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Crappie Fishing 101: How To Catch Crappie Effectively

angler caught a crappie
Dale Shetler
By Dale Shetler
Updated February 8, 2021

Crappie is one of the most popular freshwater fish in the United States, and understandably so. 

After all, these common panfish are flavourful, plenty of good fun to catch, and can be easily located up and down, and almost anywhere in the country.

With that said, fishing for them might seem like a straightforward endeavor but really honing in on your approach and technique to ensure an effective fishing trip can be a bit easier said than done. 

While throwing a line in and hoping for a catch is simple, competitive anglers have refined their game, and have invented many techniques and tactics to optimize their fishing experience. 

This article will give you the down-low on what to look for when buying equipment, how to get maximum results on your fishing trips, and what season and conditions will help guarantee you have a fruitful day’s angling almost every time!  

The Various Types of Crappie

There are roughly 7 different types of crappie, and being able to identify each will help ensure you're well set for the occasion at hand. 

Here’s a quick guide to recognizing each species.

Black and White Crappie

black crappie pomoxis nigromaculatus illustration

Black or white is the most common type of crappie, and you really only need your eyes to be able to tell the difference.  

However, confusingly the male of both black and white species can turn very dark during the spawning season, and the muddiness of the water can further affect their color.  

With that said, the best way to tell the difference between black and white species is to look at their markings.

white crappie pomoxis annularis illustration

White crappies have vertical lines running the whole length of their body, while black crappies have no visible pattern, and only sport a speckled appearance on their scales. 

Generally speaking, black crappies are found in clearer water with lots of cover while the white ones prefer murkier waters. Also, white crappies are keener on minnows, while black crappie often prefers insects.

Colored Crappie

The type of water and the season can have an impact on the color of the crappie. 

  • Black-nose crappies are types of black crappie that have a black stripe along their body, running from the dorsal fin to the lips. It’s thought that it has the evolutionary advantage of providing better camouflage when pursuing prey.
  • Golden crappies are said to be rarer than gold itself, and they’ve hardly been photographed. Still, they are usually quite visible in the water. But you’ll be extremely lucky if you manage to track one down! 
Golden crappie
The fabled "golden crappie" caught my Steve Volkman in Fox River, Wisconsin

Hybrid Crappie

Hybrid crappies tend to confuse anglers. 

Without being a biologist or having specific knowledge of the water you’re in, then it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between different species.  

You can find natural hybrid crappies in the US, but it’s still a pretty rare find in most bodies of water. Kincaid Lake in Illinois has a large, diverse population of hybrid crappies, but as I mentioned, this is still a rare occurrence. 

Hybrid crappies are easy enough to identify as they have a mix of all the above-mentioned crappie characteristics. 

In Kinkaid Lake specifically, the majority of the hybrid crappies have the body shape of white crappies, with some of the vertical lines running along them, which fades into a speckled pattern near the tail. 

Hybrid stock crappies are genetically engineered in a laboratory by artificially mixing the eggs and milt of different crappie species and forming new types. 

The most common stock hybrid combination is a mix between black nosed crappie and white crappie. Triploid or Magnolia crappie are identical except the eggs undergo a shock treatment to make the resulting fish sterile.

The Best Season To Fish For Crappie

When it comes to crappie, the time of the year can have a big impact on your yield.

Each season requires a slightly different approach, but fortunately, it is possible to make good crappie catches all throughout the year.

Spring

After the snow starts to melt and temperatures begin to climb again, the crappie will start to come out to feed and spawn, especially near oxygenated, clear water.

Like many fish, crappies start to spawn in March once temperatures exceed 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a great time to fish for crappie, as they cluster in shallower waters while spawning. 

This can make it very quick and easy to catch them!

Summer

After spawning season, as temperatures rise, so do the numbers of crappie in most clear water lakes. 

However, in summer, they tend to behave a bit more unpredictably.

For the best chance at success, try heading for waters near structures, like bridges, brush piles, or piers. The crappies tend not to go too deep in summer but will gravitate to these shaded areas in clear water where temperatures are slightly cooler. 

Similarly, when it’s hotter out, head out during the late evening or at night. This is when the crappies will be active in the most shallow waters.

