Spring is the season when every angler becomes a bona fide crappie expert.
In late March and early April in many parts of the country as the water warms up into the mid-50s to low 60s, a massive influx of spawning crappie move shallow to make beds and lay their eggs. They create a standing room-only situation along shallow, visible shoreline cover like willow trees, brush, logs and vegetation.
During this time the world abounds with crappie experts, because almost any fisherman can catch these tasty panfish when they are spawning. Although the crappie is primarily a deep-water, offshore species, the annual spring spawning migration makes them especially vulnerable by stationing them in obvious, common-sense places where even the casual angler can find them. And the protective nature of the fish, like most freshwater gamefish, makes it almost impossible not to catch them during the spawn.
All the world is a carnival during the spawn, but immediately after the spawn, crappie fishing becomes the toughest it will be all season, even for the knowledgeable, experienced anglers who are able to follow the crappie migration throughout the year.
Post-spawn crappie are the most difficult to catch. It’s a common problem in most lakes and it’s one of the reasons why some people actually believe crappie only bite in the spring.
Of course, It's also a myth that has been talked and written about for years. You can almost understand these people's way of thinking because they’ll really catch them during the spawn, but when that post-spawn period comes in, the fishing begins to get tougher each week on the same shoreline where they had been catching them a few days earlier. Every weekend, they find fewer fish there, and by late May they can hardly catch enough to take home and stink up a skillet. They say ‘Well, the season is over,’ and put away their poles.”
Actually, there is a three-to-four-week period that usually occurs in late May and early June in most of the country in which crappie go into a recuperation period to rejuvenate from the rigors of the spawning process. To understand why they are difficult to catch and, hopefully, use that knowledge to improve your post-spawn success, a little biology lesson is in order.
Immediately after spawning, biologists tell us the female crappie leave the nest and move off onto nearby brush or vegetation. After a short stay in shallow water, the females then move to the nearest mid-depth drop-off or vegetation. The males are left to guard the eggs and eventually the fry, until the tiny fish scatter and go off on their own. After leaving the fry, the males and females will regroup during the later stages of the post-spawn period before then moving to their summer positioning in deeper water.
You can begin to understand the reasons why post-spawn crappie are so difficult to catch. It begins with the challenge of finding them. That can be tricky because of the lack of concentrated females immediately after the spawn. It becomes more difficult as the wide-ranging tendencies of the species moves them into less-conspicuous places, even suspending in open water. This in-between stage for crappie separates the true experts from the springtime only crowd.
Once you locate post-spawn crappie, it can be an even greater challenge to get them to bite.
Post-spawn crappie are tough to catch for the same reasons that post-spawn bass are difficult to catch. First of all, Mother Nature provides a fail-safe mechanism in sunfishes, of which crappie are a member. That is, they don’t eat while they’re on the bed. So during a portion of the post-spawn period, the fish still have that ingrained in them. They’re tired and lethargic from the stress they go through during the spawning process.
Locating post-spawn crappie is the first test of skill and patience.
Post-spawn crappie move off into deeper water, but not to the depths in which they will ride out the summer temperatures. Cook looks for them along any drop-off adjacent to the shallow spawning area that has some type of wood or weedy cover. If adequate cover isn’t available nearby, many post-spawn crappie simply suspend in open water, the crappie specialist’s nightmare.
A study of post-spawn crappie was conducted by Missouri state biologists. In that study, divers documented the movement of crappie from pre-spawn through post-spawn periods in the clear waters of several Missouri reservoirs. The most telling discovery the biologists made was a tendency of post-spawn crappie to deviate from their normal structure-oriented pattern, scattering and moving off into open-water flats where they simply suspend. Although most post-spawn crappie are found in depths of 10 to 20 feet, I should emphasize that the clearer the water, the deeper post-spawn fish will suspend.
Crappie suspend a little different from bass,” the study explains. “They pick out a level and suspend uniformly at that level throughout that portion of the lake. Crappie suspend like a blanket—side by side at the same depth—while largemouths, white bass and almost any other gamefish tend to be grouped at all levels of depth. Depending on what that level is, they will suspend above structure like a brushpile, instead of relating directly to it. That is why a lot of people miss suspended crappie. They fish under them.
The depth at which post-spawn crappie suspend is directly related to two natural factors in the makeup of the water column, the thermocline and pH breakline. The thermocline is the water temperature level that is most comfortable to fish (meaning it has adequate oxygen as well), while the pH breakline is the point in which the level of alkalinity and acidity in the water is acceptable. By measuring those two factors, you can determine the likely depth of the fish. Most of us don't have a easy way to make these measurements, so we rely on a quality fish-finder to do the job for us.
The suspending nature of post-spawn crappie is the major reason why most fishermen get frustrated in their late spring/early summer efforts. Crappie anglers are structure-oriented and tend to move from brushpile to brushpile without fishing the open-water in between. Ironically, this open water may be where the post-spawners are holding.
Locating post-spawn crappie is only the first challenge. Getting these sluggish fish to bite can be just as difficult. Post-spawn is the toughest time to actually catch them. They are stressed out from spawning and they are not real interested in feeding. Once you find them, they are catchable as long as you suspend a jig or minnow at the right depth and keep it in front of them long enough. Crappie are notorious for being depth-conscious. They will rarely move up or down in depth to hit a bait or lure, so fishing at the right depth is even more critical with post-spawn crappie.
For catching suspended crappie, most fishermen use a slip-bobber to regulate depth. For catching post-spawn crappie in deep, clear lakes or reservoirs, a small-diameter flourocarbon line will enable you to receive more strikes than more visible types.
For decades, the standard crappie weapons have been live minnows and the simple jig—fished separately or together. Both can be fished vertically or cast. And the depths of those two offerings can be easily regulated, making them ideal for post-spawn fishing.
When fishing for inactive crappie, the size of the jig is critical, and it’s wise to experiment. I’ve seen times when changing from a 1/8-ounce to a 1/16-ounce jig or even a 1/32-ounce jig made a tremendous difference in the number of fish caught.
A productive combination for post-spawn crappie is a small bare jig tipped with a Berkley Gulp "Alive" minnow and weighted with a split-shot about 24 inches above it. I fish it like a lead jig, but I believe it's allure with these non-aggressive fish comes from it's super-slow descent through the water.
Rather than confront the challenge of locating and catching these inactive crappie, many fishermen choose to simply sit out the post-spawn period and wait for the fish to move to their structure-oriented summer lairs. Generally, once you can no longer find beds, the post-spawn stage is over, and it is safe for less-determined crappie fishermen to return to the water.
Remember, the best crappie fisherman is one who can change when the fish change. Crappie don’t just disappear when the spawn ends. The best crappie fisherman works hard enough to follow post-spawn fish through the transition period from shallow to deep, and that determination will pay off.