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Fishing for Crappie
By Jim Wahl, Fisheries Biologist, Iowa DNR
Crappies are one of our most frequently caught panfish and they are exceedingly popular with Iowa anglers. To anyone that has caught a stringer of crappie, it is easy to understand the reason behind this popularity. They are a fish for all anglers. The method and equipment necessary to catch this fish are simple and inexpensive, and their statewide distribution makes them accessible to nearly all anglers. Crappies are found in a large variety of waters including natural and man-made lakes, oxbow lakes, reservoirs, and small ponds. Although crappies prefer standing water, they are also found in moderate to large interior streams, as well as the backwaters and oxbows of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Many natural lakes in northern Iowa support substantial populations of crappie, and although these populations are not as large as those found in southern Iowa waters, the fish are usually larger. Crappies in the natural lakes are most vulnerable during the spring spawning period. Consistent catches during the remainder of the year are more difficult. In contrast, crappie in the man-made lakes are generally quite abundant and they are vulnerable throughout the entire year. Fish are frequently caught during summer, fall, and winter, as well as during the spring spawning period.
Because environmental conditions vary widely from one lake to the next, it is important to find the most productive season in your own locality and then concentrate your efforts during this period of peak activity. The most productive season for crappie fishing is during spring when fish movements are related to spawning. Depending upon which part of the state you fish, this will normally occur sometime in May when the water temperature ranges from 58 to 68 degrees F. Locating fish during the pre-spawn/spawn period will produce excellent stringers of fish.
During early spring, crappies move into shallow water areas where the water temperature is rising rapidly. When the water temperature and photoperiod (the 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. Spawning often takes place near the base of vegetation stands, so look carefully for emerging vegetation, such as bulrush or cattail. Although both males and females can be caught, catches are frequently dominated by males. They become extremely aggressive at spawning time and will often strike at a bait in an attempt to defend their nest.
In natural lakes look for spring crappie near inlets, adjoining marshes, canals and marinas. Spawning crappie in small lakes are generally found in coves or near the rock armor on dams. In large flood control reservoirs spring-time crappie frequently congregate in large embayments in close proximity to submerged structure. The turbid water flowing into these reaches from feeder creeks warms faster than the deep water mainstem water and attracts crappies that are searching for spawning sites. Spring-time crappies will also concentrate in the tailwaters below the dams of these impoundments. But the success of this fishery is often dependent upon downstream release rates.
During summer crappies leave shallow waters, which they had frequented during the spring, and move into the deeper, cooler water at depths from 8 to 25 feet. Locating fish during this time can be frustrating, and without the aid of an electronic fish finder it is a matter of trial-and-error until the right depth is found. Schools of crappie will suspend in the water column at a certain depth. In lakes which stratify, this location will usually be just above the thermocline. Anglers should remember that water below this layer contains little or no oxygen to support fish life. Drift fishing is, by far, the most popular and highly successful method used by fishermen to locate and catch crappie in the doldrums of summer. Once the fish are located, they can be caught in conventional ways by anchoring and still fishing, or simply by continuing to drift fish.
Crappies also orient near underwater structures during the summer. Flooded timber provides shade, cover and food and is an excellent place to catch crappie. Unfortunately, much of the natural habitat in many of our man-made lakes was removed during construction. However, in many of the lakes, which are devoid of natural habitat, structures have been enhanced by the placement of artificial fish attractors, such as stake beds, brush piles, or discarded tire reefs. Crappies readily utilize these objects, and they are particularly attracted to stake beds. These sites are frequently marked with buoys, signs on the shore, or on contour maps as an aid to anglers -- watch for these markers.
Crappies once again move into shallower depths during autumn and closely associate with shoreline structures. They may be found in close proximity to weed lines, rocky points, flooded stream channels, or a variety of other habitats. Cooler water temperatures stimulate more aggressive feeding behavior.
Ice fishing can be productive, particularly in southern Iowa lakes and in Mississippi River backwaters. In general, early (December) and late (March) ice periods provide the best catches of crappie. Fish can be found in shallow bays, near flooded creek channels, or over large flats. Often times in winter, crappies will be suspended just off the bottom, and locating the proper depth is once again important.
Crappies are frequently caught throughout the entire daylight period, but the early morning and twilight evening periods are consistently the best. Fish may also be caught at night if fishing is done under lights. Anglers have found that crappies are attracted to light sources and will feed under them during both open water and ice fishing seasons.
Most any type of fishing equipment can be used for crappie. It may be as simple as a cane pole or as sophisticated as a boron ultra-light spinning outfit. Although the use of highly sophisticated equipment is not necessary, the development of modern man-made material for rods has made the detection of "soft" strikes much easier and the angler becomes a better fisherman. The most important suggestion is that, regardless of the personal choice of tackle, it should be light-weight gear. Ultra-light spinning or casting rods equipped with light-weight reels are the best choice and make the detection of a light or short strike easier. Lightweight monofilament line, not exceeding 6 pound-test, should be used.
