Largemouth bass, norther pike, and rainbow trout may get most of the attention from freshwater anglers, but crappie are another gamefish that are just as fun to catch. And many would argue that they do more for a dinner table than these other species.
But if you are to have a reasonable chance of catching a cooler full of crappie, you’ll have to learn a little about the fish, and the techniques and tackle used to catch them. We’ll cover these things and more below.
Crappie Fishing Basics
There are actually two different species of crappie in North American waters:
The black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus) and the white crappie (Pomoxis annularis). However, anglers rarely distinguish between the two, and they can be caught with virtually identical strategies and equipment.
The most obvious difference between the two species boils down to their appearance; as black crappie are more heavily marked with dark spots.
However, you can identify them if you like by counting their dorsal fin rays. Black crappie have seven or eight rays, while white crappie typically have six.
Most crappie are caught during the spawning season, when they pull up into relatively shallow waters. However, they can also be caught during the other seasons, you’ll just have to venture out into deeper water to find them.
The most difficult time of year to find crappie is often the early autumn, when they may move about on a daily basis, alternating between shallow and deep water.
Regardless of the season, a fish finder will make it much easier to locate and catch these fish, although it is not imperative that you have one, if you don’t mind searching far and wide for holding schools.
Crappie are very rarely found far from some type of cover or structure. Submerged timber stands, deep-water humps and river channels are all favorite haunts, and they often cluster near man-made cover, including sunken Christmas trees and plastic fish attractors.
Fortunately, because crappie tend to form large schools, you can be sure that others are in the vicinity, after catching your first one.
Crappie Fishing Gear: Rods, Reels and Line
Crappie are not big fish, and most individuals are less than 1 pound in weight (the world records for both species are about 5 pounds, but such behemoths are very rare).
And while they certainly don’t swim right up to the boat after being hooked, they don’t put up the long fights that some other species do. Accordingly, light or ultralight equipment is the preferred choice.
But no matter the type of rod and reel you prefer, you’ll need to use very light line – typically something between 4- and 8-pound test will suffice.
This will not only help ensure the lure moves correctly, it will allow you to spool more line on your reel, to prepare you for the long and deep casts you’ll often make while fishing for crappie. Monofilament lines will work, but fluorocarbon lines are typically preferred.
Note that many anglers like to use extremely long rods when fishing for crappie — some even use rods that are nearly 20 feet long! Such rods will undoubtedly allow you to cast farther and allow you to use complicated spider-style rigs, but they can be difficult to wield.
Other anglers – particularly those who primarily fish vertically, may opt for very short rods, in the 5- to 6-foot range.
Regardless of the rod length you choose, you’ll probably have the most success by using a rod that has a flexible tip, to help you avoid pulling the lure from the crappie’s mouth.
Catching a Crappie’s Attention: Lures, Rigs and Baits
While young crappie primarily subsist on invertebrates and other tiny prey, mature crappie are primarily fish eaters. Accordingly, you’ll want to use minnows and minnow-mimicking lures when trying to catch these fish.
Live minnows are likely the most effective bait you can use, but it can sometimes be tricky to determine the best size minnow for a given day of fishing. This means you may want to bring a few different sizes along, so you can adapt on the fly.
Alternatively, you can use a variety of small lures to catch crappie. Typically, this means small jigs and tube baits, although very small grubs, crankbaits, spoons, tiny spinnerbaits and underspins can also be effective at times.
Bright fluorescent colors, including chartreuse and pink, are often effective, although white lures and those with metallic finishes can also catch fish. Lures in the 1/64- to 1/8-ounce range are usually ideal.
No matter what bait or lure you use, you’ll need to go with small hooks, which will fit in the relatively small mouths of these fish.
A No. 6 size Aberdeen hook is a good starting point, but you should feel free to experiment – just be sure to purchase the thinnest hooks you can to avoid ripping the crappie’s papery mouth to pieces in the process.
Some anglers prefer hooks of a particular color, but any color hook can yield success, including black, silver, gold or red.
Floats & Sinkers
For buoyancy control, you’ll need a variety of floats and sinkers. Slip-style sinkers (which allow you to suspend your bait much deeper than a traditional, clip-on float will) are the preferred choice for keeping your lure in front of the fish when they are in deep water.
To keep the float sitting properly in the water and to provide a little more weight to maximize your casting distance, you can use a couple of split shot. Just attach them about 12 inches below the float (or the float stopper, in the case of a slip-float rig).
During the spawn, you may have success foregoing the float entirely, and bouncing a weighted jig along the bottom. If you like, you can tip the jig with a small minnow to make the package appear more realistic.
Assorted Crappie Fishing Tips and Tricks
The basic techniques and strategies illustrated above will help you locate and catch crappie, but you can take your fishing to even greater heights by embracing some of the tips and tricks explained below.
- You can occasionally have success jigging for crappies along the bottom, but you’ll be much more likely to catch a limit by rigging up a slip-float rig, and animating your jig bait in the middle of the water column.
- Be sure to mark productive fishing locations on your sonar unit as waypoints. This way, you’ll have no trouble finding the same spot again in the future.
- Consider trying your luck at night. Crappie fishing is often excellent after the sun sets during the summer, and you can improve your odds even more by using a light or illuminated float on the surface (where legal to do so).
- Be sure to avoid ripping the hook free by simply reeling up the slack when you detect a bite, rather than setting the hook like you would when fishing for bass or pike.
- If you are having trouble finding the fish, consider trolling. Use as many lines as you can at a time, and set them up with varying lures, which should be suspended at different depths.
- Use a loop knot when tying your lure to your line, as this will allow the most realistic movement and action.
- Do not allow the line to go slack when reeling in your fish. Crappie can quickly take advantage of any give in the line, and throw the hook with a quick head movement.
- Don’t retrieve your lure too quickly. One of the most common mistakes novice crappie anglers make is to fish too quickly. Crappie typically prefer a slow, steady and subtle presentation; you won’t catch many by burning a crankbait through the water.
- Use your topographical map (or the charts included with your fish finder) to locate deep water structure. Humps, ledges, river channels and sand bars can all hold crappie, particularly when they occur in water between 10 and 30 feet deep.
- Consider adding your own sources of cover if fishing in a relatively featureless lake. Just be sure that it is legal to do so before you chuck your old Christmas tree overboard.
As you can see, crappie may be a bit challenging to locate, but by embracing the tips and strategies provided here, you’ll surely be able to find the ones lurking in your local river or reservoir. Just be patient and take your time when looking for their haunts.
Do you have any crappie fishing tips that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear all about them. Let us know about your favorite rods, lures and techniques, as well as the ways in which you go about finding these elusive fish.