Crappies also gravitate towards areas where warm and cold water meet, such as near the bottom of a waterfall or dam. 

Fall

Like in spring, the plummeting of the temperature makes it easy to guess where the crappie will be. Generally, they’ll be grouped together around 10 or so feet below the water surface.

It can be a lot of fun to go fishing for crappie in the fall. 

This is because the crappies make easier targets than in other seasons, and because they’ve been feeding all summer long, you’re more likely to catch bigger crappie than you would earlier in the year.

Winter

Winter is the most challenging season for crappie, but you still stand a good chance of making a catch if you know where to look. 

The most important thing about winter fishing is patience! 

As with any species, the winter can be a great time to make a trophy catch as there is a lot less competition on the waters.

If you’re in a region with a warmer climate, such as a region where temperatures don’t drop far below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, then you’re more likely to have a successful fishing trip.

With that said, when it’s colder, the fish move a lot slower, and this means they are less likely to bite. Also, the colder the water is, the deeper the crappie will usually be located. 

Heading out in the afternoon when the temperature is at its peak is the best time to go fishing for crappie in the winter. As with all seasons, you’ll still have better luck by fishing near structures in the water like brush piles, bridge piers or knocked-down trees. 

How To Fish For Crappie For Maximum Results

As well as being aware of the season, there are a number of other tips and tricks for yielding the best results while fishing for this delectable species by the numbers. 

Know where to fish

As we’ve mentioned, although crappie move around, they usually like to be close to shelter in clear, deeper water, such as underneath brush piles or broken, knocked down tree limbs.

In spring, search around fallen trees and vegetation, or anywhere they can be obscured from the sight of predators. It can be tricky to fish around these areas, but if you can manage to drop your bait near or under that brush pile, you'll likely have great results.

Patience

Finding crappie is the hardest part, but once you’ve located them then you’re nearly guaranteed to make some great catches. 

However, just like when you’re first targeting any species of fish, your search for them can take some time. So make sure you’re willing to be patient!

Orientation

Whenever you’re heading out fishing, knowing where you are is essential, not only for your own safety but also for learning the lake and terrain you’re fishing. 

Make sure you’ve got a detailed map of the lake, or a GPS device, which will help you to get a better feel for the waters. In turn, helping you search for this fish more effectively.

Line

Depending on where you're fishing, you can choose a variety of products and different pound test lines when targeting this species.

However, using a light line, usually a 4 or 6 pound test, with a few small sinkers or a split shot is usually a good combination.

Typically, you'll see anglers using anywhere between a 4 point test up to a 10 pound test fluorocarbon line. But the line strength you choose will vary, and you should always try to match it to the size of the fish you're hoping to catch.

Bonus: Spider Rigging

spider rig fishing from a boat for crappie

Spider rigging is another common tactic that works best, allowing crappie fishermen to present multiple baits or rigging presentations by using multiple rod holders.

Essentially, spider rigging involves using anywhere between 5 to 10 rods spaced evenly across the bow of the boat, where each rod is rigged slightly differently.

For instance, you might use a 1/16 ounce jig on one rod, a slip bobber and 1/8 ounce jig on another, a 1/32 ounce on the next, and maybe even a 1/4 ounce jig on another. Depending on the number of rods you have available, and the size of your boat, of course, you can truly use any number of products, baits, and presentations to find out what works best.

In the end, using a spider rigging setup like this, with any number of rod holders, can help you find out what works for your specific locations, and then you'll be able to focus on that in order to catch as many fish as you're allowed.

Check the Temperature

It’s useful to remember that the best time to head out crappie fishing is when the water temperature is between 40 and 54 degrees. 

It will be much easier to locate crappie if you stick to these temperature parameters.

Too hot, and their behaviour becomes erratic, and too cold means they’re less likely to bite. 

The Perfect Crappie Rig - Rod and Reel Selection

light spinning gear

Fishing Rod

Traditionally, a cane pole has always been one of a panfish angler's favorites. But first and foremost, this species can be hooked using virtually any type of rod.

The length of your fishing rod is an important factor to pay attention to when targeting this species and generally, longer rods are recommended.

