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Fishing for Crappie
Crappies are very popular with Iowa anglers. One of the most often caught panfish; they are a fish for anglers of all ages and experience. Where to Find ThemFind crappies in many waters including natural and man-made lakes, oxbow lakes, reservoirs and small ponds. Crappies like standing water, but also live in moderate to large interior streams, as well as Mississippi and Missouri river backwaters and oxbows.
Many northern Iowa natural lakes have large crappie populations. Although not as big of populations found in southern Iowa waters, the fish are usually larger. Crappies in natural and man-made lakes are most vulnerable during spring spawning and autumn. Consistent catches during the rest of the year are more difficult. Man-made lake crappies are abundant and more vulnerable throughout the year.
Spawning starts when the water temperature is 56 to 64 degrees F (sometime in May). Finding fish during the pre-spawn/spawn stage will lead to excellent stringers of fish. Crappies move into shallow water areas where the water temperature rises rapidly in early spring. When the water temperature and length of daylight are right, males move into the shallows near spawning sites and build bowl-shaped nests over gravel, sand or even muck substrates. Look carefully for emerging vegetation, such as bulrush or cattail, as spawning often takes place near the base of aquatic plants. Both males and females can be caught, but catches are often dominated by males. They become very aggressive at spawning time and will often strike a lure to defend their nest.
In natural lakes, look for spring crappie near inlets, adjoining marshes, canals and marinas. Find spawning crappies in small lakes in coves or near the rock armor on dams. In large flood control reservoirs, spring-time crappies often gather in large embayments close to submerged structure. The turbid water flowing into these reaches from feeder creeks warms faster than the deep, mainstem water and attracts crappies looking for spawning sites. Spring-time crappies also gather in the tailwaters below the dams of these impoundments.
Crappies leave the shallow waters they visited in the spring and move into deeper (8 to 25 feet), cooler water during summer. Finding fish can be frustrating, and without an electronic fish finder, it is trial-and-error until you find the right depth. Schools of crappie will suspend in the water column at different depths. In lakes which stratify, this will usually be just above the thermocline. The water below this layer has little or no oxygen to support fish life. Drift fishing is the most popular and successful way to find and catch crappie in the doldrums of summer. Once you find fish, they can be caught by anchoring and still-fishing or simply continuing to drift-fish.
Crappies also hide near underwater structures in the summer. Flooded timber provides shade, cover and food making it a great place to catch crappie. In recent years, more of the natural habitat (e.g., standing timber) in many man-made lakes is being kept during construction. Lakes without natural habitat have been improved by adding artificial fish attractors such as stake beds, brush piles or rock reefs. Crappies often use these objects and are mostly attracted to stake beds. Contour maps are available on the Iowa DNR website to help you find fish habitat sites.
Crappies once again move into shallower depths during autumn. Look near weed lines, rocky points, brush piles, flooded stream channels or a variety of other habitats. Cooler water triggers more aggressive feeding behavior.
EquipmentMost types of fishing equipment will catch crappies. It can be as simple as a cane pole or as special as a graphite ultra-light spinning outfit. The development of modern man-made material for rods has made detecting "soft" strikes much easier. Ultra-light spinning or casting rods with light-weight reels work best. Use lightweight monofilament line such as 2-4 pound-test (not to exceed 6 pound-test).
Baits & LuresSmall minnows are the best live bait for crappies. It is important to select the proper-sized minnow. Most bait shops have several sizes and usually refer to the smallest size as crappie minnows. A minnow measuring from 1- to 1½-inches in length is best. Hook the minnow through the back just below the dorsal fin; be careful not to pierce the spine. Hooking the minnow like this lets it swim freely and live longer. Some anglers like to pinch or cut off the top of the tail fin because this seems to make the minnow more active. Use a small hook (size no. 4, 6 or 8) with a light split shot placed about a foot above the hook. Some crappie anglers also tip a leadhead jig with a small minnow when fishing is slow. When using a jig and minnow combination, hook the minnow through both lips instead of in the back.
A leadhead jig, which imitates a small minnow when fished properly, is the most productive and universal artificial lure for crappies. Made from a variety of material, they come in many colors and sizes. Popular crappie leadheads are feathered or plastic-bodied (e.g., 1-1½ inch paddle- or curlytail plastics). A variety of colors work, but the most consistent are white, yellow and chartreuse especially in stained water. Dark colors such as blue or black work well in clear water.
Small leadheads with hook sizes from 1/80 ounce to no more than 1/16 ounce are most popular. Smaller sizes are often fished with a bobber, but larger sizes allow for a bobberless rig which is more flexible to try different depths. Crappies often move up from beneath to take a lure so many anglers suspend their jig from a small bobber. When a bobber is used, jigs should always be fished at least a foot off the bottom. Drift-anglers often tie two jigs to one line, with one jig a foot or two higher than the other. This allows lets you fish different depths at the same time.
An alternative to jigs is using wet or dry flies (dependent upon season) fished with a fly rod near structure. Fly-fishing for crappies may work well when jig-fishing methods are not working or the bite is light.
Crappies offer a terrific amount of enjoyment to Iowa anglers. Action can be very fast and when caught on lightweight equipment, crappies provide a scrappy fight.
Anglers can fish from shore or boat. Shore anglers have a wide choice, fishing by wading or from the shoreline, a dock or jetty. Wading is best, especially in the spring pre-spawn time when crappies are in shallow water. Little equipment is needed other than a pair of chest waders or hip boots. Wading anglers can get to likely spots without spooking fish in the shallow water. Most wading anglers use small leadhead lures or minnows suspended from a small bobber and fish parallel with the shoreline by casting, then slowly retrieving the bait.
Crappies often use the shade offered by docks or other floating structures in the summer. These areas have plenty of food and the water temperature is cooler. Try still-fishing under or around docks.
Many state and county-owned lakes have fishing jetties. Stake beds are often placed within casting distance of jetties and crappie may be suspended near these structures.Attach the bait to a bobber at a height that lets it clear the top of the stakes. This reduces the amount of tackle lost and entices strikes from crappies rising to the bait.
Crappies, often called "papermouths,” have a soft, fleshy mouth. Be careful when setting the hook and handling crappie. Using too much force to set the
hook can tear the soft membrane near the jaw and end in lost fish.
Boat anglers usually fish for crappie by drifting, trolling or still-fishing. Drift-fishing is very popular and productive in man-made lakes during summer when crappies are suspended just above the thermocline and spread throughout the lake. Drifting lets you cover a large area and fish several depths depending on the amount of line released and the weight used. If the wind is too strong and the bait moves too fast, use a sea anchor to help slow the drift. An electric trolling motor works well when the wind is not enough to move the boat. Crappies like to have the bait moving.
Still-fishing works well once a large school of fish is found. Lines can be rigged to fish vertically off the side of the boat. If the action slows, cast a small jig near structure edges, letting it sink until visibility is lost and retrieve slow and steady. Hungry fish often grab the jig on the drop or within the first few cranks of the reel. Anchoring within stands of flooded timber or other habitat structures also work for still-fishing. Don't ignore the chance to jig a leadhead directly underneath (i.e., vertical jig) in these habitats. Long fishing rods (12 feet) work well for vertical jigging as they let you reach further from the side of the boat. Try using a float to suspend a lure or bait just above structure.