Author: Tom Sawvell - aka Crappie Tom
Every late-winter, very early spring, anglers set themselves to task getting tackle ready and putting new lines on their reels all in anticipation of catching those wonderful spring crappies. Many will wait until the spawn is approaching as the fish then are so easy to catch, but the reality of this, in many waters, is that the biggest and best crappies of the season are taken well in advance of the spawning period.
Here in Minnesota, a northern tier state, winter locks the waters up in ice. As we slowly warm in late winter and the ice retreats on shorelines, anglers start getting the itch to get some casting done in the newly opened water and will head to their favorite locations where the spawning runs have afforded relatively easy fishing in past years, only to find the fishing no so hot. Still many others will resort to the fall locations where some fish were being caught only to get casting practice when they've found the fish have moved. The weather or fish will take the blame for the lack of catching and these anglers either wait for the ice to melt or the ice to form solid enough to be walked on. In the case of spring anglers, few will think about beginning their fishing where the very later fall fishing ended last season and fall anglers will fail to consider where the real spring bite took place. Most anglers skip right past 2 of the best bites in the whole year of crappie fishing. These anglers either wait for the ice to melt or for ice solid enough to be walked on.
Many anglers view Crappies as being a 2 season fish: open water and ice fishing. Much is written on Crappie fishing in terms of the four calendar seasons, however nothing considers that Crappies actually have 6 very distinct seasonal patterns: 1. winter, 2. late winter/ very early spring transition, 3. spring [the spawn], 4.summer, 5. fall, 6.late fall/early winter transition, then back winter. It's the numbers 2 and 6 that most anglers fail to factor in and most likely are not even aware that they exist. Let's take a look at them.
We'll start by understanding that no two waters are the same, however just about every water will exhibit #2 and #6 characteristics that can be identified in other similar waters. As a "for instance", just about every water will have an area or two that is slow to freeze solid in the very late fall/early winter. Again in the late winter/very early spring these same areas are the first to show open water. Sheets of ice can often be found in areas very close to either of these spots, but these spots just seem to resist freezing until it's just too cold to prevent it and again in the spring these same areas are the first to show open water. Spots of this nature seem to be historic and tend to follow the same pattern year to year often preceding ice out by a couple weeks. Repeatability is almost guaranteed.
In the very early spring the largest crappies locally tend to move to any open water available. Some current can be helpful, but not needed. Water depths need not be real deep: I personally find that water in the 2 to 6 foot range is about optimal, but have found an active bite over as much as 14 feet. South facing shorelines are prime-time. Rocky shoreline is also prime-time. The open water in these areas will warm daily but will hold very little of that heat overnight if ice is still nearby covering the water or when nightly lows drop into the 20's to low 30's. Daytime highs in the 30's are sufficient for the daily warming that draws these fish, but the 40's are better, not only because they seek the more comfortable warm water but also because this warm water also draws forage because there isn't any filtering of light without the ice covering. Lots of micro flora and fauna are attracted to the light and the warmth which in turns attracts a myriad of slightly larger insects and minnows that feed on this newly available food. Any breeze or wind will also help oxygenate that surface water which surpercharges all of these critters. These fish will be cyclic fish, turning on during the day and shutting down again as the sun sets. As this water continues to warm, the bite will hold together until it reaches around 42 degrees at which point the bite will begin to wane as these large fish begin to get the urge to move to pre-spawn locations. Not to worry though: barring any ugly weather situations that bring high water, come fall this scenario will repeat itself only in reverse of what the spring offered.
Again in the very late fall/very early winter, as daily water temps drop in chorus with the cooler weather large Crappies will have enormous appetites and feed heavily on young of the year minnows that gather in this "warmer" cooling water as they gather to feast on zooplankton that haven't succumbed to the cold. In mirror to the spring, this area will set ice last. If a warm spell removes the ice for a few days the crappies will still be there. As early winter takes control and the ice thickens, the crappies move off the wintering areas. Sure as heck though, they'll be back when spring opens that same area's water up. I tend to be a fanatic about water temperature during these two periods and use a submersible stream thermometer to measure the water temps by hanging it under a kid's bubble bobber by a six foot cord then tying the bobber to my line and lob casting it out in the bite area. I'll let it sit for ten minutes then bring it in to read it and record the water temperature at that depth for the day. In shallower waters where the bite is happening I simply shorten the dropper cord under the float. I have zero interest in the surface temperature and the fish are not hitting on the surface and the temperature difference between the surface and four feet can be as much as five degrees. The cord in this picture is 8 feet long and I seldom set a float for more than six. Getting the core temperature has more information attached to it than the surface temperature.
In both instances of #2 and #6, the water found where the fish are being caught will without doubt be at least a couple degrees warmer than the surrounding waters. As the surrounding waters either cool faster in the fall or warm slower in the spring than these particular areas, water temperature seems to be the hinge that the bite will swing on. Available light will play on this as well to some degree: earlier in the spring, later in the fall, but the long and short of these special periods and the bites is water temperature related. In the picture below this nice 13+" fish was taken in early December with a water temp right about 37 degrees and the air temperature right at 33 degrees. Two days later everything in the background was ice covered and the air temp was at 22 degrees, water at 35 degrees but the area the fish were hitting [just out of the picture to the right] was ice free and fish still biting. Five days after the picture was taken the whole area was ice covered, but melted on day 7. We fished day 8 and hammered nice crappies again. On day 10 ice set for the winter.
I fish two such locations at both of these unsung time periods . One is a Mississippi River backwater and the other on a local impoundment of 640 acres. Both are shore fished, often because ice prevents launching a boat. Hands down both locations serve up the largest crappies of the year, spring and fall. Both time frames have little, if any, pressure from other anglers. Cold fronts can be challenging but these fish are hungry and most always can be convinced to hit. Plastics and jigs
will out fish live bait hands down. The jigs are fished under a small float that shows upward hits immediately.....this is essential as fish at these times can tend to be very depth specific especially in deeper water where upward hits seem to be the rule. Seen in the following picture are examples of the floats I use. They can be rigged either as slip floats by running the line thru the hole and using a stop in the line or as fixed floats by running the line thru the hole followed by the two rubber sleeves thru which the line also runs thru before slipping up over the stem and line.
The only factor that messes with either locations or time frames, that I have found, has been sudden high water events. Outside of the high water, both times frames and locations have offered up very predictable fishing. I watch ice anglers tippy toe out on very shakey late ice and leave after an hour of catching nothing while I catch fish at will in the spring period. In the fall I watch as duck hunters return after being soaked in cold drizzle to go home and carp about having to wait until the ice sets so they can get out to fish....while I am catching plenty of crappies. There's no magic involved. Its just understanding the fish, their patterns and how seasonal changes influence the fish. In this case I simply go back to fall's absolute last bite location in the spring or go right back to fall's absolute last bite in the spring.