During a certain two-year period I spent hundreds of hours peering into the clear water of Missouri/Arkansas’ Bull Shoals Lake from boat docks, and made dozens of visual observations of crappie behavior, including their reactions to various fishing presentations.
The following are several items from my observations notebook—things an angler might keep in
mind to get more hits, especially from those tough-to-nab clear-water “slabs” lazing at cover. Some of these items have been long-known by ardent fishermen but are worth reviewing. And some of the items, anglers may see for the first time.
These observations were of clear-water black crappie, but would more or less pertain to clear-water white crappie too.
Several of these items might also apply to dingy-water crappie, black or white—unless the observation happens to deal with
sight-feeding, on which dingy-water fish rely less.)
1. One day at a dock, some black crappie milled about here and there near a few submerged cedar trees. I noted that it would take a big crappie up to 10 to 12 seconds to make contact with the jig. And, if a smaller crappie was near the big crappie, the smaller fish would wait 10 to 12 seconds after the big crappie left the jig before it went after the lure. I would lower a jig near one or more crappie, at which time I noted the start time on my watch. Then, when a crappie made initial contact with the jig—bumped it with its nose or mouthed it—I noted the time again. It took at least 10 seconds. The probable reason for this delay was to save energy.
In the case of the smaller crappie, pecking order comes into play; the smaller fish waits to see if a bigger fish claims the food first. And, a big crappie waits to see if the lure/bait might be more accessible to possibly a same-size fish. In a completely different case, when a crappie is part of a large group of actively feeding fish, the crappie often strikes a nearby lure or bait immediately. But if the fish (clear-water black crappie, at least) are swimming just here and there, at or near cover, an angler should definitely keep the offering at the spot for at least 12 seconds—or preferably at least 24 seconds in case a first fish becomes disinterested.
2. I observed that a crappie would often eject an artificial jig from its mouth in about one second—often before the hook could be set. (I noticed that the fish often mouthed it for a longer period, however, when some liquid crappie-attracting scent was applied to the jig.)
3. One day I caught some visible crappie with four-pound line and a 1/64-ounce jig, but the strikes were not felt at all. The only way to catch them was to set hook the instant I saw the jig disappear in the fish’s mouth.
4. One day I lowered a jig near a submerged cedar tree that, at one to 12 feet deep, held black crappie up to 1 1/4 pounds, but the fish did not approach the lure. I then kept the jig motionless here for a few minutes. Then I slowly moved the jig—and a crappie hit it.
5. Another time during a slow period, a minnow swam through the water, darting past a bush harboring some crappie. Immediately, some of the neutral-mood fish went for the minnow from four or fix feet away. I lowered a jig where the minnow had been, and a crappie promptly hit (even though it could see me just six feet away.)
6. One time I noticed the crappie were not very eager to hit a jig retrieved slowly and steadily. However, when the same jig was darted past the fish with an injured-minnow type motion, the crappie went after it. (The crappie were feeding on minnows rather than insects during this period.)
7. Another time, on the day a cold front arrived, when the fish didn’t appear to be interested in a slow and steady horizontal presentation, I let the jig slowly descend vertically near some cover, and the crappie went after it. (The resting crappie preferred a slowly-descending lure. They were never interested in a quickly-falling jig; in fact, some spooked away from it.)
8. I noticed that once a crappie approached or followed a jig that had been still or slowly retrieved, the fish became more interested if the lure’s speed increased a little, as if the lure was trying to escape from the crappie. Additionally, a few seconds after the speed-up, a gradual rise of the lure could help induce the strike.
9. On some days I caught resting fish (those staying still while positioned inside brush cover) by hovering a 1/100-ounce jig just two or three inches in front of a crappie’s nose. Subtle twitches with the jig kept in the same place, often triggered the resting fish into hitting.
10. When a dead but still silvery 1 1/2-inch threadfin shad was wobbled on the end of a line, it attracted several crappie from a distance and brought them right up to the shad. Then the fish became more approving of a similar-colored jig presented to them.
11. One time I lowered a 1/100-ounce jig near a few crappie, and twitching the jig gently every few seconds seemed to interest the fish. One crappie hit but expelled the jig. The jig was twitched again and the same crappie grabbed it and was caught.
12. When bluegill were around and attacking the jig first, I gave an escaping action to the jig and then darted it in front of a crappie, which prompted the crappie to strike.
13. On one outing, crappie didn't respond when I constantly jiggled a jig. I then caught crappie to 1 1/4 pounds—but only with a regular, steady presentation.
14. There were exceptions, but the larger crappie were commonly observed swimming at a deeper level than were the smaller fish.
15. Most if not all the crappie in a group generally tended to face the same direction during their rest period at cover. They seemed to face into wind-created current, when present.
16. Crappie resting and facing the same direction didn't respond well to lures that were presented behind them.
17. A big crappie that was hooked and fighting on a line would cause a small group of its fellow crappie to move away from one submerged brush to another. And, I observed a lone, big, open-water crappie spook downward when a fish was caught nearby. It returned, but two minutes later it was spooked down again by another hooked fish.
18. The snagging of a jig on some brush moved that cover’s crappie away but they returned in several minutes. However, when a jig scraped a crappie itself, the fish left and did not return anytime soon.
19. I observed that the crappie became disinterested in a jig after its repeated presentation in the same area.
20. The crappie sometimes swam sideways, with one eye looking straight down, and one eye up. Sometimes the crappie descended to hit a lure. The crappie often moved to a slow-moving lure somewhat like a cat stalks a mouse.
21. I noticed that fish that were swimming in larger groups were easiest to catch (maybe due to more competition for forage.) One day, four crappie were caught a few feet deep. All of them were in the brush holding the most crappie. I spotted less-concentrated crappie at two other brush piles but they wouldn't hit.
22. On one pre-front day, one-pound-test line (and a 1/100-ounce marabou jig) produced more, solid hits than did six- or eight-pound test.
23. Some small to medium crappie that were quite inactive would now and then hit small live baits (crickets, red worms, and roach baits) but wouldn’t hit a small jig at all. However, some more-active crappie during the same time period did nab the jig.
24. I made numerous observations near sundown when groups of crappie, which had been facing the same direction, began to face different directions—a signal that their rest period had ended. The fish anxiously moved about, and began to look "tough" and predaceous. All the fish left the cover, moving fast, apparently going out to hunt for open-water forage.
25. During most of the daytime, very slow retrieves of small jigs (marabou or single-tail plastic) or live baits worked best, but at dusk, the crappie more eagerly pursued somewhat larger lures, including curly-tail jigs. Somewhat faster, steadier retrieves (or retrieves with gradually increasing speed) caught the most crappie.
Gary Nelson, a regular Fishing Facts contributor, has been a zealous crappie angler and crappie researcher/writer for decades. The past 40 years, his articles have appeared in numerous periodicals, from the crappie-specific to the familiar general-outdoor magazines. He penned the columns Experiments in Crappie Fishing and Panfish Points; founded/edited a quarterly, The Crappie Fisherman; and wrote the crappie chapters for the hardback Panfishing.
Nelson’s greatest memories include a few record-book fish. Though he’s taken heavier ones spin-fishing, one special catch was a fly-fishing record, the first black crappie to hit the 2-8 mark, certified by the IGFA and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. He doesn’t tournament-fish much but, teamed with his daughter, once won a panfish series’ national championship. Nelson enjoys tinkering and invented some fishing devices, including the “crappie table”–a type of snag-proof cover that invites the fish into shallower water. In retirement he’ll tinker with a crappie book, now 2,000-some pages, he hopes to have published in his lifetime.