April 11, 2011
Once crappie have finished the annual spawn, many anglers give up fishing for them. But quality fish are still available if you know where to look.
By John N. Felsher
Ronnie Capps displays the kind of crappie it's possible to waylay during the post spawn period. Photo by John N. Felsher.
After the spring spawn ends, many anglers believe the "crappie season" also concluded and they turn their attention to other species. While some of the best crappie action does occur during the pre-spawn and spawn, anglers who fish the post-spawn period can fill their ice chest, if they accept the challenge. In fact, anglers across the South can usually catch big crappie just about any time of year.
"A lot of people think crappie fishing is seasonal, but I fish 52 weeks of the year and catch fish each time," advised Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler and guide. "Some of the best fishing occurs around the first two full moons of the new year."
Crappie spawn earlier than bass, bluegill or catfish. As the temperatures warm, crappie move toward the shorelines or shallow flats to look for bedding areas. They often bed around woody cover, such as stumps, fallen logs or cypress trees growing in shallow water.
"In late winter, male crappie build nests and court the females," said Gulf Coast Fisheries Biologist Dr. Bobby Reed. "Not all crappie spawn at the same time. On big waters, the crappie spawn can last for several months. The first spawns usually happen on the north end back in the coves that warm up quickest. Crappie are the rabbits of the fish world. They breed prolifically and may spawn more than once a year. I've seen small fingerlings well into the fall."
A single female crappie could lay 20,000 to 25,000 eggs at a time. The male guards the nest against predators and may stay shallow for months, perhaps tending to more than one batch of offspring as the season progresses. A crappie might grow as much as 9 inches in its first year.
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After spawning, females generally head back to deeper water and frequently scatter, making them more difficult to find. Look for them near deep woody cover, such as sunken trees or brush piles. Look for any rises, drops, ledges, stumps, rock piles or anything different on the bottom contour. A creek channel heading into a spawning flat could provide fish a highway to use as they transition from deep to shallow water and back.
"After spawning, crappie head back down in old creek channels to find their comfort zone," explained Ronnie Capps, a seven-time Crappie USA Classic champion with his partner Steve Coleman. "The best technique for catching big crappie just after the spawn is to fish for male fish. Get a good side-scan depth finder and look for crappie on spawning structure like logs. With a side-scan depth finder, we can find so much more structure and put a bait right down into the structure. Brush tops are hard to beat at that time of year, especially in a clear-water lake. A good stumpy ledge along a creek channel is another good place to fish for crappie in the spring."
After the stressful spawning process ends, the females rest a while before returning to their normal activities. After resting, they frequently feed ravenously, but may not chase baits very far. In a good area, slow down the presentation and work cover thoroughly.
"The post spawn can be a tough time to catch crappie," said Thomas Hill, another professional crappie angler. "Crappie are stressed and in transition. In the post-spawn period, it's a matter of finding the fish. They scatter at that time. After the spawn, females move out to deeper staging areas. If we find them, we can catch them. Usually, we catch a fish here and a fish there or perhaps two or three fish from one spot. During the post spawn, crappie won't move much, so we need to stick a bait right in their faces"
Hill prefers to offer these voracious predators fresh meat. He probes the depths with a double-minnow rig. To fashion such a rig, tie a three-way swivel on the 6- to 10-pound main line. Tie about a 12-inch leader to one eye of the swivel and about a 30-inch leader to the other eye. Below the swivel, attach an egg or bell sinker. In windy conditions, use a heavier sinker to keep the rig more stable. Tip the leaders with No. 2 minnow hooks or 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jigs. In the spring, when newly hatched minnows and shad emerge, use smaller minnows, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. Drop this rig near good cover.
"I love to fish wood in the spring," Hill explained. "I look for brush piles or stake beds. When I find a good brush pile, I wear it out. I'll start on the outside and work my way toward the center of the pile."
To fish vertically around structure, many professional anglers "slow troll" with spider rigs. They dangle several rods in holders off their boat bows. Using eight 14- to 16-foot rods arrayed in a fan shape almost like part of a spider web, anglers can cut a wide swath through the water. By fishing multiple rigs set at varied lengths, anglers can zero in on the correct depth. In addition, anglers can simultaneously deploy a combination of live and plastic baits to see what the fish want to eat that day.
"During the post-spawn, fish are usually in deeper water, but are not necessarily on the bottom," said professional crappie angler Steve Ferguson. "They could suspend above the structure. When a spring cold front moves through the area, it pushes fish down into structure. When the temperature drops, fish tighter to structure. When fish don't want to bite, I'll back off and go right across the brush pile and back. Sometimes, we have to aggravate fish into biting."
