Getting Creative For Early Spring Crappie

By Tom Neustrom

Think you’ve exhausted every feasible place to catch springtime crappie? Think again! There are always places crappie hide where anglers fail to find them. Spend enough time chasing these big spring slabs, and you’ll learn to recognize and react to unfamiliar, yet highly rewarding conditions.

When winter’s long lock finally loosens, I’m already plotting my crappie game plan—pouring over maps, scouting for potential locations. Pre-determining a milk-run of potentials keeps me in the boat searching—regardless of the weather—rather than at the landing, making excuses for why they won’t bite. Spend time in search mode—using maps, electronics and lures—and eventually, you’ll discover giant crappie other anglers doubt exist.

Like all species, crappie need to eat, and when the ice leaves the lake, some of the biggest slabs of the season go on a major hunt. At this early stage, you can have some great fishing when it’s still cold enough to make your nose run. 

Yet even though you can be catching fish shallow, many anglers make the assumption that crappie have already begun the spawning ritual. Wrong! All species need nourishment before the spawn, and crappie are no different. In actuality, spawntime in most lakes won’t occur for a month or more after ice-out, once water temperatures get in the 60s.

It’s why my plan when attacking new bodies of water centers on ice-out dates, and then the lake’s potential population of trophy-class crappie, given the existence of specific types of habitat.

Several veteran crappie anglers I know each look for relatively deep water very close to those shallow feeding flats. This is particularly important right after ice-out. Crappie often require the stability of deeper water nearby, which helps them function in the presence of inclement weather, cold fronts, and windy conditions that send shallow water temperatures spiraling.

Seems like every early-season crappie article you read defines the north end of a lake as the most surefire spot; some go so far as to say that this is the only place to catch fish. This false assumption can be turned upside down, given the existence of preferred habitat elsewhere on the lake. Rather than automatically flocking to the north end, I’m more interested in finding areas with mud, gravel, scattered rock, and last season’s pencil reeds—regardless of what side of the lake I’m on.

As my friend and fellow guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl will tell you, no two situations are the same. And it’s a mistake to avoid areas of the lake, just because they’re not on the north end. Warmer water is often very important in the location puzzle, but key habitat nearly always trumps temp.

Further, don’t avoid slightly deeper flats over super shallow ones. Again, habitat is the key—as are local weather conditions. During weather changes, I love to fish deeper zones where crappie often go during fronts. I have taken some giants on 12- to 15-foot ledges near those traditional shallow flats.

Best way to find these deeper money zones—beyond just fishing—is to identify them first on a LakeMaster map, and then side image them with my Humminbird 998 SI unit. Side imaging will not only show the presence of cover, but also reveal the crappie themselves, even in super shallow water. Many times I’ll adjust my ‘Bird to Switchfire mode, which increases sensitivity and allows me to pick out the small organisms crappie seek. Even if crappie aren’t currently present, finding concentrations of zooplankton or small invertebrates means I’ve ID’d a positive locale where crappie will eventually show. After ice-out, crappie are after groceries and will adapt to several food sources to nourish their systems before spawning.

Small jigs are the simple answer. VMC Hot Skirt Jigs make quick work of roaming fish. Tip these tiny tinsel jigs with a small minnow or chunk of Trigger X and you’ll have ‘em drooling.

When pitching shallow I prefer a small bobber, but never let it sit too long in one place. I like to target a stalk of last season’s pencil reed or the edges of an exposed brush pile. These areas host crappie forage and I can fish them quickly and efficiently. Big slabs are often loners, but you can easily pluck a couple fish off each good stickup. I just keep fishing good cover areas until I contact fish.

Boat control is a critical advantage in spring, as well. My Minn Kota Terrova is equipped with i-Pilot Link, allowing me to slowly approach these very spooky fish with precision. This ingenious tool coordinates with my Humminbird so I can systematically dissect every inch of potential crappie-holding water.

When cold fronts, winds or drops in the barometer alter my plans, it’s time to seek the nearest deep water. Here I like to cast a jig and minnow (sans bobber), letting it sink on a five-count before starting a slow swimming retrieve. Done right, even seemingly negative crappie will often amaze you with the aggressiveness of their strike.

I prefer a soft action seven-foot ultralight rod like the Tuff-Lite or Spinmatic Series from Daiwa, which gives me extreme sensitivity and the ability to cast small baits far. Combine these stealth rods with a Daiwa Aird 1000 or Laguna 500 spinning reel and four-pound Sufix Elite. Sometimes the bite’s so subtle it’s hard to react quickly, yet other times a big crappie will blister you.

When not using a small bobber I’ll let the rod tip load gently before firmly setting the hook. Another little trick is to switch to Sufix Hi-Vis Yellow, which helps you see the slightest of bites, watching the line twitch and then quickly setting the hook.

With some simple tips and tricks, fishing for ice-out crappie can be a fun, yet predictable pastime. It’s facing down new challenges and conquering them that make the pursuit of any fish species even sweeter.