5 Strategies to Catch Big Early-Season Crappies

How to catch the biggest crappies before the spawn.

Crappie fishing can unnerve the most resolute angler. In the chilly advent of spring, our favorite panfish often seem to have a bad case of lockjaw and "normal" fishing tactics won't produce. You can catch tight-lipped slabs , however, if you're willing to think "outside the box" and try some radical fishing methods.

1. Fish Open Water, Too

Cold-water crappies often hold on deep cover and structure, making them difficult to pinpoint. To bring crappies and anglers together, fishery managers place brush-pile fish attractors in prime waters. These shelters, constructed from bundles of anchored trees marked with buoys, are helpful to anglers unfamiliar with a lake bottom's topography and to those who don't own depth finders. Crappie anglers often place their own brush piles in select locations as well, believing that an area without brush is an area without crappies.

In truth, not all big crappies are homebodies; some choose a nomadic life instead. Unlike small crappies, which find a safe haven from predators in a brush pile's maze of branches, the 2-pound-plus giants aren't on the menus of many meat-eaters. Their own appetites are substantial, however, so they often follow roaming schools of shad, feasting on these high-protein baitfish to fuel their internal furnaces.

"Shad schools prefer open water without obstructions like brush piles," says Oklahoma City crappie guide Todd Huckaby. "So you'll often catch bigger crappies if you fish near underwater ledges, riprap banks or anywhere that the shad are schooling."

First, it's important to determine the depth at which most of the shad are holding. Turn on the sonar unit and watch for the dark horizontal band that indicates a school of shad below. This indicates the right depth to fish.

Using a 12-foot jigging pole, rig two crappie jigs on dropper loops above a 1-ounce bank sinker. If shad are 8 to 10 feet deep, position the jigs so they'll be at 8 to 10 feet during a slow troll. Maintain a speed that keeps the line almost perpendicular to the water's surface. Lift and drop the rig slightly, maintaining a feel of the bottom as the weight bumps along.

Watch the sonar and keep the rig working in and around the shad school. Once past the school, turn and troll through it again. It's possible to catch two crappies on each pass with this rig and, typically, these will be "barn doors"--crappies that weigh 2 pounds and more.

Huckaby taught me this technique while fishing Oklahoma's Lake Eufaula last year, so I can attest to its integrity. We followed open-water shad schools for four hours, and I caught 17 crappies. The smallest fish on the stringer weighed 2 pounds 1 ounce.

2. Toss Giant Jigs

Jumbo crappies that are feeding on big baitfish often ignore the 1/64- to 1/16-ounce jigs many anglers use. Slabs like to fill their bellies with one big bite, not several little ones.

If you're getting the cold, scaly shoulder, try another unusual tactic--use giant jigs. Instead of the inch-long, 1/32-ounce tube jig or the 2-inch, 1/16-ounce marabou you usually fish, upgrade to a bigger model, something more suited for bass.

When the crappies on my favorite lake gave me fits last February, I tried flipping for bass using a 3-inch, soft-plastic Yum Wooly Beavertail on a 1/8-ounce jighead. I caught two largemouths during the next hour, but what really surprised me was that I also boated 15 crappies that weighed more than a pound apiece. After I switched to a 4-inch version on a 1/4-ounce jighead, I caught three more crappies, the heaviest one weighing 2 pounds 2 ounces.

Flip the jig in and around crappie hideouts, or try a tandem pair on Todd Huckaby's shad-school rig. Both methods work, and an imaginative fisherman no doubt can find other productive presentations.

Super-sizing your jig may not produce pleasing results if catching lots of crappies is your goal. But if it's a real photo fish you're after, or one at least big enough to enter in OUTDOOR LIFE's Annual Fishing Awards Program [see details, page 82], try a jumbo jig on for size.

3. Try Bass-Size Lures

Finicky late-winter crappies refuse to bite jigs or minnows. Now what?

