Expect hot action as crappie go on the beds this month.
Alabama anglers eagerly await the crappie spawn in late winter and early spring.
From Eufaula to Pickwick, fishermen anticipate some stage of the spawn in March. In the southern part of Alabama, the crappie spawn may wind down by the end of the month. In waters farther north, the spawn may be just getting started as March comes to an end.
Regardless of where you are located, expect some of the hottest and most consistent action of the year as crappie go on the beds.
“Traditionally, it’s that time of the year that people think of as ‘crappie season’,” said tournament pro Dan Dannenmueller, who lives near Wetumpka and calls the Alabama River and Lake Jordan on the lower Coosa his home waters. “Once upon a time, many people only fished during this time. We’ve come to better understand how and where crappie feed consistently year round, but there’s little doubt that some of the best and hottest action of the year occurs in and around the spawn.”
Pros like Dannenmueller use electronics and sophisticated tactics to target crappie throughout the year. However, for the average fisherman, crappie are easiest to locate and to catch during the spawn. They can be reached from bank or boat in relatively shallow water. The fish typically return to some of the same areas each year to spawn. Most of the crappie are feeding aggressively until the actual process of laying and fertilizing eggs. The males, in particular, remain aggressive for days or even weeks after the spawn as they guard eggs and maturing fry.
“You know you’re in the middle of the spawn when you go shallow and catch numbers of smaller males,” said another tournament pro, Steve Brown, of Millbrook. “When the males are shallow in good numbers, you know the females are not that far behind. It’s only a matter of time before they arrive, and you can start to catch better fish. Generally, the spawning fish will be in those areas from just a few feet out to about six or eight feet.”
Even in individual lakes, the spawn may not all occur at the same time with the spawning process extended over a month over even a two-month period on some waters.
Preparing for the Spawn
The preparation for the spawn begins well in advance of the actual laying of eggs by the females. When the water temperature reaches the mid-50s, the males, especially black crappie, begin their migration into the shallows and start to prepare beds, fanning out shallow depressions. In general, crappie beds are not as distinctively shaped as bass or bream beds, usually taking on an imperfect circular or oblong shape.
Crappie seek out hard bottom around some type of cover to build their beds. They will fan out spots on rock, on logs, and on stumps, but most commonly seek out hard bottoms near wood cover like single limbs, brush piles or stumps. Crappie will also acclimate to man-made attractors and build beds around and under “porcupine” or PVC structures. Stake beds are another prime man-made cover that attracts bedding fish.
Grass is another type of cover that holds spawning crappie. Lake Eufaula in southwest Alabama almost always features spawning crappie around the extensive bank grass each year. Crappie also spawn around the water willows and other vegetation along the Coosa. Even the milfoil and hydrilla beds on Guntersville attract bedding crappie.
By the time the water temperature rises to the upper 50s and low 60s, the bigger females will move to the perimeter of spawning areas. The triggers that prompt the spawn (perfect water temperature, length of day, and water clarity are the most likely candidates) eventually push the females to the beds. The females lay their eggs, sometimes in multiple beds as they are herded about by the males, and usually stay shallow for a brief period of a day or even less.
Consistent air temperature that pushes water temps well into the 60s may create the illusion that the females stay for an extended period. In reality, stable weather creates waves of bigger egg-layers that move into ideal spawning areas, stay briefly, and retreat to the six to 12-foot depths to recuperate. At some point during March, both pre-spawn and post-spawn female crappie will be found on the periphery of spawning areas at similar depths.
Catching Shallow Spawners
Targeting shallow spawners is what many people think of as “crappie fishing.” They catch these fish shallow for a relatively short period of time and then stow their crappie fishing gear for the year.
Various techniques and presentations fool these crappie. At times, just about anything that resembles a small minnow will catch boatloads of fish. Even with that in mind, refined tactics put more and bigger fish in the boat and eventually in the frying pan.
“In shallow water, spider riggers use the longest poles up to 16- and 18-foot models to get baits away from any noise generated by a boat.”
In shallow water, spider riggers use the longest poles up to 16- and 18-foot models to get baits away from any noise generated by a boat.
Several years ago, I shared the boat with the legendary crappie tandem of Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman on Lake Grenada in Mississippi, perhaps the best trophy crappie waters in the country. They didn’t have a special name for their spider-rigging technique, but they basically “coasted” into the shallowest areas of the ditches and cuts that run into Grenada.
“When these fish move shallow to spawn, you have to ease up on them, using the trolling motor as little as possible,” Capps said. “You just can’t come in fast or with a lot of commotion in the boat. Crappie are not necessarily the most sophisticated fish, but they can be skittish if you don’t treat them with a little finesse.”
