A crash course on crappies

I’m going to be honest with all of you. I wanted to put together an article on tips for fishing spring crappies, but presenting myself as any sort of expert on the subject would be disingenuous.

Don’t get me wrong, I love fishing crappies. They fight hard, taste great, and are relatively available in my part of the world. But I haven’t spent much time exclusively targeting these fish.

This past winter, my friend Brandon floated out the idea of a spring crappie fishing trip at his in-laws’ cabin in Langlade County. He told me that the action could be incredibly fast-paced when the stars aligned.

I knew I wanted in. Who doesn’t like catching fish and learning new things?

After some back-and-forth, we settled on a date in mid-May. Truthfully, I was a little concerned that this may be too early. After all, winter can last from October to Memorial Day in northern Wisconsin. But we selected the only timeframe that worked with our schedules and hoped for the best.

The week of the trip, however, my concerns transformed into a steady stream of optimism. On Sunday, Brandon was told that the surface water temperature was 55°F. With forecasted highs in the 80s and 90s for the remainder of the week, things we’re looking good.

“We’re going to hit this just right,” Brandon said in a text message to me.

Friday afternoon came and we began our 3-hour trek northward.

Once we arrived at the cabin ( I use the term “cabin” loosely, this is a full-blown house — a nice one at that), we tackled a few small housekeeping items. We put our perishables in the fridge, placed our luggage in our rooms, and carefully selected appropriately sized rods and tackle from the bountiful selection in the garage.

Then it was time to get to business. We put the boat in the water and got right to fishing.

The plan was to target crappies in the shallows using lip-hooked fathead minnows underneath slip bobbers.

At first, there wasn’t much in the way of action. We focused on downed timber near the shoreline. But there was nothing doing.

Given the relative lack of vegetation, we were left wondering where else the fish could be.

Though it was a little unsettling how quickly our high spirits came crashing back to earth, there was no need for alarm. We had plenty of weekend remaining.

We moved up to a point on the next bay over that had several submerged logs.

It didn’t take long for our fortunes to change. Brandon quickly landed a few keeper crappies and I caught a hammer-handle northern pike.

Soon, I also got in on the crappie action and started learning what to look for.

“If you see a spot where you think you’ll get snagged, that’s probably where they are,” Brandon told me.

By the end of the night, we had a respectable number of papermouths in the cooler. If nothing else, we would be able to enjoy a nice fish fry this weekend.

The following morning, we hit the water shortly after dawn in hopes of picking up a few walleyes on a brief trolling mission. But we found the fish to be uncooperative and had to settle for a pair of small pike.

Now, around 9 a.m., it was back to business. We returned to the bay we fished the previous night and began working any wooded structure we could find.

We quickly found action. The fish weren’t jumping in the boat, but the bite was steady and we found plenty of quality specimens. The morning ended with nearly two-dozen fish and a nice bucket of crappies to add to our haul.

After breaking for lunch, a nap, and a quick trip to the local gas station for more minnows, we were back on the water again.

Almost instantly, we were back on the bite. We started to increase the standards for what defined a “keeper.” We bumped up the threshold from 8 inches to 9. This didn’t prevent the live well from quickly filling up.

The shallows continued to produce and we were even able to sight-fish a couple of schools, placing our minnows near the concentrated fish as they darted in and out of the structure.

As a band of showers and thunderstorms rolled in, we retreated back to the cabin. Brandon put together the best bluegill dinner I have ever had, while I whipped up some homemade tartar sauce.

We enjoyed our fish fry with some customary old fashioneds before heading to the tavern across the lake to shoot some pool and stuff the jukebox with classic rock and 90s country.

We struck up a conversation with the bartender who informed us that just three weeks ago, there was still ice on the lake. That was staggering considering we were frequently encountering water temperatures north of 75°F on the surface.

On Sunday morning, we decided to make one last run for crappies before cleaning fish, tidying up the cabin, and heading home.

We once again shifted our criteria for the fish we kept. The bar now stood at 10 inches. Once again, this proved to be a non-issue. We picked up another dozen keepers before we wrapped things up.

In total, we ended with 41 crappies and a bluegill in the cooler. It took us nearly an hour to clean fish, but it was well worth it knowing we would get to enjoy the fruits of our labor several times over.

All told, we caught roughly 100 fish over the course of the weekend and reeled-in five different species.

While I still wouldn’t consider myself a crappie fishing expert, I did learn a few things that will hopefully put you on more fish.

  • It is almost impossible to fish too shallow. Many of the fish we caught came in less than 3 feet of water with our baits set 12-to-16-inches down. It may seem odd to be able to see your minnow but, if the fish are biting, they’ll come up and grab your bait.
  • You’re going to get snagged. If you are working the right type of habitat, it’s not if you are going to get stuck, it’s when. Bring plenty of tackle with you and roll with the punches.
  • Let your eyes tell you where to fish. If you see downed timber or other structure lurking just below the surface, that’s probably a good place to start.
  • Be mobile. If you are confident that conditions are right, there isn’t a ton of patience required. If you don’t have a fish in five minutes or so, you probably won’t magically start pulling them in. Don’t be afraid to move.
  • These fish work bankers’ hours. You don’t need to get up at the crack of dawn to fill your bucket with crappies this time of year. Once the water warms up, they will bite all day.
  • Be picky about bait. While crappies are technically panfish, you can’t just rig up a nightcrawler and expect to hammer on them as though they are bluegills. If you want crappies, you have to fish for crappies. That makes minnows and crappie scrubs a must.

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