Crappie Fishing Tips, Tricks & Techniques: Learn How to Effectively Catch Crappie with Lures, Bait, Jigs & Rigs
Why is the Crappie so popular?
The crappie in one of America’s most popular fish species. The crappie has an interesting body shape and color pattern that make it a beautiful and unique catch. It is common enough to be caught at all times of the year by everyone, yet is challenging enough to be exciting. Everyone from kids fishing for the first time on a beautiful spring day to expert ice fishermen love to catch crappie!
There is so much to love about this fish that almost any angler can get excited about it.
- It hits the challenge sweet spot – harder to locate and catch than sunfish but still common
- Live bait and small lures work equally well
- The best crappie catch is associated with the first nice days of spring
- Crappie can be caught year round
- Lots of interesting names for the fish
- Great taste
The crappie may have the most regional names of any popular fish. “Calico Bass”, “Paper Mouth”, “Speckled Perch” are the most popular and are based on the physical characteristics of the fish. Many more regional names exists including “moonfish”, ‘Strawberry Bass” and the French language inspired “sac-a-lait”, meaning bag of milk. All these names refer to two closely related fish species.
The crappie family is comprised of two species – the black crappie and the white crappie. It is usually quite easy to distinguish each type. The black crappie is usually darker overall with lots of black specks. The white crappie tends to be paler overall and the black specks form notable vertical bars. Since there is a lot of variation in coloring and markings, you may need to count the spines on the dorsal fins. The black crappie has 7 or 8 while the white crappie only has 5 or 6. Behavior patterns and angling techniques are virtually the same, so species type is not a significant factor for fisherman.
Finding Crappies – They Love Structure
Locating crappies is the first step in successful fishing. Crappies are extremely structure dependent. The crappie sits right in the middle of the freshwater food chain, and structure helps it on both sides. Rocks, weeds, and brush hide the crappie from larger fish such as northern pike and also from herons and other predatory birds. Additionally, the structure is home to the minnows that crappie love to eat. On larger bodies of water, the crappie particularly gravitates toward mid depth structure during the majority of the year.
Though many anglers go directly for submerged trees, don’t overlook some other areas. Docks, fishing piers, and bridge pilings are a must try for crappie. These provide structure in an area that may also have deep water. Another underutilized environment is tail water from a dam. When slow moving, crappie may congregate in tailraces where small baitfish and minnows get trapped. If the tailrace turns into a small cove or pond, the crappie fishing may be excellent.
Crappie Throughout the Seasons
The location of crappie change by the season. Spring crappie fishing is one of the best bites of any fish at any time. The crappie is usually one of the first fish to get active in seasonal environments and will hit almost any bait aggressively. Spring crappie congregate near shallow structures, weed beds, and sunken limbs near shore. They collect in large schools and can sometimes be caught by the dozens at on location. Fall crappie fishing is quite similar, with strong feeding close to shore.
For the rest of the year, crappie hold tight to deeper cover. In the summer the crappie stick to the cooler depths. And in the winter they return there for warmth. The bite is still consistent, but much less aggressive. Pro tip – try cooler summer days or mild winter days. These changes in pattern seem to stimulate the crappies to feed in those seasons.
Attracting the Bite – Crappies are Upfeeders
Crappies are mid water column upfeeders. They rarely feed on the surface or the bottom, instead hovering in between. They orient toward the surface and look up for food that is dropping toward them. They are very depth dependent, and finding the right structure at the right level is the key to locating the fish. This eliminates top water lures and bottom fishing, but leaves a wide range of options in between.
Live bait provides the most natural approach. Small worms that slowly drops can be very effective as it moves slowly and goes through the water column like many of the small insects and other invertebrates that the crappie may eat. Minnow that swims up and down will perfectly replicate the most popular forage for the crappie.
You will have to stick to small light lures that can vary depth. Leave the deep diving crankbait, Texas rigged plastic worms, and top water poppers and jerk baits at home. Those may work for bass or pike, but are unlikely to ever hook a crappie.
Live Bait for Crappies
The best crappie fishing is usually done with live bait. Live minnows are the preferred forage of the crappie and are often irresistible bait. Use only small sized minnows of around an inch long. Only the most traditional and simple techniques are needed here. A bobber with a small hook of size 2-6 for minnows are ideal. Allow about 2 feet of line so the minnow can swim. Many crappie anglers like to try slip rigged bobbers so they can raise and lower the bait if they are fishing in larger lakes or where the depths vary greatly.
Keep in mind the crappie eat a variety of small insects and other food items, too. Traditional earthworms and other similarly shaped larvae such as mealworms will consistently hook crappies. The worms will of course also attract many smaller sunfish as well, so you may want to avoid them if you are worried about hooking bluegill after bluegill. The waxworms and mealworms are popular when ice fishing for crappie. Winter crappie are less likely to aggressively chase a fish, so slowly floating a worm or insect is often the best bait for those times of year.
