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Fishing for Crappie
Crappies are exceedingly popular with Iowa anglers. One of the most frequently caught panfish; they are a fish for anglers of all ages and experience. Where to Find ThemCrappies are found in a large variety of waters including natural and man-made lakes, oxbow lakes, reservoirs and small ponds. Crappies prefer standing water, but are also found in moderate to large interior streams, as well as Mississippi and Missouri river backwaters and oxbows.
Many northern Iowa natural lakes support substantial crappie populations. Although not as plentiful as 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 remainder of the year are more difficult. Man-made lake crappies are abundant and more vulnerable throughout the year.
Spawning takes place when water temperature is 56 to 64 degrees F (sometime in May). Locating fish during the pre-spawn/spawn period will produce excellent stringers of fish. Crappies move into shallow water areas where the water temperature is rising 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 vegetation stands. Both males and females can be caught, but catches are frequently dominated by males. They become extremely aggressive at spawning time and will often strike a lure in an attempt to defend their nest.
In natural lakes, look for spring crappie near inlets, adjoining marshes, canals and marinas. Spawning crappies in small lakes are found in coves or near the rock armor on dams. In large flood control reservoirs, spring-time crappies 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, mainstem water and attracts crappies searching for spawning sites. Spring-time crappies will also concentrate in the tailwaters below the dams of these impoundments.
Crappies leave the shallow waters they frequented in the spring and move into deeper (8 to 25 feet), cooler water during summer. Finding fish can be frustrating, and without the aid of an electronic fish finder, it is trial-and-error until the right depth is located. Schools of crappie will suspend in the water column at variable depths. In lakes which stratify, this location will usually be just above the thermocline. The water below this layer contains little or no oxygen to support fish life. Drift fishing is the most popular and successful technique to find and catch crappie in the doldrums of summer. Once the fish are located, they can be caught by anchoring and still-fishing or simply continuing to drift-fish.
Crappies also orient near underwater structures in the summer. Flooded timber provides shade, cover and food making it an excellent place to catch crappie. In recent years, more of the natural habitat (e.g., standing timber) in many man-made lakes is being retained during construction. Lakes which lack natural habitat have been enhanced by the placement of artificial fish attractors such as stake beds, brush piles or rock reefs. Crappies readily use these objects and are particularly attracted to stake beds.Locate fish habitat sites by reviewing contour maps available on the Iowa DNR website.
Crappies once again move into shallower depths during autumn. They may be found near weed lines, rocky points, brush piles, flooded stream channels or a variety of other habitats. Cooler water stimulates more aggressive feeding behavior.
EquipmentCrappie can be caught on most types of fishing equipment. It can be as simple as a cane pole or as sophisticated as a graphite ultra-light spinning outfit. The development of modern man-made material for rods has made the detection of "soft" strikes much easier. 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. 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 carry several sizes and generally refer to the smallest size as crappie minnows. A minnow measuring from 1- to 1½-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 like this 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. 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 on occasion 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. Constructed from a variety of material, they come in a nearly unending assortment of 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 has more flexibility in trying different depths. Crappies frequently move up from beneath to take a lure so many anglers prefer to 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 you to fish different depths simultaneously.
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 unproductive or the bite is light.
Crappies offer a tremendous amount of enjoyment to Iowa anglers. Action can be feverishly 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 period when the crappies are in shallow water. Little equipment is needed other than a suitable pair of chest waders or hip boots. Wading anglers can approach 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 frequently utilize the shade offered by docks or other floating structures in the 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 state and county-owned lakes have fishing jetties. In many locations stake beds have been placed within casting distance of jetties and crappie may be suspended near these structures. Stake beds can be successfully fished by attaching the bait to a bobber at a height which allows the bait to clear the top of the stakes. This reduces the amount of tackle lost and entices strikes from crappies rising to the bait.
Crappies, frequently referred to as "papermouths,” have a soft, fleshy mouth. Be careful when setting the hook and handling crappie. Setting the hook with too much force could 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 dispersed throughout the lake. Drifting lets you cover a large area and fish several depths depending upon 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 insufficient to move the boat. Crappies prefer to have the bait moving.
Still-fishing works 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, crappie can be enticed to bite by casting a small jig near structure edges, allowing it to sink until visibility is lost and retrieving slow and steady. Hungry fish will 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 disregard the opportunity 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 allow you to reach further from the side of the boat.Don’t hesitate to use a float to suspend a lure or bait just above structure.