How to Catch Crappie All Year Long

Crappie fishing is pure fun once you get the hang of it. Depending on where you are it can range from being deceptively simple to deceptively complex and this alone adds a nice challenge. As it goes with any fish, practice makes perfect and the more you prepare beforehand the better you can perform on the water. This fishing guide is here to help you do just that. 

We’ll cover the basics of crappie because the more you understand the fish the better you can catch them. There are some tried and true methods out there for catching crappie and, of primary importance, simple steps you can take to find them in the first place. Here we will review all of that and more so you are armed with all the knowledge you need to get on the water and start casting for crappie. 

Crappie Basics 

Many people are first introduced to crappie through their dinner plates. This common North American freshwater panfish is popular for its easy cookability among other things. To actually get it on your plate though it helps to know more about it. For one thing, crappie has a dizzying array of alternative names which all seem to be in regular use depending on where you are in the world. Other names include papermouths, strawberry bass, speckled bass, and calico bass to name a few. 

In some parts of the United States, there is even local slang for the fish such as sac-a-lait or “milk bag” in parts of Louisiana. That particular name comes from the fact that one species of the fish, white crappie, is distantly reminiscent of a bag of milk. The second crappie species, black crappie, is darker with black spots as you might expect. 

The differences between these species are almost negligible when it comes to catching them for sport or dinner. The best way to differentiate between the two is to count the dorsal fins. Black crappie’s dorsal fins have 7-8 visible spines while those of white crappie are set further back on its back and only have 5-6 visible spines. Color is not really the most dependable way to tell the difference and, unless you are trying to set a record with your catch, the identification isn’t all that important.  

Adult crappie have a pretty diverse diet which helps when it comes to choosing bait or a lure. They eat smaller fish, insects, zooplankton, and various crustaceans. The real trick in catching these little fish is understanding their feeding schedule though. During normal daylight hours crappie are not very active and mostly just rest in and around protected structures like fallen trees. 

You might be able to grab one then but the best times to get crappie are around dawn and dusk. These are the crappie feeding hours and the times when they are most likely to approach open waters and shorelines. The habits of these fish also make them the perfect fish to target all year round. They will show up at different depths and locations depending on the season but if you know what to look for you can catch one. 

Seasonal Crappie Fishing 

You can fish for crappie all year round but make sure you follow whatever your local fishing laws dictate. Because these fish are so fun to catch and so good to eat it can sometimes put a damper on their numbers. If your local crappie populations are blooming however and local law hasn’t restricted the catch too much then have at it! 

If you are fishing in the winter be prepared to stand in the coldest and windiest spot of the lake for quite a while. As water temperatures drop so do the crappie swimming depths. In the winter they dive for the deepest parts of the water. Winter can be a great time to fish for crappie because most fishermen just pack up and go home when the temperature drops a little. Still, you’ll sometimes have to really work for that winter crappie. 

In addition to diving to deeper and warmer depths, winter crappie move more slowly. These sluggish fish will sometimes keep you out on the ice for a while before biting. Setting up multiple rods can help you overcome this wait if you are strategic about it. This isn’t allowed in some places though so, again, make sure to check on local fishing regulations. 

For most crappie fishermen the winter is considered the worst season only followed by the summer. In the same way the fish dove deep in the winter to escape the cold they dive deep in the summer to escape the heat. The only problem this time is that the crappie aren’t sluggish like in the winter, they are deceptively fast and hard to find at the lower depths. 

A fish finder can help you a lot at this time of the year but many anglers just keep dropping their lines until they get a bite. Trial and error should help you find them but once you know their location and depth you should be able to catch a few. Fishing in the Fall can give you a brief reprieve as the weather begins to cool but by the later months, you’ll notice the crappie behaving like it is already winter.  

The best season to fish for crappie is the Spring. You might consider the rest of the year as practice. While crappie congregates in loose hard to find schools the rest of the year the spring is different. Crappie spawns in the spring and you’ll find them in fairly good numbers in more shallow wind protected waters with good cover. This makes them much easier to spot and catch. In the next sections, we will cover where exactly to look but if you are in the right spot you are bound to find crappie. 

Can You See the Fish? 

Visibility is important in a couple of ways when you are looking to catch crappie. At all times of the year you need to think about how clear the water is that you are fishing in. Crappie identify food by sight instead of smell so if visibility in the water is poor so are your chances that a fish is going after your lure. Even in waters that look relatively clear to you, it is always best to use bait and lures that have good size and visibility. This will save you a lot of waiting. 

Quality vision also comes into play when fishing in the summer or winter months. At these times of the year, you won’t be able to see or find crappie as easily as you can in the spring. This is why some anglers choose to use a sonar fish finder. The fish finder serves as your eyes and can really cut down on the time it takes to find where the fish are. 

If you can see the bottom of the water that is a great sign that the crappie can see your lure or bait. 

Where are all the Crappie? 

Half of the battle in catching crappie is knowing where to find them. Thankfully it isn’t too hard. Due to their popularity crappie are stocked in many ponds and lakes throughout the United States and in other parts of the world. Actually, even though crappie are North American fish people like them so much that they have been transplanted to most countries. These resilient freshwater fish can be found in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams with nice clear water and good cover.

