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Crappies on the Spawn.

Dave Snellings watched his surface-temperature gauge as we eased from the dock in Maryland's Piscataway Creek, a Potomac River tributary a few miles downriver from Washington, D.C. It was the first day of April, but a prolonged March cold spell had crappies that had been ready to move shallow in a deep funk. We were optimistic, though, as we cleared the green buoy and opened up, heading to a proven spawning area. The day promised light winds and highs in the low-70[degrees]F range.

"We have water temperature at about 57[degrees]F right now," Snellings said. "I'm hoping the afternoon sun pushes the water in coves to that magical 60[degrees]F mark. That should stir bigger males to move shallow and turn on. The tide's coming in (the Potomac is a tidal river) and everything looks perfect. We should have a memorable trip."

Snellings has been a guide for Indian Head Charters, in Central Maryland, for many years. He and Captain Mike Starrett target crappies from late March through early May. Water temperature is key to triggering a good early bite and reading the bite as the season continues. It's noteworthy that early fish often are the biggest fish of the spawning season.

Snelling and Starrett use their version of spider-rigging to get on fish. Set port and starboard, bow and transom, three-way rod holders spread 12 telescoping poles, 14 or 16 feet long. An angler B is responsible for three poles, each baited with a 3- to 4-inch shiner minnow suspended at varying depths below a float. The line to each pole is 30-pound braid with a short leader of clear 12-pound monofilament and a #2 or #4 gold Aberdeen hook. This rigging saves on tackle and re-rigging time as the hooks can be straightened, retrieved, and bent back into shape when snagged. A lead shot a foot above the minnow keeps it lively to attract crappies in turbid or tannin-stained water, yet anchored enough so it can't get away.

Using a remote-controlled trolling motor to ease in and around shallow woody shorelines, we cover water quietly and efficiently to find fish. Corks dip here and there as we boat 12- to 15-inch fish. As the water temperature nudges to 60[degrees]F, more and more of the corks disappear, just as Snellings had predicted. Prespawn crappies are transitioning from a staging phase and moving up onto gravel shorelines to feed. A bit later in the cycle--perhaps a week or more hence--they would push even shallower to spawn.

Covering a lot of water via spider-rigging often keys finding crappies on big waters. In northwestern Pennsylvania, 13,000acre Pymatuning Reservoir is a huge, flatland reservoir that offers multiple habitats. In the north, stump-filled flats near Linesville attract black crappies in early to mid-May, where they hold 6- to 10-feet deep. During the 2014 and 2016 Pennsylvania Crappie Camp, I fished with local crappie expert Kenneth Smith, of Sharon, Pennsylvania. He introduced me to his "hang gliding" technique for catching big fish.

He uses 8- to 9-foot light-power and moderate-action spinning rods and spinning reels with 6-or 8-pound Optic Yellow Gamma Poly Flex line. He rigs a pair of 1/8ounce jigs 18 to 24 inches apart, each jig dressed with a Bobby Garland Baby Shad body, color depending on water clarity--bright colors in dingy water, natural patterns in clearer water.

After finding a school of crappies, he positions the boat perpendicular to and upwind from the fish. He sets rods in rod holders, rod tips a foot above the surface, lures at different depths to intercept fish as he "glides" through the school with the wind at his back. Each angler fishes three rods--one rod suspends the jig combos with a bobber while the other two drift freely. The fish were aggressive at times, often snapping the rod tip down to the surface.

Smith favors tipping his lures with Berkley Crappie Nibbles, experimenting with colors, ranging from bright chartreuse to orange. Many of our fish exceed a pound and we have several that are almost twice that. He says the ideal water temperature for his gliding technique ranges from 60[degrees]F to 64[degrees]F, and it also works at nearby Shenango River Reservoir and at Ohio's Mosquito Lake, where big white crappies suspend on midlake humps before venturing shallow to spawn.

