April is a great time to catch some really nice crappie if you know where to look. Crappie instinctively feels when the time to spawn is nearing and will begin to slowly move into crappie spawning grounds in preparation. Many anglers focus on water temperature as the trigger that starts the crappie spawn, but science tells us that even more important factor over water temperature is the “photoperiod” or length of daylight. This photoperiod is the main trigger to the crappie spawn and has been proven scientifically and some will argue that water temperature has little to do with the crappie spawn, but I know many crappie anglers, including myself, that still rely on water temperature, maybe it’s the warmer air that triggers more crappie anglers to get on the water. In any case, regardless of when the spawn begins there is always a few slab crappie to be had even during the coldest of springs.
My initial approach to early spring crappie fishing is to check shallow cover for spawning crappie. I usually do this even when I'm sure they're not up shallow yet. I guess it’s just habit because that’s where we always looked when I was a kid. We never fished deep for crappie but crappie fishing has come a long way since then and serious crappie anglers know that the deeper water holds the slabs when the water temperature is cold. Some anglers never fish shallow claiming that the big females are only shallow long enough to lay their eggs, then move back to deeper water and knowing this along with a few other tips and techniques will help you load the cooler with more slabs all year long.
Spring is always hit or miss for shallow water crappie but crappie anglers that fish deep water have been enjoying some good crappie catches all year long. If you are a fair weather angler, as many of us are, then waiting until the crappie move into the shallow cover is normally the way to go, but if you want to add a few more weeks to your springtime crappie fishing read on.
The males are the first to move into shallow cover to build the beds that attract the female crappie. This activity is triggered by the photoperiod and can begin to happen earlier than you might expect. While there is definitely a peak spawning time when you catch crappie one after another there is also a lead and a lag when the fishing is a little slower but can easily fill a limit if you know where to look. There are little things that will let you know where the big crappie are and with a little practice you can target those bigger fish while others are catching countless little ones up shallow and here is how to do it.
The extended length of daylight, or photoperiod, triggers the instinct in crappie to spawn. The spawn is going to happen regardless of the water temperature, at least to some extent, so getting out there searching for these activities is key to extending your season. The initial indication that the spawn is near is a wave of males moving into the classic cover in the shallows. Trees, brush, rip rap, stake beds all attract spawners. Paying attention to what is going on is key to locating those elusive slabs this spring. If you start in the shallows and are catching smaller fish this tells you that the males are up, but the females are still hanging back in deeper water. The females won’t be far from this spawning activity so look for deeper water nearby. You can locate crappie with your fish finder or just fish the deeper areas. These fish are hungry and will bite a jig or minnow dangled at their depth.
Once you have determined that the female crappie are not yet up shallow a great technique for locating those transitioning slabs out deep is the spider rig. The spider rig is several rods spread out in front of your boat by using several rod holders. This allows you to search many different depths, colors or baits. Use your trolling motor to slowly ease out from the shallows adjusting the depth you're fishing as you go into deeper water. This technique allows you to keep your baits at the optimum depths where you are seeing fish on your locator. Once you get a bite just note the depth you had your bait and set the other baits at that depth. If you continue to catch fish on one certain bait or color, then use that on all your rods and have fun.
If you don’t have a spider rig set up on your boat you can just set a couple of rods over the side of your bow. You can tie on the double jig rig to increase your search range. By tying two jigs or minnows to each rod you can probe four different depths with just two rods and help you locate the school that wants to bite. Oftentimes there is a certain depth that hold feeding crappie so seeing them on your fish finder is only a starting point. It is important to locate the preferred depth in which they are feeding. Many times anglers will fish the depth where they see large numbers and fail to get bites. There are times when the depth you see one fish here two fish there is the depth that you need to fish to get your limit. Be sure to fish all the depths that you’re seeing fish and you can narrow down where the more aggressive ones are holding and get more bites.
Searching for those larger females in deeper water isn’t just for those with boats. If you are a shore angler the slip bobber is a great way to probe the deeper water near the shallows. I could write an entire article on slip bobber types and techniques, but for this application just rig up your favorite slip bobber and begin to search the different depths until you locate that magical depth that are holding bigger females. By using a couple of rods you can incrementally adjust the depths of each one to search. While jigs will work for this slip bobber technique most anglers prefer minnows. It helps to study a lake map to find deep water near spawning areas. It is important to set up on the shore where a creek or river channel swings in next to a spawning cove. This gives you plenty of deep staging water to fish within casting distance.
I hear so many anglers complaining about the long winter and how long it will be before they can go fishing but remember that the photoperiod really sets the spawn into motion and the crappie will begin to feed a lot earlier than you might think, even in cold water.
Waiting for warmer air temps will offer you plenty of action in the shallows but you might be surprised just how good the fishing can be both before and after the peak of the spawn. By learning to read the signals of the winter to spring transition you can enjoy more fishing time this spring and more fillets in the freezer this winter. Break out the windbreaker and stocking cap and get out there and shake those cabin fever blues with a day on the water catching our favorite panfish this spring and extend your spring crappie season.