Fishing a spider rig, anglers gently push forward with just enough electric power to give the lures a bit of action, typically less than one mile per hour. Others simply drift with the wind across a good area. In a hot spot, keep circling to leave baits in the water longer. Crappie often suspend, looking up to spot baitfish silhouetted against the surface.
You can zero in on the proper depth by turning the boat. As the boat turns, baits on the outside rise slightly while the ones on the inside turn dive a bit deeper. Pay attention to which baits work best and when. Then make depth and lure selection adjustments.
"Spider rigging is a technique that catches big crappie all year long because it's such a slow, vertical presentation," said another crappie pro, Whitey Outlaw. "With spider rigging, I can control the bait much better than when fishing with other methods. Sometimes, we put the lead on the bottom, but more often, we drop it down to the depth where the fish suspend. Suspended crappie are easy to catch if you can find out the
depth they want. With a spider rig, we can catch a mess of fish in a short time in the right spot. I've seen where seven or eight rods all have fish on at one time. That gets right hectic!"
After spawning, stressed fish might need a little extra incentive to bite. Even when they do bite, they might barely take a bait. Quite often, especially in cold water, you won't even notice the nibble. Besides live minnows, you can offer finicky crappie additional morsels. Some anglers tip plastic jigs with bait or flavored scent pellets to make fussy fish bite more and hang on longer.
"During the post-spawn, crappie are always finicky," Ronnie Capps said. "We tip our jigs with waxworms. We'll catch bigger fish on minnows, but more fish on waxworms."
Almost like bass fishing, anglers can also cast light baits around brush piles. Hit the brush pile from all angles and experiment with various depths. Anglers can use tube jigs, spinnerbaits, tiny jerkbaits or small crankbaits to probe cover edges.
"Sometimes, I cast 1/8-ounce jigs on an ultralight spinning rod for post-spawn crappie," said Joey Briggs, a professional angler. "When fishing suspended crappie, it's important to watch the graphs. With good electronics, we can see where the fish suspend. When we find the right depth, we put the jig just above them. I throw the jig past the brush pile and count down until the bait hits the right depth. I like to fish a jig just above the brush pile. If I think I'm going too slowly, I slow it down some more."
Many lakes contain little natural cover, although crappie anglers often build their own brush piles to attract fish. On these waters, docks frequently provide the best cover. Fish naturally congregate under docks to seek refuge from predators and sunshine. Quite often, dock owners drop Christmas trees, yard debris, branches or other material around their piers to make fish habitat. These artificial reefs attract minnows, freshwater shrimp, shad and small sunfish, all excellent food sources for hungry crappie.
"In the post-spawn, fish get under docks to relax after the stressful spawning process," explained professional crappie angler Randy Pope. "The ideal dock would be a floater in 20 feet of water with brush on it and some shade. When fishing a tournament, we hit every dock we can find until we figure out which ones hold fish. Sometimes, we catch one or two fish off a dock and then move to the next one. Sometimes, we catch a bunch of fish off one dock without moving."
Many anglers troll or cast baits around the dock edges or fish the nearby brush piles. However, the biggest fish may lurk way under the dock where few predators or anglers can reach them. To tempt hunkered-down slabs, "shoot the docks" by skipping baits as far as possible underneath.
For shooting docks, Pope recommends a 5-foot ultralight spinning rod loaded with 4-pound test line. He grabs the jighead, bends the rod tip back and lets the bait fly almost like shooting a bow. When done correctly, the lure hits the water at a low angle and skips far back under the dock.
"Shooting docks is almost like skipping rocks under docks," said Steve Deit, Pope's partner on professional crappie trails. "You have to get the jig to the fish to catch them. It's a technique that works best on lakes that don't have a lot of other cover. Shooting docks is a really good system for catching post-spawn fish. In fact, it's one of the best ways to catch crappie at that time of year, especially in deep lakes."
Good dock shooters can often catch fish that most other anglers can't even tempt. Few anglers can skip baits much farther back than a few feet from the edge so the fish seldom see lures. Look for docks with intact spider webs hanging from them, an indication that no one fished those waters for a while.
Whether shooting docks, casting, slow trolling or dangling live baits around cover, anglers shouldn't stop fishing for crappie just because the weather turns a little warmer. Crappie must eat all year long. Therefore, anglers can catch them all year long.
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