Closer to my home in Central Maryland, the record rainfall of 2018 had water levels high with dingy clarity during our prime crappie spawning months of April and May. High, turbid water can have positive and negative effects on the Spawn Period. Flooded vegetation and brush draw bedding fish tight to the banks, but dingy water makes it difficult to see them--yet it also makes it easier to get in closer to the fish without spooking them.

Heavy precipitation also makes crappies hold longer in deeper water adjacent to shallow spawning territory before they move up. When the water warms and clears, spawning resumes or begins, sometimes at a frantic pace. Water temperature spiked during the first week of May and anglers hustled to play catch-up with fish movements. There was a short window for finding shallow fish.

A more predictable pattern of fish movement emerged on other waters. I fished with Maryland DNR Officer Andrew Shifflett, an angler who also tracks crappies in the central part of the state. His work puts him close to the action during patrols of popular panfish lakes, so he knew that the crappie spawn at Piney Run Lake was in full swing.

After a five-day span of 85[degrees]F weather, water temperatures in the shallows spiked to 70[degrees]F, prime for spawning fish. Three-hundred-acre Piney Run offers limited options with day-use restrictions and electric-motor-only regulations. We made plans to fish the lake with our kayaks, targeting the abundant shoreline woodcover and beaver huts.

It was one of those rare days when the stars in the crappie universe align. Crappies dressed in their black tuxedo spawning colors were shallow near submerged woodcover. When we found fish, we anchored a short cast away and pitched 1/16ounce hair jigs or jigs dressed with a softbait body, catching fish after fish.

Predictably, after catching several fish, the rest of the group would become skittish, so we'd wait about five minutes before fishing again. At that point, switching to a different jig color often resulted in a few more fish. Also, try scaling down to a 1/64-ouncejig suspended below a small PlastiLite float. As a matter of stealth, let the wind drift the lure to the fish. Many times, switching to a smaller offering gets additional strikes. Overall, the combination of kayaks, polarized glasses, tiny hair jigs, and ideal conditions resulted in some of the best fishing of the season.

Oftentimes crappies spawn so shallow and are so skittish that extreme stealth is necessary to catch them. Shifflett and I encountered this last spring, as dark guardian males pushed into flooded willows at one of his favorite waters. The warmer temperatures also created an algae bloom that was a two-edged sword. It made fish difficult to see, but also at times allowed us to get in close, where we waited for wind to move patches of the green-surface stuff, allowing us to momentarily spot fish. Again, close-quarters combat with crappies causes a ruckus, so we often rested spots before fishing again. Again, switching jig colors helps trigger a few more fish, as does downsizing jigs.

Some of the largest crappies we have taken the past several seasons are from small, public waters that have rocky dam faces. The connected banks along northern shorelines draw crappies into water as shallow as 12 inches. Sometimes the fish tuck under lipped (undercut) banks. These fish are difficult to spot, so sometimes it's best to systematically work jigs slowly along the bank. When fish can be seen, the same guerilla-style tactics highlighted previously are needed to tempt them from their territorial claims. Cloudy days seem best at these waters, although it makes it difficult to see fish.

So, I share a few notes from the seasons passing as we head into prime time for this year. The spawning season, which encompasses prespawn, spawning, and postspawn fish, is a magical time of year. Crappies hold deeper to begin, typically move in and out a few times, before staying shallow to spawn during prime time. Then they finally move back out again, which brings us to yet another part of the season--and a story for another day.

The fundamentals for finding and catching crappies are similar across the range of waters where they're found. Stealth often is required when fish move shallow, and it pays to have on hand a selection of smaller jigs for particularly difficult situations.

Keep it simple, have fun, and catch some fish. Release the big ones--there should be plentiful smaller- to medium-sized fish for delicious meals.

BY JIM GRONAW, Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is a panfish aficionado and long-time contributor to In-Fisherman publications.

RELATED ARTICLE: Jig Size-How Small Is Too Small?

In many situations, larger jigs attract bigger crappies while smaller jigs get the attention of modest bluegills and yellow perch. But there are times when big crappies key on smaller food and tiny jigs work best.

