With the earlier-than-normal ice-out, the spring of 2020 promises to be a good season for one of my favorite types of early-season fishing – chasing crappies. It’s not a “run,” like the earlier “walleye run,” since I hesitate to use the word “run” in relation to crappies. They never seem to be in a hurry. Instead, this bite represents a gathering of adult fish in areas that provide warming water, cover, and small minnows.
Fish first move into channels that lead to shallow dark-bottom bays that warm quickly on sunny days. They then enter protected bays of lakes or backwaters on river systems. The third phase of this shift is the group of crappies that moves into shoreline areas of the main lake for the spawn. This takes place a little later. The first shallow movement can occur while ice still covers the main lake. In some large lakes, crappies can be found in all three zones, but over a time period that can last three weeks.
Once water temperatures rise into the mid-40-degree range, the early bite starts fast and can be lights-out, as fish are eager to feed and get ready to spawn. But as often happens in spring, cold fronts and dropping water temperatures stall the bite and actually push fish out of shallow areas to seek more stable conditions in deeper water.
A few days of milder conditions get things back on track. On sunny, calm days, you can spot crappies holding in cover near the surface, seemingly soaking up the sun’s rays, but they move deeper in cloudy conditions and early in the day. The late-afternoon and evening bite is best for that reason.
For the early bite, it’s hard to beat a small, tail-hooked minnow on a slip float and fished near beaver lodges, fallen trees, and thicker weed clumps. Tiny hair and marabou jigs and jigheads with little softbaits work, too, and they improve as the water warms. When the bite is on, it’s faster and more efficient to use artificials.
Slip floats allow you to adjust the distance of your lure or bait below the surface, to match the position of the crappies. It sometimes takes awhile to lure cold-water crappies into biting, so don’t fish too fast.
When I’m searching for groups of fish in water less than 3 or 4 feet deep, I also use a fixed float, with a jig set a foot or two above bottom. When you pull this float, the lure rises then falls, an action spring crappies can’t resist.
To fish these light rigs, I keep it simple with a 7-foot light-power spinning rod, such as the St. Croix Panfish Series, with 4-pound mono. Years ago, we’d anchor the boat in key spots and catch fish after fish. These days, I’d feel lost without my set of Minn Kota Talons that pin the boat in place at the touch of a button.
I want to stress one final note about spring panfish: That’s the need for anglers to harvest crappies and bluegills selectively. This a great opportunity to catch a mess of fish for a meal or two. But these fish are grouped up and you can catch the biggest panfish of the year.
For the good of the population and the future of fishing, releasing outsize specimens is very important. Crappies over 12 inches and bluegills over 9 should be released to continue their growth to trophy-size fish and to spawn more quality-size fish. Overharvest of these old, large fish can quickly lead to a stunted population with too many tiny ones. Mid-sized adults make a fine meal, and allow the population to thrive.