Pre-spawn crappies teach us how to fish for all species. They require stealth, patience, ability to read the water, sound knowledge of the species and in general provide an apprenticeship to all fishing.
The early season crappie angler needs to pinpoint their hideouts and hone his tactics to match the fast changing conditions present.
In fall and winter crappie move to very deep water but as it begins to warm and the ice melts, they can be found in the creek beds. They use the creek channels for movement to and from the shallows where they feed.
The crappie feed according to weather and barometric pressure changes. They cause the fish to move tight to cover and become inactive. The smart angler will look for warmer water. In doing so they can seek out colored water, a windward shoreline, a dark soft bottom, shallow water, tributary streams and heat absorbing cover such as wood.
Early season crappie will be shallower on dark, warm days and deeper on clearer, colder days. High water is common and the fish will often move up into the temporarily flooded vegetation. The wise angler will check a variety of depth zones and never leave out checking oddball locations.
Jigs are the most popular crappie lures. They have no action of their own. The angler provides all the action by line movement. To enhance action, use a small sinker and tie it on the end of the line. It will allow the jig to move freely and permits it to rest in a semi-vertical position.
In cold water of an early crappie season the color of the jig is not that important. White, yellow and black jigs will cover all the bases. Use the smallest jigs you can find. Jigs of 1/16th ounce or smaller is best. Early on it helps to add a minnow to the jig. For those who want to use plastic lures, a one-inch grub is good. Rig it with the tail down for best action.
As for fishing line, a light, small diameter line is best. You have to be able to feel the tiny bump of a fish or you will miss him. Four pound test line that is transparent is recommended. Good line is small in diameter, strong with little stretch and is abrasion resistant.
There are three basic methods to catch crappie: vertical jigging, dabbling and casting jigs to be retrieved.
Vertical jigging involves parking the boat over a known crappie location and dropping the jig straight down into it. Dabbling requires a long pole to drop the jig into pockets and holes in heavy brush or flooded cover. A short section of line is used to move the jig from one spot to the next. It is jigged a bit and then pulled up and moved to the next area. Casting jigs involves casting up the shoreline and then retrieving it with a slow swimming motion. The depth at which the jig runs can be varied by speeding up and slowing down the retrieve. Once fish are located at a specific depth, the angler concentrates on that depth.
Cold water crappies are not usually aggressive feeding fish. Fish slowly. They will not chase bait very far. You have to put it on their nose. Most of the bites will come as the lure is on the rise.
If you fish the zone, it is important to stay within five feet of that level as the fish will concentrate at that depth. You need to keep your jig right among the crappie. You can count down the jig to the desired depth. By counting 1, 2, 3, etc. the jig will fall one foot for each number.
Determine the level of the suspended fish. This can also be done by dropping the jig to the bottom, then cranking or lifting it back up. Crappie feed up as that is how they see. Once you are hit on the rise, it tells you just how deep the fish are feeding.
In cold water you should keep your technique simple. Keep and open mind.
A friend of mine says that there are three keys to catching cold water crappie. The rules are: use the right equipment, fishing slowly and keep your lure where the fish are. Not a bad philosophy.