In April, one of the hardest questions anglers must answer is what species to go after. This is a prime time for many gamefish, from bass to bluegills, catfish to trout. One of my favorite quarries, though, for spring outings is the crappie.
It’s no wonder that crappies are among the country’s most popular gamefish. Whether you find mostly the black species, the paler-hued whites, or a mixture of the two, they are intriguing to seek out as waters first start to warm up after the long, cold winter. The fish are full of spunk and fight now, and the flesh is firm and delectable when broiled, deep-fried or lightly sautéed in lemon and butter.
You can catch crappies in small ponds, natural lakes and big, deep-water impoundments. Slow-flowing rivers may also hold good populations. Almost all of Virginia’s lakes hold abundant populations of this fish, with nearby Lake Anna a good example. Kerr Reservoir, a longer drive, is even better for big fish.
For the next week or so the best way to catch crappies will be drifting in deep water staging areas where the fish congregate before moving in tight to shore to spawn near docks, blowdowns and submerged brush piles. Work depths of 6 to 18 feet with small jigs or minnows when water temperatures are in the upper 40s to low 50s.
The tight-lining system with a bell sinker on the bottom and two jigs or minnows on droppers works especially well. Jigs can be marabou or soft plastic grub types in white, yellow, chartreuse and shad colors.
Bridge pilings are good spots to try, as are drop-offs, channel edges and the juncture where creek arms meet the main river.
Try drifting if the wind is blowing at a light to moderate pace. If it’s calm or too strong, use the electric motor to ease slowly along over likely areas. Once you hook a fish, keep probing that area, since crappies will usually be tightly schooled at this time of year. You can try anchoring where you catch one, but sometimes it’s more productive to simply re-drift through the area repeatedly.
As the sun bakes the shallows and increases water temperatures into the mid to upper 50s, crappies will move tight to shore to spawn. That’s when the most exciting fishing of all takes place. The crappies will be found around docks, beaver huts, log jams, flooded timber and brush piles in depths of 2-6 feet. Darker colored males move in first, but within days the paler, egg-laden females follow.
In lakes with limited cover, casting with spin tackle and jigs is a great way to find roving schools of fish. Use 4-6 pound line and 1/16 to 1/8 ounce marabou jigs or lead heads with a soft plastic dressing. Cast out, let the lure descend 3 to 6 feet, and then slowly reel back. Pause now and then to let the jig suddenly drop deeper. Often fish will nail the lure at this point as it flutters down like a wounded baitfish.
Another option for catching shallow water crappies is to use a bobber and minnow rig, fished with a cane pole or fly rod. Use the long rod to flip the offering into pockets of open water amid the flooded brush and next to dock pilings.
A final tactic calls for using the same rig but with a jig instead of a minnow. Skip the bobber and simply swim the jig in and around any brush or flooded trees you can find with the fly rod or cane pole. Don’t pump it. Simply move it slowly around the cover. When you feel a tap or sudden weight, set the hook.
Then you’ll have the start of the ingredients for a delicious fish fry – the ultimate reward for a spring day spent searching for this intriguing black and white speckled quarry.