It’s supposed to be easy right now.
That, though, assumes the weather cooperates. And it hasn’t.
May is generally when swarms of crappies, spurred by rising water temperatures, move into the shallows to spawn.
They’re eager biters then.
Some of the best fishing of the season results.
This year, though, anglers are still waiting for that rush.
“This is a tricky time of year anyway,” said Darl Black, the northwest Pennsylvania-based crappie guide from Fishing with Darl Black. “But this has been an especially bad year for staying on the crappies because we’ve had so much cold water.
“Black crappies should be very shallow and bedding. But I’m not seeing any evidence of that. It’s been a hunt to find where they are.”
The good news is wherever they turn up – shallow or deep, spring or summer – crappies can be caught.
Success is a matter of technique and time.
Zac and Norm Brakeman with several nice crappies.
When it comes to pre-spawn fish, Norm Brakeman, the Williamsfield, Ohio, guide behind The Yankee Hooker targets transition areas. They’re old road beds, channels around bridge abutments, submerged foundations and the like.
Fish will stage there, close to but not in the shallows, waiting for the water to warm, he noted.
“They’ll be at that first or second break leading to deeper water,” Brakeman said.
He catches them on 8-pound test by vertically fishing 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jigs tipped with soft plastic baits.
“I’m really big on light line and light jigs,” he said.
That’s not to say he only fishes tiny baits. When specifically targeting big crappies, he uses plastics up to 3 inches.
“Yes, they’re panfish, and they eat a lot of insects, larvae and small minnows,” Brakeman said. “But a big crappie has a mouth like a coffee cup. They’re eating small perch, baby walleyes, bigger prey. If they can catch it, they’re going to eat it.”
Later, when crappies do move shallow, they seek brush piles, rocks, lily pads, aluminum boat lifts and anything else that will soak up enough sun to warm the water even a degree or two, said Russ Bailey of St. Marys, Ohio.
Host of the Brush Pile Fishing television show, Bailey fishes soft plastic-tipped jigs weighing as little as 1/48 ounce then. They drift down through the water rather than fall. That’s key.
“When those fish come in, you’ve got to fish slow. And when you think you’re fishing slow, you’ve got to fish slower,” he said.
Black targets spawning crappies three ways.
He works 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigs tipped with plastic baits on a 7-foot rod equipped with 4-pound test.
He rigs an 8-foot medium action rod with a jig beneath a slip bobber. The jig is tipped with live bait, soft plastics or Berkley crappie nibbles, which give off a “nice kind of milky scent cloud,” he noted.
And finally he uses a 10-foot or longer rod with 6-pound test for “dippin.’” He doesn’t cast with it.
Instead, he eases up to structure and reaches out with the rod to “dip” his bait into root tentacles and other messy cover.
“That’s really good when the fish are up shallow,” Black said.
Those techniques can work for weeks. Black noted that black crappies spawn first and shallower; white crappies spawn later and deeper.
“There’s still some bedding going on into June, there’s no doubt about that,” he noted.
Eventually, though, the fish move to deeper water. That’s when many fishermen switch to chasing other species.
That’s a mistake, Bailey said.
“Most don’t realize it, but the summer is actually one of the best times for catching crappies,” he said.
He looks for brush piles in 10 to 15 feet of water. He also looks for the thermocline, the layer in a lake where warmer surface water and cooler deep water mix.
“If you have a thermocline it makes it real easy to find crappies because they’ll always be above it,” Bailey said. “Because below it there’s no oxygen.”
To catch fish there, he sometimes uses a spider rig technique. At other times he jigs or trolls 2-inch crankbaits.
Those latter lures provoke nice reaction strikes, especially when temperatures climb.
“The hotter the water is the better that bite can be,” he said.
The important thing to understand at all times of year, Brakeman said, is crappies – like all fish — live to do three things: eat, avoid getting eaten and reproduce.
“And that’s it. Everything in their world revolves around those three things,” he said. “You have to figure out where they’ll be in the water at any particular time based on those three things.”
Fortunately, that means crappies can be caught in all seasons, not just the spawn, Bailey agreed.
“It’s definitely a year-round sport,” he said.
Big water, big crappies
If you want to catch a slab crappie now is the time to do it.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission runs an “Angler Award” program. It presents certificates to those who catch fish of a minimum size.
As part of that, the commission lists the five biggest fish, by species, reported by anglers each year.
Over the last six years, from 2011 to 2016, 14 of the largest 30 crappies were caught in either May or June. No other two month stretch compares.
The biggest crappie of 2016, for example, was caught on May 22 by Laken Fitzgerald of Vanport. The 3-pound, 6-ouonce, 20-inch fish hit a jig and minnow on Raccoon Lake in Beaver County.
The other thing to keep in mind?
As a general rule, the biggest crappies come from big water.
There are exceptions. Fitzgerald’s crappie is one; Raccoon Lake is just 100 acres.
But three of the other four crappies in last year’s top five came from 3,225-acre Lake Arthur. The fifth came from 850-acre Keystone Lake.
That’s more the norm.
Over those same six years, 26 of the 30 largest crappies came from lakes at least 350 acres in size, and 25 came from lakes at least 850.
The state record is a 4-pound, 2.88-ounce fish pulled from 750-acre Hammond Lake in 2000. An even larger crappie — weighing 4 pounds, 8 ounces — was collected from 17,088-acre Pymatuning Lake this spring in a trap net.
The story and a photo of that fish are here.
In the meantime, for monster crappies, go now and go big.