Legendary fisherman Bill Dance is fond of saying that in the spring, "everybody is a crappie expert."
For it is in spring that the crappie are easily accessible and a breeze to locate because they will be shallow and spawning in obvious places, often adjacent to visible cover. And their protective instincts create a crappie that is quite cooperative during their time on the beds.
But it’s the other 90 percent of the time when the true crappie experts show their colors. It is the other 90 percent of the year that crappie are deep and much more difficult to find.
“The fact is that crappie spend the vast majority of their lives in deep water, not shallow water, which is what most people prefer,” Dance claims. “So the fact is that if you are going to catch crappie in other seasons, you'll have to learn to fish deeper water.”
That certainly applies to this time of the year and prespawn crappie.
In late January through May, depending on your geography, crappie are in a prespawn mode. Most will be making a transitional move from their deepest winter homes to shallower water (but still deep by most anglers' definition) in preparation for the move that every crappie fisherman enjoys most—the spring spawn.
In early spring, prespawn crappie will be somewhere between spawning grounds and their deepwater winter lairs. (DTO photo)
Because prespawn crappie stay deep and are not usually found close to visible cover, they remain a mystery to many fishermen. But locating them is not as difficult as it might seem when armed with an understanding of the biological nature of the creature, which dictates some predictability.
While they can be located and caught, don't look to fill the livewell with the same quantity that the spring spawning season provides. There is plenty of good fishing to be had with prespawners, but nothing like the numbers produced during the spawn.
Not Shallow, But Not Deep
“Prespawn crappie, if you can find them, you can usually catch them,” says Alabama’s Tom Mann, another fishing legend and crappie enthusiast. “They'll usually bite. But the problem with prespawn crappie is locating them.
During this time, Mann finds them suspended in between really deep water and the shallows. “They're not in real deep water and they're not on the bank. They’re starting toward the bank and they haven't quite got there,” he says. “You just won't find them in big bunches like you will a little later in the spring.”
Mann adds that one advantage with prespawn crappie, though, is that once you establish the depth at which the fish are holding on that particular day, they will be found at the same uniform depth throughout the lake.
Don't get the idea that locating prespawn crappie is an impossible mission or, at the very least, practically impossible.
By understanding some behavioral characteristics of crappie, locating them during the prespawn stage becomes much easier, according to Ken Cook, a successful tournament bass pro, avid crappie fisherman and former fisheries biologist who did considerable research on the species in Oklahoma. His background coupled with his sheer enthusiasm for crappie fishing sheds significant light into the mysteries of locating and catching prespawn crappie.
“You need to understand some basic things about crappie,” Cook says. “Crappie are really a deep-water fish, much more so than largemouth bass. But like largemouth bass, they live in association with cover a lot, because of their nature.
Crappies will be scattered rather than schooled up at this time, but often found at the same depth throughout the lake. (Photo by Tim Tucker)
“They're also very gregarious and they live in schools. But they tend to suspend a lot. So they spend most of the year in deep water suspended over or around cover. Prespawn crappie are like bass in that they've got to eat. Sometimes as the water warms up, they go through a feeding period, but they don't have to move shallow to do it. That means that you still have to fish deep for crappie right up until they move onto the beds. The males move in first, while the big females stay put in the deep water suspended over a brushpile or whatever the cover is.
When they do move up, Cook adds, it's a quick move from deep to shallow. During the spawning season, the males move up and prepare the bed, but they don't stay in that shallow water as long as a bass does. “The fishing is only good in the shallow water for a limited period of time,” he says, “which is why you have to learn to fish deep water to catch crappie most of the year.”
That includes the prespawn stage just before the fish make that final move upward to the spawning areas.
According to Cook, the prespawn migration from the deepest winter homes begins when the water temperature is between 55 and 60 degrees, depending on the geographical location of the lake or reservoir. The crappie are truly in a transitional phase during this time and, like most freshwater game fish, transitional fishing isn't the easiest to master.
They key to locating prespawn crappie, Cook claims, is first pinpointing traditional spawning areas and then working your way deeper.
On a typical lake or reservoir, the first place that crappie will spawn will be in the somewhat protected bays and pockets along the northern shoreline. Because of the position of the sun in this hemisphere, the northern shoreline (particularly the northwest portion) will be the section of the lake that first receives the full warming effect of the sun. The warmest water in the lake is where the crappie will start its spawning ritual, so subsequently, that is where the first prespawners will appear.
Keep in mind that not all of the crappie will be spawning at the same time. You can go around a large lake or reservoir and find crappie that are prespawners, spawners and still in their deep-water winter lairs in early March.
Find likely spawning grounds and then back off toward the nearest mid-depth structure. They'll bite if you can find them! (Photo by Tim Tucker)
Once you've located the likely shallow spawning sites, reverse your field and begin moving toward deeper water. During this transitional stage, prespawn crappie are going to be relating to some type of cover or structure—a creek-channel ledge or deeper brushpiles and stump rows—between where they have spent the winter and where they will spawn.
Locating that in-between cover or structure is the key to finding the prespawners.
“I look for areas where the crappie traditionally spawn and I then go back out to the nearest defined structure edge like a channel bank or ledge or the drop-off of a grassline in the first deep water and then fish the edge of that,” Cook explains. “To catch them, you have to back off of the shoreline and the spawning areas to the first drop-off or the first brushline. Actually, locating them is often quite easy.”
Finding = Catching
Understanding the predictability that nature provides us with, prespawn crappie fishing can actually be productive.
A prime example occurred on an outing with famed Kentucky Lake guide Steve McCadams late last February. The word around Kentucky Lake's extensive fishing industry was that the crappie fishing had been poor. That was not what we found, though.
McCadams pinpointed a school of prespawners in about 20 feet of water on a stump-laden ledge located several hundred yards from a shallow traditional spawning flat. Using a unique rig that positioned hooks at two different depths above a 1 1/2-ounce bell-shaped sinker, we scored with surprising consistency on this morning. In this situation, locating the crappie was more crucial than getting them to bite. Getting a strike was simply a matter of keeping the sinker in contact with the stumps on this ledge. The minnows did the rest.
Prespawn crappie fishing requires more skill and determination than fishing during the spawn. But it can be well worth the effort.