The most productive and universal artifical lure for crappie is the leadhead jig, which imitates a small minnow when fished properly. These lures are constructed from a variety of material, and come in a nearly unending assortment of colors and sizes. The most popular crappie leadheads seem to be either feathered or plastic-bodied. Although a variety of colors work, the most consistent producers are white, yellow and chartreuse. Hook size is relatively unimportant in spring and fall, but small leadheads of no more than one-sixteenth ounce are most popular. They can be fished with or without a bobber, but the bobberless rig has more flexibility in trying different depths. Crappies frequently move up from beneath to take a lure, and thus many anglers prefer to suspend their jig from a small bobber. Regardless of whether or not a bobber is used, jigs should always be fished at least a foot off the bottom. Drift fishermen will often times tie two jigs to one line, with one jig a foot or two higher than the other. This technique allows different depths to be fished simultaneously.
Small minnows are, by far, the best live bait for crappies, both in open water and for ice fishing. Selection of the proper-sized minnow is very important. Most bait shops will carry several sizes and generally refer to the smallest size as crappie minnows. A minnow measuring from l- to l l/2-inches in length is preferable. Hook the minnow through the back just below the dorsal fin -- be careful not to penetrate the spine. Hooking the minnow in this fashion will allow it to swim freely and live longer. Some anglers prefer to pinch or cut off the top of the tail fin because this seems to make the minnow more active. When a person is fishing with minnows a small hook (size no. 4, 6 or 8) should be used with a light split shot placed about a foot above the hook. Some crappie fishermen also tip a leadhead jig with a small minnow on occasion when fishing is slow. When using a jig and minnow combination, hook the minnow through both lips instead of in the back.
Other popular live baits for crappie, particularly during the ice fishing season, include a large assortment of insect larvae. Waxworms, mousies, mealworms, and silver wigglers all work well when placed on a small teardrop lure. Some ice fishermen prefer to use cut bait, flesh from the belly or the cheek patch of another fish. Cut bait can be fished either on a small hook or tipped on a jigging spoon.
Crappie fishing has become a year-around activity for Iowa anglers both in open water and ice fishing. In open water seasons fishermen can fish either from shore or in a boat. Like so many fishing methods, both have some advantages and disadvantages. Shore fishermen have a wide choice, either fishing by wading or from the shoreline, a dock or jetty. Probably the best of these methods is wading, especially in the spring pre-spawn period when the crappie are in shallow water. Little equipment is needed other than a suitable pair of chest waders or hip boots. Wading fishermen have a distinct advantage since they can approach likely spots without spooking fish in the shallow water. Most wading anglers use small leadhead lures or minnows that are suspended from a small bobber and fish parallel with the shoreline by casting, then slowly retrieving the bait.
Crappies frequently utilize the shade offered by docks or other floating structures during summer. These areas are attractive because there is an abundance of food and the water temperature is cooler. Still fishing under or around docks can be very productive.
Many of the state and county-owned lakes have fishing jetties. In many locations stake beds have been placed within casting distance of these jetties and crappie may be suspended near these sructures. Stake beds can be successfully fished by attaching the bait to a bobber at a height which will allow the bait to clear the top of the stakes. Fishing in this manner will reduce the amount of tackle lost and also entice strikes from crappies rising to the bait.
Crappies have a soft, fleshy mouth, and they are frequently referred to as "papermouths." Because of the soft membrane near the jaw, anglers should be very careful when setting the hook and handling crappie. Setting the hook with too much force will only tear the mouth and result in lost fish.
Boat anglers usually fish for crappie by drifting, trolling, or still fishing. Drift fishing is a very popular and productive method in man-made lakes druing summer when crappies are suspended just above the thermocline and are dispersed throughout the lake. Drifting allows a fisherman to cover a large area, and several depths can be fished depending upon the amount of line released and the weight used. If the wind is too strong and the bait moving too fast, the use of a sea anchor will slow the drift. In a situation where the wind is insufficient to move the boat, an electric trolling motor works well. Remember, crappies prefer to have the bait moving.
Still fishing works quite well once a large school of fish is located. Lines can be rigged to fish vertically off the side of the boat. If the action slows, casting with a steady retrieve may draw the fish back to the boat. Anchoring within stands of flooded timber or other habitat structures will also work for still fishing. Don't disregard the opportunity to jig a leadhead directly underneath in these habitats or to use a float to suspend a lure or bait just above the structure.
Many of the same crappie fishing methods that are used in the open water period also work as well for ice fishing. Ice fishermen should remember to move frequently until schools of fish are located. Much like open water, crappies are generally suspended, and it may be necessary to experiment at several depths until the crappies are found.
Regardless of whether artificial or live bait is used, move it frequently. Movement often attracts fish into the vicinity and usually provokes strikes. Jigging spoons should be snapped vertically by moving the wrist upward with a sweeping motion of the arm. When using live bait and a bobber, pick the float off the surface and jiggle the line ever-so-often. Sometimes crappie fishing in the winter is more productive at night than in daylight. A gas lantern not only provides light to see by but often times attracts curious fish.
Crappies offer a tremendous amount of enjoyment to Iowa anglers. Action can be feverishly fast and when caught on lightweight equipment, crappie provide a scrappy fight. Little wonder they are so popular with our fishermen.
*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.