and wind speed – tipped with a 2 to 3-inch minnow imitating soft plastic, wacky rigged.

Wacky rig is a technique where your soft plastic is rigged perpendicular to your jighead, a technique commonly used for bass fishing and generally uses a worm. Place your hook through the halfway point of your lure so that it has the appearance of balancing on the hook – one side should not be longer or heavier than the other. This presentation allows more friction on the surface area of the water, creating a slower falling presentation and when it is jigged it creates an undulating action on each end of the lure. 

Use a heavier jighead in deeper water or in windy conditions to be able to cast more efficiently. We typically use 1/64th-ounce Bro Bug Jigs from Northland Fishing Tackle tipped with a 2-inch wacky-rigged Berkley power minnow.

Also, adding scent to your bait is never going to give you a disadvantage. Scent can cover up sunscreen, bug spray and soap that may transfer from your hands to the lure. And if you are trying to entice larger (sometimes that means more street savvy) fish, giving away any indication that your presentation isn’t natural will sabotage your own progress, so Baitmate Fish Attractant Classic Panfish and Crappie is always close by in our boat.

The right rod length

In order to be effective at this technique, you’ll need the proper rod. The best rod to use to with this technique is a 7’ fast action ultralight rod. Length is the crucial element to your success, if your rod is too short you won’t be able to cast efficiently and most likely will abandon the technique.

Light tackle isn’t easy to cast and the length of the rod helps to be able to pitch out farther from the boat. The 7-foot rod allows for more precise, longer casts. Use a 500 to 1000 series reel with 2 to 4-pound monofilament line, as the light line is less visible in the water and while heavier line is slower sinking it is more difficult to cast. Being able to cast further is a huge aspect in shallow spring fishing, because it allows you stay farther from the easily spooked fish. After six months of no sunlight penetration the fish can now see farther, especially in clear water, meaning they can see you when you get too close. 

Bringing us to boat control. It is imperative that you are able to stay far enough out that the fish can’t see the boat, because once they see the boat they will scatter or shut off, especially the slabs. However, the boat has to be close enough to be able to cast to the structure, find the fish and see your lure. This is a balancing act where a shallow water anchoring system or spot lock on a bow mounted trolling motor can mean the difference between success or frustration. 

Eyes on

Key element number three is sight fishing spring crappies will produce more slabs. Your catch rate will be higher if you are able to see the fish and watch your lure. A good pair of polarized glasses is essential to finding the fish, where they appear almost neon or chartreuse in color. At first they may be difficult to spot, but once you see one the rest will stick out – just like morel mushroom hunting. 

Your lure color plays an important role as well. Normally color is determined by water clarity and weather – general rule of thumb, bright colors in bright sunshine and natural colors in cloud cover. But bright lures are easier to track and you need to be able to see the lure move in the water and in action before the fish bites. I personally use white or chartreuse 99% of the time.

Catching crappie

Your boat is in position, you make the perfect cast, give a little jig and a slab crappie is staring down your wacky rig minnow. A little more jiggle and the crappie strikes. You set the hook but your lure comes flying back at you sans fish. Ugh! Papermouth isn’t a nickname without reason.  Crappies have very light skin around their mouths, making it more difficult to hook up and easier for the hook to slip. And they are also notorious eaters that strike from underneath.

Watch your lure and your line carefully. If you can see your lure, watch for it to disappear in the fish’s mouth as they suck it in like a vacuum or watch for your line to go slack when they lift the lure up from underneath, now set the hook and keep your light tight! 

Put this on repeat and continue to catch several slab crappies for a great afternoon of spring fishing. The three main elements to separating small crappie from the big girls are wacky-rigging your favorite panfish plastic for a slow falling presentation that keeps it in the strike zone longer, a lengthier rod for farther and more precise casts, and sight fishing with a good pair of polarized glasses to increase your percentage of landing the slabs. And remember, this is our little secret.

You can get more tips and techniques by watching us on Saturday mornings at 11:30 on Fox Sports Net during the first quarter. Or you can watch us on our Sportsman’s Journal TV YouTube page, where you can also see on this exciting new technique on a past episode.