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Ready to Catch More Crappie?

Dr. Mike with a California limit of crappie caught 10/28/00 using info now posted on this site.

Related to largemouth bass and bluegill, crappie (pronounced "craw-pea") fall midway between their larger and smaller cousins. Crappie are the biggest non-bass in the sunfish family. They have better vision than bluegill, possibly better than bass. They have seemingly small mouths that pop open big enough to vacuum in a minnow from a short distance like a largemouth. They provide superb sport for their size and many people think that they're the best tasting fish that swims. To learn to catch crappie consistently, the angler should understand how crappie see, where they prefer to live, what they prefer to eat, and how the seasons influence their behavior.

CRAPPIE VISION: Crappie can see colors well and many anglers like to use colorful lures to fish for them. However, like all fish, their ability to see is influenced by water depth, light levels, water clarity and water temperature. Also, a crappie's willingness to attack lures of different colors and presentations depends upon the fish's activity level.

Water filters colors out of light and certain colors disappear first. Think of a rainbow that has red hues on one side and gradually fades to blue colors on the other side. The colors on the red side are filtered out first and the colors on the blue side are filtered out last. Consequently, as water begins to get deep it looks green, but really deep water looks blue. Because of this natural law, red lures are visible only in shallow water, orange a little deeper, yellow even deeper, green deeper still and blue lures are visible in the deepest water. Black is also a good deep-water lure color. White is visible at many depths, because it reflects any available light. But the other vision factors should be considered before a lure is selected.

The effects of water clarity and light levels are not always obvious. The simplest way to remember this concept is that richer versions of any color are most visible in clear water and bright light, while lighter, pastel versions of each color are most visible in stained or murky water and/or low light levels. In other words, red, orange, white, rich green and deeper blue are most visible in clear water with bright light. As light levels fade and/or the water becomes murkier, the best colors become pink, yellow, chartreuse, lighter blue, and black. When the fish seem to lose interest in a lure than was working well earlier in the day, it may be due to changes in light or water clarity. If changes in wind or current have let the water calm down and become more clear, or if clouds have cleared away to allow brighter light, change to richer lure colors or white. If the wind has churned up the water and decreased visibility or if clouds have moved in or the sun is going down, switch to pastel colors or black.

In some recent studies, water temperature was determined to have a dramatic effect on fish vision. Since crappie rely heavily on vision for hunting, this information is important for crappie anglers to understand. The concept is very simple: the colder the water, the better a fish can see. This is because the lower temperatures help the cells in a fish's eye to function better. This means that crappie, like other fish, may be able to see smaller lures at deeper levels in cold water than they can in warm water. It also means that they will be better able to see fishing line, so an angler may need to use lighter monafilament or fluorocarbon line in cold water.

Finally, a crappie's activity level will determine how it reacts to lures of different colors and presentations. The most substantial difference in lure color is the contrast between lure and background color. Active fish are more likely to attack lures that contrast with the color of the water and structure in the area. Think of red, orange, yellow, white, and sometimes black if the background is light. Inactive fish are more likely to attack lures that blend with the surrounding background colors, like a baitfish would. Try green, chartreuse, blue, neutral colors, and occasionally black if the background is dark. For lure presentation, active fish are more likely to attack a lure with more movement, while inactive fish are more likely to attack lures with less movement. There needs to be some lure movement, though, even if it is followed by a pause, because movement is what tells the fish that the lure may be food, rather than part of the background. Always consider water depth, water clarity, light levels, and water temperatures to help decide which colors to try first. And always be ready to try something different if the first choice doesn't work. When fishing regulations allow multiple poles and/or multiple lures, it's easier to determine what will work best.

CRAPPIE HABITAT: Crappie love structure, perhaps more than most other fish species. They love docks, submerged trees and brush, underwater weeds, rocks and drop-offs, and will often gather in large schools in and around structure. However, being unpredictable wild predators, they will also form schools beneath balls of baitfish, even away from structure. Anglers seeking crappie should try areas with heavy cover first, and it may be necessary to use weedless lures or bait hooks. Since crappie are normally found in schools, once one crappie is caught, the angler should focus on that spot until the bite stops. When the bite stops, the angler may wish to try a different lure color or presentation before moving on to search for crappie elsewhere.

CRAPPIE FOOD: Young crappie feed on insects. As crappie grow, they feed more and more on baitfish, and particularly minnows, until baitfish comprise nearly their whole diet. Crappie will also eat worms, maggots and crustaceans, and adult black crappie will still eat aquatic insects.