Other anglers prefer to stay away from the fish and cast to them. Brown pegs a float about 12 to 18 inches above his jig and fan casts to likely areas around his boat. He uses a shallow-water anchor to hold his rig steady when he reaches the spots with the most potential.
“There are some areas that you just can’t troll into,” Brown said. “There’s too much cover and structure. Casting can be the most efficient method of catching the fish, especially if they are super shallow.”
Many anglers also turn off all their electronics, suggesting that the pings scare the fish away if the units remain in constant use.
Don’t Ignore the Depths
Catching crappie on the bed is most often associated with shallow water, and fish on most lakes spawn in three to six-foot depths. That idea does not apply to all fisheries, however.
On Pickwick Lake in northwest Alabama and really along the entire Tennessee River chain, a large percentage of the crappie spawn deep, out to as much as 20 feet. Years ago, legendary Pickwick guide Roger Gant told me that the lake had bred generations of crappie accustomed to spawning in deep water. The deeper water creates a better spawning sanctuary when water levels fluctuate and other unusual water conditions interrupt bedding activity, Gant said.
Guides like Brad Whitehead (256.483.0834) still follow that premise today.
“I rarely fish shallow,” Whitehead said. “The shallows are going to get beat up by boat after boat. There is a good percentage of fish spawning deep every year on Pickwick, at least 15 feet and probably deeper. Most people miss those fish. I can side pull through water that hasn’t been used all day long and stay on ‘fresh’ crappie.
“I also think some of the bigger females like to hold out deeper. I know that I catch consistently bigger fish in deeper water during the spawn.”
While a few anglers cast for these deeper spawners, various trolling techniques are probably most effective when the crappie are holding deep.
Whitehead uses his specially designed War Eagle boat to side pull, a technique in which a trolling motor is attached midway down the right side of the boat. Whitehead “pulls” his lures over cover, pinpointing mid-depth cover like brush and stumps likely to hold spawning fish.
“I realize some of these fish are probably pre-spawn and some may be post-spawn,” he said. “But I always catch a few of those bigger females spewing eggs that appear to be in the middle of the spawn.”
More traditional vertical spider-rigging set-ups also target these fish are well. Anglers cover a large swath of water with as many as eight rods extended at angles from the front of their boats. They follow contours on their electronics and attempt to locate the exact depth crappie appear to be spawning in deeper water.
Count me among the fair-weather spring crappie fishermen. I love to cast for spawning crappie in water three to six feet deep, usually with a Blakemore Road Runner head paired with some type of Bobby Garland or Lake Fork Tackle plastic fished on a light-action B’n’M spinning combo. The “thump” is particularly distinctive at this time of year.
On other days, I go decidedly old-school with a white bucktail jig fished under a float. Tie a 1/16th-oz. bucktail on the end of the main line and add a small float from one to two feet up the line and fish it slowly, at times even motionless, around likely cover. One of the great sights in fishing is the disappearance of that float as a good crappie takes it under.
The use of the float above any type of jig helps crappie fishermen in a variety of ways, particularly reducing the number of snags. The ability to keep the lure just above cover and still entice fish helps fishermen in a boat and also rates as a great approach for those fishing from the bank.
Extending the Spawn
While March and early April is prime time for crappie on the bed, don’t ignore the fact that at least a few fish spawn later.
“On the Alabama River, we see at least some spawning activity into May and maybe even into June in some years,” Dannenmueller said. “Of course, you have your peak crappie spawn in March and April, but not all fish are created equal. Crappie are just like people at times; they are different and do different things.”
Mike Vallentine, president of the Crappie Masters trail, usually stages a May tournament on the Alabama River out of Cooters Pond in Prattville. One of the attractions for Vallentine and the competitors in this tournament is the shallow-water inclinations of the crappie later in the season.
“One of the great things about the Alabama River is that it holds shallow fish even when the water temperature starts to rise,” Vallentine said. “We still see fish bulging with eggs during our tournaments there, so I know there is some spawning still going on in May.”
Vallentine acknowledges the need to troll for fish but loves to single-pole fish for crappie on the Alabama River and other waters as the season advances. The vertical jig approach is a good approach to avoid spooking pressured fish. At times, Vallentine simply floats through standing timber or around other wood cover and picks apart the area section by section with subtle movements of his jig pole.
Despite the potential for late-season spawners, March remains an ideal time to fish for crappie on the bed. At some point this month, waves of crappie will be either on the bed or will be moving in that direction, making it a perfect time to target these delectable fish.