"Most crappie anglers use jigs or minnows and nothing else," says Lewis Peeler of Wynne, Ark. "I've seen times, though, when other baits worked best. On some lakes I've fished in Louisiana, we caught more crappies on freshwater shrimp. Crappies in ponds near my home seem to hit small spinners better than jigs or minnows. On certain lakes, I catch most crappies using small shad-imitation crankbaits.

"The key is versatility," he continues. "If one bait or lure doesn't work, try something different until the fish let you know what they want."

On an oxbow lake we often fish, Peeler and I learned the value of this advice while fishing with our sons. We usually catch crappies before the spawn by jigging around mid-lake cypress trees, but on this day, the fish refused to bite. My 12-year-old son Matt, unencumbered by any knowledge of "proper" crappie lures, began trolling a 4 1/2-inch Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue behind the boat, and kablam! He reeled in a 1-pound 12-ounce slab. Our crappie drought ended there and we got the message.

Rogues and other jerkbaits or big, deep-diving crankbaits also work well in large, clear reservoirs when pre-spawn crappies are deep and lethargic. Rig the lure Carolina-style, with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce tungsten weight above a barrel swivel on the line, and a 3- to 4-foot leader from swivel to lure. Crawl the lure across the bottom. Crappies unwilling to dart out after smaller prey find it hard to resist this sizeable entrée.

4. Tap the Tailwaters

Rivers and crappies: To most anglers, those words are as incompatible as ketchup and chocolate cake. Crappies are considered lake fish, so rivers receive little attention from fishermen.

Despite popular misconceptions, however, crappies inhabit many warm, lowland streams. And during the late-winter pre-spawn period, river fish often move upstream searching for bedding sites. If they encounter a dam during their seasonal migration, crappies will mill around in the tailwaters, providing excellent opportunities.

The Arkansas River is 10 minutes from my office in Little Rock. Twenty years of lunch-hour fishing forays have taught me that actively feeding tailwater crappies usually hold in areas with moderate current. Focus your efforts on edge areas or seams where faster current meets slack water--around rock wing dikes, shoreline riprap, the outer edges of willow thickets, chutes connecting backwaters to the river and similar locations.

Most of my Arkansas fish fall for jig/live minnow combos. The jig hook is run upward through the minnow's lips, and the rig is trolled or cast.

Bladebaits such as the Heddon Sonar, Cordell Gay Blade and Reef Runner Cicada also are productive. Work yo-yo fashion around structures such as rock piles and the edges of lock walls. An upward rod sweep lifts the lure, causing a fish-attracting vibration. As the rod is lowered, the lure begins a spiral fall that sometimes triggers crappie attacks. To eliminate line twist, snip the line about 8 inches above the lure and tie a barrel swivel to both cut ends.

5. Fish the Storms

When late-winter storms hammer a lake, crappies move to heavy cover but will still bite if you can get a bait in front of them.

"Safety should be foremost on your mind," says W.T. Moore of Mountain View, Ark. "If you see lightning or high waves, leave the water immediately. But if it's safe to stay, don't be too hasty to depart. Crappie fishing under such conditions can be excellent if you know what to do."

First, pinpoint the thickest cover you can find. "Look for heavy stands of buckbrush, willow thickets and places like that," says Moore. "Then position your boat so the wind blows you in against the cover. Use a long pole to work a jig way back into the brush, then work all the little pockets that most folks miss. Don't hurry. Drop the jig in and work it with a slow bounce. Work each hole thoroughly before you move to another."

During a February downpour, Moore caught one of the biggest stringers of crappies I ever saw. His stringer of 50 oxbow-lake slabs weighed almost 100 pounds.

The bottom line is this: No matter where or when you fish, don't stick too closely to the standard crappie-fishing script in the early season before fish start ganging up to spawn. Try new lures. Fish new locations. Employ new tactics. Get radical. Maybe you won't load the boat as you will later when crappies are bedding, but you may catch more fish than you ever thought possible.