Anglers using natural baits tend to prefer medium to small minnows or other baitfish, crayfish, worms, maggots, crickets or grasshoppers. Crappie lures include medium to very small grubs, micro-tubes, chenille or marabou mini-jigs or micro-jigs, Mylar mini-jigs or micro-jigs, small spinnerbaits or in-line spinners, and small poppers. (Dr. Mike's favorite crappie grubs are 2-inch Cabela's Mr. Mean grubs, which have a fin that runs down the back and into the tail, with a built-in pocket to make the jig hook weedless). Crappie flies include poppers and streamers, and black crappie in particular will hit dry flies, nymphs and emergers.

Spincasting reels or mini-baitcasting reels with ultralight rods are the most popular rigs for bait or lures. However, many people fish for crappie with long, telescoping rods with crude reels or just line clips, or even the simplest bamboo cane poles, especially since the jig or bait presentation is often vertical. Fly anglers use 4 to 6 weight rods and line. Water clarity, water temperature and the amount of structure determine leader or line size. An angler using 4 pound test line in heavy structure, like submerged tree tops, will lose a lot of fish, hooks and lures. Anglers should consider using slightly heavier line or fluorocarbon leaders, since heavy structure and crappie usually go hand in hand. In heavily stained water, line up to 12-pound test can be successfully used.

CRAPPIE SEASONS: In early spring before the spawn, crappie form tight schools that chase baitfish around the lake, particularly in or near structure. Then they begin to seek out water that is good for nesting.

Like all sunfish, crappie spawn in the spring to early summer in still or slow water, making depressions in the dirt for their nests. They often build nests close together in large groups, like bluegill, but they spawn in deeper water than bluegill.

After the spawn, crappie usually spread out onto brushy or weedy flats. The schools are not tightly packed at this time of year, but the fish are still in groups. Baitfish activity will influence both crappie location and school behavior.

As the water cools and fall begins, crappie bunch up into tight schools again and find a particular level of water that they like best for whatever reason. They will be found near good cover all around the lake at this same level. Anglers should learn how to drop their line to the same level, using count-down techniques, measured back-reeling, marking the line, or even stopping the line with a rubber band around the reel. The cooler the water, the deeper the level at which the crappie will normally be found. In shallow natural lakes (30 to 40 feet maximum depth), the crappie schools will often be in or on the edges of the deep main river channel. An angler who understands these patterns will have a fantastic time fishing for crappie in the fall.

The tightly schooled, deep structure behavior continues into the winter. Many ice-fishing anglers like to target crappie, though Southern California-based Dr. Mike does not pretend to be an ice fisherman. It is not easy for ice fishermen to move to different parts of a lake to find crappie, since they have to drill new holes in the ice. It is therefore important for ice fishermen to be familiar enough with the lake to find a likely crappie spot from above the ice, using a GPS (Global Positioning System) or using points of reference on the land. There are also portable fish finders that can determine depth and locate fish through the ice.

GO GET 'EM: Armed with this information about how crappie see, where they live, what they eat, and how the seasons affect their behavior, crappie anglers can catch crappie year-round. Boats and float tubes are the most effective way to search for and fish crappie holding spots, especially since a vertical presentation is often the best. Shore anglers may wish to use waders to be able to cover more and deeper water. Many states have very liberal bag limits, because crappie are very effective breeders and have good survival due to their strong schooling instincts. However, anglers should consider releasing the largest crappie or keeping fewer fish than the established limit, especially if the number or size of crappie are becoming smaller.

White crappie (pomoxis annularis) are the larger of the two crappie subspecies. They have a short dorsal fin with 6 spines, dark vertical bars, and a larger back hump than the black crappie. The average weight is about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds, but they can reach more than 5 pounds. White crappie are often found in murkier water than black crappie. They primarily eat minnows, but will also eat crayfish, worms and some other invertebrates.

Black crappie (pomoxis nigromaculatus) are the smaller of the two crappie subspecies. They have a longer dorsal fin with 7 or 8 spines, are covered with irregular dark spots, lack vertical bars, and have a smaller back hump than the white crappie. The average weight is from just under a pound to 1-1/2 pounds and 5 pounds is the approximate maximum weight. Black crappie are often found in clear, weedy lakes, large streams and ponds. Adult black crappie are more willing to eat aquatic insects than white crappie, though minnows are their favorite food. Like white crappie, they will also eat crayfish, worms and other invertebrates.

Both subspecies of crappie are members of the sunfish family. They spawn in the spring to early summer, often in large communities, making small depressions in the lake bottom by fanning their fins. Crappie nests are normally found in deeper water than bluegill nests. Like all sunfish, the nest is guarded until after the eggs hatch.

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