Today’s feature comes from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Though it’s specifically about fishing Michigan, the tips will be helpful whether you fish these popular panfish anywhere from Florida to Oregon. Prime time is already underway in the South, and will kick in shortly after ice-out in northerly locations.
Michigan has both black and white crappie in its waters. Though similar in both appearance and habits, white crappie tolerate more turbid water and tend to inhabit more rivers and reservoirs, while black crappie are more often associated with more clear water lakes. As might be expected in those habitats, white crappie are more often associated with brush and standing timber while back crappie tend to be found in and around weed beds.
Known by a handful of nicknames, especially calico bass, crappie are among the first of the panfish species to move shallow for spawning in the spring, when open-water angling for them is at its peak. Often shallow-water cuts and canals, especially those with dark bottoms — which warm faster than the main lake — are among the first places to look for spring crappie. Similarly, crappie move into marinas or other protected coves. In rivers, look for them in quiet waters away from the main current or below barriers where their upstream migration is impeded. In the Great Lakes, look for them among shallow-water emergent vegetation, such as reeds or bulrushes.
Anglers generally fish for crappie with live minnows or jigs, either casting or still-fishing under a bobber, though fly fishermen often take them on streamers. They have large mouths, capable of taking sizable minnows, so use a larger hook than you would for bluegills or sunfish. Both species of crappie are schooling fish so when you’ve found one, you’ve generally found a bunch.
After spawning, crappie move out to deeper water and have a tendency to suspend in the water column, making them a little more difficult to catch than some other panfish. Slow trolling with minnows or jigs is productive. (Editor’s note: Find baitfish schools on sonar and concentrate your trolling around them, using 1/16 ounce jigs on 4-pound-test at speeds of no more than 2 mph.) Crappies bite well at night and can be taken around lighted docks, especially from those with brush pile associated with them.
Through the ice, crappie are often taken by anglers who are targeting bluegills with small tear drops and insect larva for bait, though they readily take minnows, too. Often the best fishing is the first and last hours of the day, though they will bite through the night, too. They are widespread across the state in rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Some of the state’s better-known crappie lakes include Houghton, Mitchell, Cadillac, and the reservoirs on the Tittabawassee and Huron Rivers, though they can be found in numerous small lakes throughout southern Michigan.
Although similar in appearance, white crappie tend to have markings that resemble vertical bars on their sides, while black crappie appear more randomly spotted. To be sure, however, count dorsal spines: White crappie typically have six dorsal spines, blacks have seven or eight.