Longer rods allow you to approach their hiding places without giving yourself away. In other words, they have a longer reach which means you won’t spook the fish. A fishing line is also less likely to snag with a long rod as you don’t need to cast, just drop your bait right where you want it using a couple of sinkers.

Power is also an important consideration when it comes to the fruitfulness of your crappie outings. Since crappie is generally a smaller fish, a lightweight or ultra-lightweight rod is the better choice when it comes to crappie fishing. 

In addition, light and ultra-light rods don’t cause much fatigue in the hands and arms and can be bent a lot easier, making them a touch more sensitive. In turn, this will allow you to detect slight bites immediately, making the catch more efficient.

Sensitivity refers to the ability of the rod tip to detect the teeniest tiniest bites from the fish you're targeting so that you can quickly set your hook. 

A graphite rod tends to have the most sensitive rod tip as the material allows you to feel almost any movements or vibration down below. It’s also a very lightweight material, making it a great option for fishing all day long. 

However, the design of the rod is important in determining sensitivity. With that said, look out for models that are known for sensitivity when choosing your rod.

Fishing Reel

While the rod and its various characteristics are important for optimal crappie fishing, the importance of the reel shouldn’t be underestimated either.

Most anglers opt for a spinning reel when it comes to crappie fishing, as they tend to offer more efficient results. 

As for your spinning reel sizes, medium-sized is recommended as you can use it for a variety of different fish species, including crappie, pike, trout, and more.

This spinning reel size will allow you to head into freshwater with light tackle, and they’re still a suitable option even if you’re fishing with slightly heavier equipment.

In general, because crappie is a smaller fish, a smaller sized reel is often sufficient. 

A reel size of 3,500 is suitable for catching smaller fish like trout and crappie.

Also read:

The Best Baits, Lures & Jigs Explained

Seasons, locations, rods, and reels all play a role in successfully catching fish. But the bait you use can also influence your success. 

Live Bait

how to hook a minnow thumbnail

With that said, many anglers believe live bait is often your best option when it comes to crappie fishing. So jig fishing, especially with minnows, worms, and insects will definitely grab the crappies’ attention. 

Minnows are many anglers’ favorite, especially fathead minnows, and are what you'll see used at most crappie tournaments or other fishing competitions. Learn how to hook a minnow.

Still, crappies also like jigs, grubs and spinners, as long as your hooks are sharp enough to snag 'em!

Jigs

Jigs come in all manner of different sizes and colors, but personally, using a 1/8 ounce, 1/16 ounce jig are two of my favorites.

marabou jig

A Marabou jig tends to be the most popular among crappie anglers. These jigs have furry bodies and their tails are made of bird feathers. They resemble a hair jig which you’d use for other fish, but they’re usually a little smaller. 

Keep in mind that crappies have decent sized mouths, so don’t hesitate to use a slightly bigger jig if you think you’ll encounter a bigger fish. But again, a 1/8 ounce or 1/16 ounce jig or split shot can be used to help you get your bait where you want it.

Marabou jigs can be vertically jigged over structure. Once you’ve found an active school of crappie, especially near some vegetation, use an 8-10 foot rod to jig over it. 

According to many crappie anglers, having a longer rod or a cane pole means you can keep a good distance so as not to spook those big crappie away.

jighead

With a jighead, you can use a plastic grub, or a wax worm or minnow. However, keep in mind that crappie will probably move towards a live bait before a plastic one.

When it comes to jigs, using a bullet head jig comes with the distinct advantage of being able to change the color of the grub without tying a whole new jig. This will allow you to try out different colors to see what works best for your specific location. 

Spinning Lures

curly tail grub

With spinners, it’s best to go with tube bait, curly-tailed grubs or beetles positioned on one side, with a rotating blade on the other in order to reflect some light. 

You can’t really go wrong with spinning lures since they reflect light while creating a vibration in the water, which works to attract crappie.

Grubs

Grubs come in a range of sizes and colors as well. They can be used to vertically jigg over a structure while on a jig head, and they can also be utilized with a cast and retrieve technique. This diversity is a great advantage of grubs.

