If you break fishing down to its most simple terms, catching fish revolves around two things: finding the fish and then getting them to bite. Pre-spawn crappies are no different. The key is finding them. To do this you must find not only structure, but also the right structure.
In early spring, crappies move in from the deep water where they have spent the winter, having done really not much of anything. When they get shallower and find some structure, they kick back and relax for a time. Then, when the water temperature says it's "go time", they're off on a feeding binge to prepare for the rigors of the spawn.
So what is that magic structure? Is it something 21st Century technology has discovered, or something revolutionary fishing media pundits have uncovered? Nope, it's that same "old panfish fishing hole" type of area you fished as a kid after ice out. Remember where your grandpa or dad took you out for crappies before walleye opener? You guessed it. Find that same type of brush pile, stump or beaver house and nine times out of ten you'll find crappies hanging around. They may even be around "cribs" that have been legally placed in lakes to attract panfish.
Keep in mind that spring crappies most often hold in shallow wood. By this I mean the type that can be found in just about every lake. Look for trees that have fallen in along the shoreline. If you know of a lake that has wide-ranging stump fields, fish these. If there is a beaver house, zero in on it. Also remember that due to the sun, north ends of lakes will warm more quickly, so look there first.
To a crappie, wood is a wonderful buffet. Algae and moss grow on submerged wood. This holds microorganisms, which in turn attract minnows, which in turn attract crappies. A regular circle of life revolves around these piles of waterlogged wood. Their lumps and tangles and branches provide both cover and food. A crappie gravitates toward these like a deer to acorns.
Because it plays such a big part in the spring movement to spawning areas, if the wood maintains its "integrity" (minnow attracting), you can usually count on such structures to draw crappies year after year, sometimes even in summer and fall. Crappies basically go to the same place every year to spawn and are very aggressive at this time of year. If you find them and then get the bait in front of them, they'll eat almost anything.
It is, however, never a given. There are few glitches to be avoided. One is losing tackle in all that wood. To avoid this, I prefer a small 1/16th oz. Northland Tackle jig. I'm not much for this color and that color, so I use the Northland Tackle's parrot colored jig for all lakes and all species. Because it's a multi-colored jig, I believe it covers all options for watercolor and clarity. Moreover, if you really think about it, how many colors variations are there in shiners, chubs, leeches or nightcrawlers? Not many, right? The only really natural multi-colored bait is probably the crayfish and what fish doesn't like a good old crawdad?
The major part of catching spring crappies is, of course, location, location, location, but another major component is the presentation. We have established that a multi-colored jig, or your preference, will be used. Now comes the style aspect of the presentation, how to present minnow morsels for those crappies to suck in. One thing I have found is that this is not the time for aggressive jigging. Instead, utilize short lifts and drops. They will work much better. If you are pitching in toward shore, obviously you must retrieve fast enough to keep over the wood. If you are jigging vertically over wood, raise and lower the rod tip about a foot, 18 inches at the most.
I will work a crib or deadfalls from top to bottom, beginning just under the surface and keeping the jigging motion tight. I then let out more line to work farther down, still raising and lowering the jig with short lifts. Many times you will have to do this all the way down to bottom and even through tangles of limbs and branches.
If I get a strike about five feet from the base of the wood, I know to be ready for the next bite at the same depth.
Sometimes, however, crappies will only bite a jig/minnow dangled six inches or less from wood. If the bait was out even just a foot they wouldn't come get it. Be prepared for such finicky slabs. Although this is not the norm, it is a common situation after a cold front. For some strange reason and probably a good one, (if it did not occur there would be no crappies left), crappies turn completely negative. If this happens, sometimes the bait needs to literally bump the wood, then be prepared to donate to the tackle shops, as you will lose your share of jigs.
On cloudy days or days with unsettled weather, sometimes the fish might swim out a little. However, I really can't recall that many early spring days when the crappies were that willing to move out more than several yards from wood cover to take any lure.
Another approach that is especially good for our younger or less experienced fisher-people, in shallow water six feet or less, is to cast a 16th oz. Northland Tackle jig that has a fixed float two or three feet above the jig. Let it sit for a short time, then jig the rod back a few times. This causes the float to glide and stop, with the jig swinging back and forth and up and down under the water.
The fall of the jig after a cast and an ensuing side-to-side jigging motion can bring wood-holding crappies up to take the bait. Even before the float comes to a complete stop, crappies will grab this pendulum-swinging jig. Bear in mind, however, because crappies see only in front, to the side and up, anything under them will not be noticed. Start high, feather down and don't go too deep.
More than anything keep it simple. Look for wood and then entice crappies from their cover. If you do find them and get to catch them, remember how fragile their ecosystem really is. Take only what you need to eat, catch and release the big ones. Think back to how many of our great panfish lakes currently either do not have many big ones any more or there are too many little ones. A fish caught and cleaned and eaten can never be caught again.
Walt Disney might have his "Wonderful World of Color" and Louis Armstrong might have sung about how "It's a Wonderful World" and "knock on wood" might be a good luck talisman, but only those of us who have caught these sparkling black and ivory crappies and witnessed how they slice their way to the surface in the cold prespawn water know the thrill of finding this "wonderful world of wood" that houses these awesome fish.
Be safe, have fun and leave some for tomorrow and beyond.
Charlie Worrath is a full time fishing guide from Deer River, MN.
He may be contacted at: (218) 246-2159.