That's the case when male crappies are visible in shallow water guarding nests or holding stationary and feeding before they start spawning. In this situation, less usually says more or says it better and triggers more fish overall. That's because tiny jigs can be fished most effectively, as they dart and swim realistically, without sinking too fast, dangled at the end of a long rod and 4-pound monofilament line.

Small tidbits also make it more difficult for crappies to make out the exact nature of the trick you're presenting to them.

Keeping records the last five years, 80 percent my big fish--13 to almost 16 inches-bit a 1/64- or 1/80ounce hair jig or a bare jig dressed with bait or a tiny softbait body. It's all about stealth and a soft entry into the water near the fish--and lure action after the fact. With tiny jigs it also helps to bend the end of the hook shank out a bit to open the gap to help the hook catch hold and set into the upper jaw or roof of a fish's mouth.

RELATED ARTICLE: Water Temperatures & Spawning Tendencies.

By In-Fisherman

1 Immediately after ice-out, crappies seek warming water in bays, canals, and channels in a natural lake, or backwater areas in reservoirs. This initial shallow movement is a feeding response, not a prespawn movement. Many good ice-out locations are poor crappie spawning areas. Crappies usually vacate such areas in favor of prespawn-spawn locations by the time water temperature in backwaters reaches 60[degrees]F.

2 By the time water temperature ranges from about 56[degrees]F to 60[degrees]F, crappies begin true prespawn movements; that is, fish location is directly affected by where they will be spawning in a week or two. This period is marked by scattered fish. Groups may hold off the first breakline in deeper water at night or during periods of falling water temperature. Under stable weather and rising water temperature, crappies move onto flats and move into banks of hardstem rushes with firm marl bottoms. Spawning areas are protected from wind. The interior of big banks of hardstem rushes is protected enough to eventually gather groups of spawning crappies.

3 Nest building by male crappies usually begins as water temperature reaches 65[degrees]F. Groups of males move into areas in rush beds or stumpfields and establish general spawning territories. As many as 50 males may be building nests in a general area. By this time, males have turned distinctively black. Females, holding on the perimeter of spawning areas, darken, but never get as dark as males. Females are rotund--bloated with ripe eggs.

4 Within the larger territory, males sweep nests over firm bottom consisting preferably of marl or gravel. Sand is not a preferred bottom type, but is used in many lakes. Nests are 8 to 12 inches in diameter and tend to be circular or oblong. Crappie nests lack the distinctive perfect circular pattern of bass and bluegill nests, and rarely feature a distinct rim, making them more difficult to distinguish.

5 Spawning activity may occur from 65[degrees]F to 75[degrees]F, but usually peaks at about 70[degrees]F. Females filter into general spawning territories. As a female approaches the specific spawning area of a male, an individual male herds the female into his territory and eventually over his nest to release eggs. The male immediately fertilizes them.

A female often moves on and is driven over another nest as she enters the territory of another male. Females may frequent many nests by the time their eggs are spent. Multi-nest spawning ensures continued genetic diversity within populations and helps to ensure that at least some eggs hatch.

6 Spawning concludes as females move to postspawn and pre-summer-summer positions near cover along drop-offs in natural lakes. Weedgrowth usually keys fish location. In reservoirs, black crappies move to brush or timber cover along creek channels in major creek arms. White crappies are likely to roam in open water, following shad schools.

Males guard nests, fanning them frequently to keep eggs oxygenated until they hatch, then filter deeper to group with females. Fry feed on zooplankton in the shallows, but eventually move to open water where they drift for the first summer, continuing to feed on zooplankton. Spawning is completed for another year.

Caption: In many northern waters, spawning crappies gather in interior areas of hardstem rushes protected by wind and waves.

Caption: Spring water levels and water clarity often dictate location of early season crappies and timing of spawning movements.
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Title Annotation:FIELD NOTES
Author:Gronaw, Jim
Date:Apr 12, 2019
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