Colors

The color of your chosen crappie bait can also make a difference. 

  • In clear water, use natural colored bait which resembles crappie’s usual food. 
  • On sunny days, bright colors will show up better in the light water. Go for yellow, pink or similar. 
  • In darker water, you’re still better off opting for bright colors so it will reflect off the limited light. 
  • On cloudy days, you can choose darker colors with a bit of flash, like maroon.

5 Tips To Improve Your Crappie Catch Rates

If you still want more tips on catching crappie effectively, keep reading and we’ll go over 5 essential tips. 

1. Head for the thermocline

what is a thermocline

A thermocline is where a water column of cold, un-oxygenated water meets hot, oxygenated water. 

Lakes that have a thermocline in summer (which will be most natural lakes), will usually have a lot of crappie lurking in this region, which can be thought of as the strike zone. But the depth of the thermocline will depend on the lake’s topography. 

In order to find it, pay attention to your sonar while you’re moving around the lake and see if you can see any suspended fish. If you can notice multiple fish suspended along the same region, then you’ve likely found the thermocline. 

2. Attract Minnows in order to Attract Crappie 

minnow swimming in the water

If you’re not having much success during daytime hours, try mimicking what attracts crappie at night by drawing in some minnows.

Minnows can easily be lured in by breadcrumbs or dry pet food. Try scattering out crumbs in shallow areas and see if it leads to you catching more crappie. 

3. Storm fishing

man fishing in stormy water

Any season can be the best time to go crappie fishing, but summer storms can be even better. 

Try heading out onto the water right before a storm hits, when the wind is starting to get stronger and the clouds are getting thick. Often, you’ll find out that this is the optimal time to catch crappie. 

But stay safe, and don’t stay out if you see any lightning or extreme winds, which can be very dangerous. After a storm is also a good time to hit the water. 

4. Get a fish-finder

Fishing tackle set and fishfinder, echolot, sonar at the boat. Spinning rods with reels and lures

Every serious angler who uses a boat or kayak should get a sonar fish-finder

This piece of equipment will give you better vision underwater, helping you find clusters of crappie, as well as any other type of fish that you’re targeting. In other words, using a fish finder is ideal for helping you fine-tune your techniques.

5. Find a good lake

Finally, the best way to ensure you have success catching crappie is to find a lake with a large population of crappie (hopefully big crappie) and get to know the water, including where the deeper areas are.

Visit your lake of choice as often as you can and over time, you’ll get to know the best spots for fishing. Then, you’ll quickly master crappie fishing no matter the season.

Frequently Asked Questions - Crappie Fishing

Ok, so now that we’ve covered pretty much everything there is to know about catching crappie effectively, let’s go over a few of the most commonly asked questions that I hear. 

What is the best month to catch crappie?

Due to their spawning season, spring (March, April, or May) is often regarded as the best time of year for crappie fishing. However, as we’ve already mentioned, crappies are often attracted to covered areas underneath structure at all times, regardless of the month. 

In the end, the best thing to remember is to fish shallower water during the spring and fall months and to fish deeper water during the summer or winter months. 

What is the best size hook for crappie fishing?

Fishing Hook Sizing Chart

No matter what type of bait or lure you’re using, you’ll want to use very sharp, light-gauge hooks that have long shanks. Typically, lures with #2, #4, or #6 size hooks are best. A favorite amongst crappie anglers is known as the Aberdeen-style hook. 

With that said, if you’re getting a lot of bites, but seem to be unable to hook crappie, it’s best to either go with a size up or to try opening the hook up just a bit. 

How deep should you fish for crappie?

When it comes to how to catch crappie, water depth really depends on the season. However, between 2 and 6 feet is usually ideal for catching crappie. Again, you’ll often find them in ever deeper waters during the summer or winter, likely hiding under that brush pile or in those weed beds. During the spawning season, you can sometimes find them in water as shallow as 6 inches.

What time of day is best for crappie fishing?

You can usually catch them at any time of day, but it’s often best to target them during their feeding hours, which is usually between midnight and 2 am. But for those who’d prefer not to be up fishing in the middle of the night, both dawn and dusk can often prove to be optimal times for catching this species.

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