The crappie has more aliases than a room full of criminals. The U.S. Department of Interior lists 58 regionally accepted monikers for this popular gamefish. Calico, Slabs, Lamplighter, Millpond Bass, Papermouth, Sac-a-lait, Speck and Strawberry Perch are but a few. To add to the confusion there are actually two species of crappie: the Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus) and White Crappie (Pomoxis annularus). Aside from the obvious differences in coloration (which can vary greatly according to water quality) there is little to choose between the two for early-bird anglers. Both are drawn to the shallows to spawn when water temperatures are in the sixties (65-68 degrees is considered ideal). The White Crappie will tend to accept more open water than the brush-hugging blacks and usually will be more tolerant of warmer and siltier waters. Both species have similar aquatic menus, feeding on insects, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish. In other words, to the angler, a crappie is a crappie.
“Ol’ Silversides” spawns earlier than any other panfish, including the basses. Since it’s this pre-spawn period which produces easy catches of limits, let’s first focus on the crappie’s habits in early spring. When water temperatures approach the mid-fifty degree range crappie will begin to migrate from their deep water winter sanctuaries toward the warmer shallows. The male fish will move first. Motivated by the urge to spawn, they will select firm mud or sand bottom in water from eight feet deep to shallow enough that it will barely cover their backs. This site must be relatively free of silt so the eggs won’t be smothered and usually there is some kind of cover close at hand. A brush pile is excellent but even a few reeds will be more attractive as a nesting location than a bare shoreline. The usually gregarious male crappie will vigorously defend his choice site yielding only to larger, more aggressive fish. Using his tail he will spend days fanning a saucer-shaped nest. During this time he is most vulnerable to angling pressure. Intent on his mission, he will be diligent about keeping his nest clean. Anything which comes
near or through his territory will be vigorously attacked.
Fishing action accelerates as water temperatures edge into the sixties. Now is the time for the larger females to approach the nesting area. She has a ravenous appetite as she prepares for the rigor of the spawning. With the aggressive males and hungry females occupying the same areas, there are locations which will be productive simply by hitting the water with a fly. Any cast becomes a good cast.
Eventually when water temperatures and weather conditions are favorable the male crappie will guide a ripe female to his nest. She will usually deposit from 20,000 to 50,000 eggs. A particularly prolific specie, one female crappie examined by fishery biologists contained over 158,000 eggs. Fertilized by the male, the adhesive eggs will attach to limbs, weeds, and rocks, and after a 7 to 15 day incubation period, will begin to hatch. The fry will remain clustered in the immediate area under the protective watch of the male fish. Eventually, when the tiny slices of silver are ready to fend for themselves, the male’s
protective instinct will be cast aside and the carnivorous slab will slash through his own offspring, scattering the numerous survivors.
Post-spawn females do not feed; they will wander into slightly deeper water to recover. Once that is accomplished, however, their vigorous appetite returns. The male, on the other hand, whose spawning duties had reduced his feeding and caused him to “hit” primarily to defend his territory is also due for a feeding binge. Since the spawning activities of the crappie population are not simultaneous, the process can take up to ten weeks, depending on the water temperature. Only a significantly warmer sub-aquatic environment will send crappie into a more leisurely lifestyle.
Another subject which needs to be understood by anglers affected by “crappie fever” is population dynamics. When spawning and food conditions are ideal, crappie, with their prolific reproduction potential, will produce a gigantic brood of young fish. They become the “dominant year class” Over the next several years this brood will consume most of their own young as well as those of competing species. Their growth rate will be excellent and each year the fisherman will find better fishing for larger
fish. Due to fishing and natural attrition, the size of the dominant year class will dwindle until they can no longer remove the yearly hatch. Then another large brood is produced and the cycle begins anew. Understanding this aspect of crappie behavior makes it easy to understand why lakes go through periods of good fishing and then experience relatively slow crappie seasons. Many erroneously believe the lake has been fished out. It should be obvious, too, that the larger lakes are somewhat less
susceptible than are the small ones. The crappie aficionados willing to locate several area lakes and invest the time and effort in understanding the “cycle” of each can keep fishing the most productive water.
It’s not difficult to understand how crappies’ aggressive behavior and prodigious springtime appetite has won it legions of loyal anglers. Armed with every conceivable fish-catching contrivance known to man, almost all will succeed in catching some fish…so why recommend the flyrod? It is simply that the long rod will be more consistently successful. Flyrodders can present a lure in a more delicate manner than their hardware-slinging counterparts. This spooks far fewer shallow fish.
Another element in its favor is that its cast can be measured, by false-casting, thereby allowing the lure to be dropped within critically important inches of fish holding cover. In addition, the fly can be picked up and re-cast the instant it reaches unproductive water. A spinning lure must be retrieved through such water and so spends less time in “the fish catching zone.” Then, too, flies are more buoyant than hardware and can, therefore, be retrieved in a slower manner. This can be a critical factor in effectively fishing shallow water. Finally, the willowy action of a flyrod enables the angler to cushion the hook-set
and fight which diminishes the danger of tearing the delicate, papery mouth of the crappie. The conclusion is simple: a skillful flyrodder is capable of catching more crappie than any other angler if all other factors are equal. That he will also enjoy the fishing to a greater extent is, in our belief, already understood.
Choosing the right outfit to pursue spring crappie is not difficult. The rod should be matched to the flies you intend to cast. Those intending to deliver small dries and expecting tall grass to interfere with the back cast would do well to choose a 9½ foot rod designed for 4-weight line. We tend, however to favor 8 to 8½ foot rods that carry 7-weight line. This outfit allows efficient casting with the bulkier streamers and weighted spider patterns we favor. In addition, this outfit allows the use of sinking-tip lines which necessary to fish the “breakline” drop-offs which hold the larger female pre-spawners.
A wide variety of fly types can be effective for taking early-season crappie. Marabou streamers are exceptionally hard to beat. The marabou provides a seductive action and the minnow-imitating streamer matches a dynamic food source for crappie. Several turns of lead wire incorporated into the fly’s body allow the fly to be fished slightly deeper while maintaining the desired amount of buoyancy. White is always a good color choice and is especially effective very early in the pre-spawn. As the season progresses, yellow become a more effective color. Crappies have fairly large mouths but seem to prefer small prey. Size #4 streamer hooks tend to be our upper limit and even then, the tail of the streamer shouldn’t be tied to extend much beyond the hook bend.
Another practical fly choice is a rubber-legged spider, tied with a weighted chenille body. We call this personal creation a “bully fly.” The colored rubber legs wiggle and twitch with the slightest movement and the bulky chenille body provides a juicy-looing silhouette. For reasons not well understood, two of our most effective colors are red and pink. Perhaps this relates to the fly being more visible to the crappie rather than being imitative of a food source. Our “Crappie Bully” is tied with silver tinsel chenille with a band of red chenille just behind the white rubber legs. Sizes 8 and 6 are good for tying the bully fly for crappie.
There are many other flies that will produce crappies and experimentation will quickly uncover your own personal favorites. By using a good water thermometer to indicated crappie activity and by casting to shoreline cover until locating a good nesting area, you may soon associate the signs of early spring with your own brand of that incurable illness known as “crappie fever.”