Early Season Crappie Tips

early season crappie

How to Catch More Early Season Crappie

3 Tips to Locate and Catch Early Season Crappie

  • Check shallow cover first
  • Fish out toward the main lake following likely migration routes, like creek channels, until you find the crappie
  • Spider-rigging will be your most efficient way to find and catch early crappie by allowing you to fish slowly and methodically
  • Watch for baitfish on your fish finder, the crappie should be nearby


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 an even more important factor is the “photoperiod” or length of daylight. This photo-period is the main trigger to the crappie spawn. It 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’s always a few crappie spawning  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. It’s 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.

Early Season Crappie Tips
Nathan Noblitt with a nice early season crappie. Rambling Angler Outdoors

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 you can set a couple rods over the side. Tie on the double jig rig to increase your search range. By tying two baits to each rod you can probe four different depths with just two rods. This will help you locate the crappie that wants to bite. Oftentimes there’s a certain depth that hold feeding crappie.

Seeing schools of crappie on your sonar is just a starting point. It’s important to locate the depth in which they’re 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 crappie are holding.


Searching for larger females in deep water isn’t just for those with boats. If you’re a shore angler the slip bobber is a great way to probe the deeper water near shore. I could write an entire article on slip bobber types and techniques, but for this application just rig up your favorite slip bobber and search the different depths until you locate the depth that’s 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’s 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.

Crappie fishing can be great during both pre-spawn and post-spawn periods. During a gradual spawn the bite will be spread out over time you just have to find the fish that are biting. 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.

How Do You Catch Crappies in the Spring

It’s springtime, you have cabin fever and you’ve been waiting to go fishing all winter long. Snow isn’t in the forecast and warm sunny days tease you into thinking it’s time. The tackle box finally receives a little attention. You sort and organize the jigs, sinkers, bobbers and hooks in preparation of spring crappie fishing. You lube the reels and spool them with new line in preparation for the trip. Ah, the smells of springtime crappie season, dandelions and dogwood blooms mixed with a little WD-40 and salted grubs. 

Those warm sunny days will trick the most seasoned angler into thinking it’s time. Most veteran crappie anglers know that the bite will be slow, but they go anyway to escape the house. Going fishing feels good and it’s a great time to work out the bugs in your equipment and put a few crappie in the basket while you’re at it.

Shop Crappie Gear

Crappie in Moderation 

I can remember launching the 16-foot v-hull and the smell of the old Evinrude as it sputtered to life after a few hard pulls. My grandfather never used an anchor. We just eased into the middle of a brush pile and he would hold onto a limb. We would dip our marabou jigs, the only bait my grandfather used, into every hole we could fit them. Most of the time we caught a couple slabs, moved on to the next brush pile, and repeated the process. 

I remember how boring it was, but we almost always went home with a few crappies and I don’t recall ever catching a small one this way. My grandfather always said “everything in moderation”. I guess that meant crappie too, because we stopped when we had 8 or 10 slabs in the cooler. No matter how long it took.

When Crappie Aren’t in the Brush

When the crappie wasn’t holding in the brush or tree-tops along the bank my grandfather wasted no time switching gears. If the first couple of brush piles didn’t produce he grabbed an old Styrofoam minnow bucket and a broomstick with something attached to the end and a wire wrapped around it, spiraling up to the other end. He attached the wire inside the minnow bucket and stuck the end of the broomstick in the water. He steered the tiller motor with one hand and held the broomstick with the other focusing intently into the Styrofoam minnow bucket. My grandfather explained to me what he was doing, but it would be years later before I understood. He was searching for the migrating schools of deep water crappie heading to their spawning grounds. My grandfather was ahead of his time, without a doubt.

Early Crappie Fishing with my Grandfather

I can see my grandfather staring into the crystal minnow bucket (my name for it). His look was serious and only left the bucket to get his bearings on the creek channel. His eyes squinted to read the contraption inside the bucket while he chewed on the Red Man in his jaw. “Ok Ken. Right here,” he would finally say, but not before a spit of Red Man stained the water next to the boat.

I was ready before he even said OK. The spit was my cue. He never spit while he searched the crystal minnow bucket, only after he found the brush below. Again, I know he explained, but like so many lessons he taught me in my youth I only truly began to listen long after he was gone. This lesson was no exception. It even took applying the technique before realizing that my grandfather, who was very old school even in the ’70s, was actually using electronics to locate brush piles along a creek channel. A flasher unit was inside that minnow bucket. It was used to shade the orange bars that flashed around the unit. The styrofoam protected also protected it when stored in the barn.

Early Season Crappie Movement Patterns

I remember him telling me that the crappie would move from the creek channel to shallow water to spawn. They always travel from one form of cover to the next as they travel to their spawning grounds. Even if the journey is longer. This came back to me when I decided one day to search for early crappie in a little deeper water and discovered stake beds lined up in a neat row leading straight from the creek channel to a shallow spawning area. I began jigging a white marabou jig and finally found them in 17 feet of water suspended in a huge manmade stake bed. The aha moment, 30 years later, hit me like a ton of bricks.

This early season crappie tactic isn’t new to many crappie anglers. Personally, I only searched for deep water crappie along creek channels. That is until I realized the importance of this cover. Not to say the creek channel won’t produce but finding brush that leads from the creeks into shallow water will help you concentrate your efforts on spots that are more likely to hold a few fish.

Locating these travel routes are not always easy. It may take some extra time searching the fish finder for these crappie magnets. The cover, more times than not, will not be in a continuous line. Look for stake beds and brush piles along the creek channel. Work your way to shallower water searching for another brush pile. In the early season, when the days are warm and the water is still cold, crappie will use these travel routes to move from shallow to deep depending on the water temp as it fluctuates throughout the day. Hit each spot of cover until you find some fish and then move with them. If you know of a good spawning area for crappie at your lake you can create your own travel route, where legal, by sinking stake beds or brush in a straight line from shallow to deep water.

How to Locate Brushpiles for Early Season Crappie

Another great tip is to use the winter pool on your lake to locate key cover for the spring. Winter pool is the low water level maintained throughout the winter on most crappie lakes. There is a lot of cover visible when the water is low and marking these either physically with a piece of cane or electronically with your fish finder or GPS unit. Make sure the cane will be visible at summer pool, when the water rises, if this is your method. Locating this cover in the winter will be a gold mine when the water covers them in the spring. It will provide you with your very own brush pile or stake beds that other anglers will pass up leaving all those crappies undisturbed.

A note worth mentioning. Black crappie will be shallow earlier than white crappie. Be sure to keep those shallow brush piles and stake beds honest by checking them out periodically. Oftentimes a single black crappie will occupy a brush pile. They are more territorial than white crappie. If you catch a black crappie from a brush pile be sure to fish it later. A lot of times another crappie will quickly move in and occupy the same, now safe to enter, brush pile. Use these tips this spring and catch a few more crappies and locate your own spots away from the crowds using your own crystal minnow bucket. 

Try my Crappie Balls a great crappie recipe for spring crappie season

Early Spring Crappie Fishing Video

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