Historically fishermen could just drop a line from the end of a stick into most ponds and they would eventually come up with crappie. It is almost that straightforward now but it also helps if you know what to look for. Like other fish, crappie like to protect themselves from aerial predators by using cover like fallen logs and brush piles to hide in. While that might save them from the birds it also tips off anglers as to where to look. 

Some very successful crappie fishermen take this fact and really use it to their advantage. They find open areas in lakes without cover and then build a shelter to attract crappie. All you have to do is identify a clear spot in a freshwater lake, note the exact location so you can return, and then drop logs and brush down in one spot. The crappie won’t show up immediately but if you come back a few days later you are likely to find some hiding there. 

For larger crappie try fishing in cover that is suitable for their size. While smaller crappie might hide closer to brush and even inside of it the larger crappie will probably squeeze themselves between logs or fallen branches. You will need to be creative about how you identify cover and how you fish it. If the location is easy to spot and easy to fish then it is likely that other fishermen have already covered it and the bigger crappie have either left or been caught. 

Don’t forget to look around man-made structures either. For crappie, cover is cover, no matter where it comes from. If there are no brush piles or fallen trees nearby you will probably find crappie huddled under a dock or near some pilings. The fish are trying to avoid open waters and blend in against a structure so they are less visible so if you fish with that thought in mind you’ll notice places where they might be hiding. 

The summer, fall, and winter fishing seasons will push the crappie towards deeper waters so that’s when lakes are more likely to offer success. Springtime finds the crappie moving in more shallow water as they spawn so rivers and other shallow freshwater spots are the places to look. This is mostly based on water temperature and food availability though so unseasonal heat and cold can change how the fish behave. 

Crappie Bait & Tackle 

One of the beautiful things about fishing for crappie is that you don’t need a crazy arsenal of fishing equipment to catch them. Some anglers do utilize a technique called spider rigging which we’ll cover later and this simply requires several fishing rods. The setup for each rod is simple though. As long as you have a decent slow to medium action rod rigged with some light monofilament, you are good to go. Lightweight here is around 4-pound test. Crappie are delicious but they just aren’t that big. 

Smaller lures and smaller bait work just fine. Crappie identify their food by sight and not smell though so you will need to use something that is easily visible. Minnows are the most popular bait of choice for crappie by far and you’ll have great luck if you use them. When it comes to lures jigs are the way to go. You’ll need a good collection though so you can best match the jig to whatever the crappie are hungry for that day. 

A floater can be really helpful when catching crappie, especially in the winter months.  

Presenting the Bait or Lure 

If you run a mix of jigs and minnows off a fairly light and sensitive rod you’ll be set. The only technical part about fishing for crappie is how exactly you present the bait or jig. In the simplest terms, you basically have to put the lure right in front of their faces. To pull this off you can float your lure right in front of some cover in shallow waters or even very slowly move a jig through the water at a depth you believe the crappie are at. 

A floater can be your best friend when trying to catch crappie. This is especially the case when the waters are colder and the fish are more sluggish. A sensitive strike indicator with a tasty minnow on the other end is what you’ll need to catch the particularly stubborn late winter fish. This works in the more productive spring fishing season as well and can help you catch crappie of all sizes. 

In shallow waters, a standard bobber fixed a couple of feet above a minnow, and cast near cover is all you need. That set up can carry you through a whole season of crappie fishing. Deeper waters call for modified tactics though. A classic deep water approach uses a slip bobber set to the depth you need with some ⅛ ounce pinch on sinkers to keep your bait at the desired depth. Longer rods are great with these setups because they help you cast out further where you need to reach. 

A Note on Spider Rigging 

Whenever you have a fish that can be caught on a fairly simple tackle assembly without much effort needed on the retrieve then you can use spider rigging. It is very important to check with your local authorities first before using this technique because it is banned in some places. Spider rigging is basically setting up multiple fishing rods around the edge of a boat, sort of like the legs of a spider. 

Each rod can be set the same or different but the overall goal is the same. You are trying to improve your odds of catching as many fish as possible. Crappie are the perfect fish species to catch with spider rigging and many anglers do so with tremendous success. Once you know where the crappie are hiding you can catch several at one time. 

Dangling a minnow off the hook on each line and running it through a bobber gives you a very easy system to catch crappie. You just cast the lines, set the rods, and wait. As you see the bobbers twitch in turn you’ll be surprised how quickly you fill up your live well. Another benefit of this technique is that you can really take advantage of differences in the lake by casting different tackle off each side of your boat. One side might work the shallow waters near the shore while the other side is set for the deeper waters in the middle of the lake. 

Final Verdict:

Crappie is a ton of fun to fish for and even more enjoyable to eat. With the right techniques and location, you can easily bring home several dinners worth of crappie and then go back for more. You should always follow local regulations on fishing limits but, where allowed, spider rigging can help you bring in a huge haul. This guide will get you started fishing for crappie and with time you’ll pick up more tricks and techniques that only add to the fun. Good luck and good fishing!

Bonus tip: Once you catch all those crappies you will need to fillet them. Learning how to do so is fairly simple, just watch this video to learn how.         

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