Jigs for Crappies
The overall most popular lure is the small jig in the 1/16 or 1/32 size. The jig moves slowly, can change depths, and can imitate a small fish, insect, or other small invertebrate. Some crappie fisherman will use only this bait and can be successful with it in any condition.
Almost any type of jig body will catch crappie. A straight tube, small salted worm, or a curly tail of a small size all move in a way that will attract attention. The crappie eats a variety of baitfish and insects, so there is no exact match needed. Crappie can be very picky with lure colors. The general rule of lighter colors in clear lakes and darker in stained water doesn’t tell the whole story for crappie. Yellow, chartreuse, red, green, and white – either alone or in combinations are the most popular. Mixing in black or brown with these colors can be effective in dark water conditions. Some anglers swear by neon colors or even glow in the dark lures. Overall, it is clear that crappie notice color, and change their preference quite often. Therefore, experimenting with a variety of colors can be the best way to get on the bite for the day.
There are two basic ways to use the jig for crappie – the cast and retrieve or the vertical jig. Vertical jigging is a technique used mainly on boats in larger lakes. If you have a fish finder and locate a school of crappie, go with this strategy. The jig can be lowered off the side of the boat slowly to the depth of the fish. Pro tip – this works great for walleye too!
Spinners for Crappies
Aggressive spring crappie will hit just about any minnow mimicking fishing lure. The old fashioned in-line spinner can work to cover lots of water and find crappie. Since crappie are generally more apt to hit a slow moving bait, you shouldn’t rely on spinning lures as an all-inclusive method. However, to quickly find fish in the warmer weather, the spinner can be very effective. You can often find a hybrid spinner/jig/spinnerbait made for crappie or pan fish. It consists of a jig head with a small spinner blade and arm attached by clip. This rig can be fished like a spinnerbait or jigged. Since it is versatile, small, and eye-catching, many anglers like this bait for spring crappie fishing.
The Spider Rig and the Umbrella Rig for Crappies
Trolling for crappie is very popular, especially on larger bodies of water. The most effective trolling tactic is the spider rig. Set up long (10 feet plus) rods on both sides of the boar as you troll. The wide spacing will help keep the lines away from each other and the boat. The wider the better as crappie will scatter as the boat passes right above them.
Another unconventional set up is the umbrella rig. Umbrella jigging presents multiple baits on the same line. The line attaches to a wire that that split into various spokes with hooks – reminiscent of the umbrella. Anglers can mix and match baits on each hook to test out what the crappie are looking for on that day. Different colors, live baits, or jig styles can all be added until a favorite is found. However, there are some downsides. It can be much easier to tangle to rig in brush or other cover.
Be Creative and Have Fun with Crappie Fishing Techniques
You can easily combine any of these techniques when going after crappie, and you will find they all work interchangeably in a way. Go ahead and be creative and you may just find a new combination that works. You can put a live minnow on the jig head and fish it like a lure to reach deep structure. Or try a curly tailed jig on a slip bobber that you slowly raise and lower as it drifts on the edge of a weed bed. If you live in cold climates, you can try any of these baits through the ice as well.
Rods, Reels, and Line for Crappies
A classic light rod with ultralight spinning reel for small lures and bait is sufficient for anyone to get started fishing for crappie. The truth is that you don’t need the specialized equipment when you start. Almost any type of set up works with one or more of the techniques, which is one of the beauties of crappie fishing. But serious crappie anglers will want to try some great equipment that may take you to another level.
Crappie rods are long rods of many styles. Long rods and even cane poles for bank fishing help the angler set their jig or bait down softly and slowly right into cover. Many of the rods used by crappie anglers tower at over 10 feet and fold up in a telescoping fashion.
Long rods are ideal for the spider rigged trolling technique as well. This helps spread the lures out over a wide plane and avoids tangles with the other rods or motor.
Conversely, fisherman who vertical jig on large bodies of water use a different setup altogether. Since there is little casting involved, short rods that maneuver easily are preferred.
Crappie line selection presents an interesting paradox. You will find recommendations anywhere from ultralight 2lb test to pick up the sensitive bites to 30lb test to get in among the brush safely. For most situations, light monofilament works well, with 6-10lbs being common. Braided fishing line can be effective as well. Braided lines reduce the coil and flexibility found in mono which can be a barrier to hooking crappies when jigging especially. Do not use thick line, as crappie are wary of visible line and the fight doesn’t necessitate a power line.
The Crappie is America’s Best Tasting Fish
Crappie tastes great and is often caught with a fish fry in mind. Crappie is a great treat and since no significant commercial fishery exists, you have to catch them and eat them fresh. They are easily filleted and only slightly bony. Crappie is light and flaky meat with a mild taste. It is not “fishy” at all.
Traditional pan frying is still the most popular way to cook crappie, but many cooks experiment with other preparations such as filleting the crappie with a sharp fish fillet knife or cooking whole. Oven baking and grilling are alternative means for cooking. Many eaters consider crappie to be the best tasting fish you can catch.
About the Author: Jeff Christo is an angler from the rural areas of southern New Jersey. He is a regional expert in multi-species angling and shoreline fishing techniques.