Crappie Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips

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White perch. Speckled perch. Sac au Lait. Specks. Papermouth. Whatever you call it, the panfish more accurately called crappie is a top game fish all across the United States.

Catching a mess of excellent-eating crappie is easy to do if you know how to do it, and this article will help you learn how.

While you can catch crappie year-round, they are the best eating when the water is cool or cold. When summer temperatures heat the water up, especially as you move south in the U.S., the flesh becomes mushy and not as good.

These fish are found throughout North America, usually in lakes and large ponds. While they also inhabit slow-moving rivers, they don’t care for swift water.

It pays to know that crappie populations are quite often cyclical in many waters. Some years the crappie fishing will be incredible, others not so much.

If your favorite lake is churning out under-sized crappie nearly every cast but very few keepers, keep in mind that once that class of fish puts on some size, fishing might very well be fantastic.

Crappie come in two main species, white and black. Unlike the names, they are not always white nor always black.

White crappie have vertical bars on their bodies while the black crappie have a less pronounced pattern, more just a bunch of black spots or blotches scattered everywhere.

Black crappie have a shorter mouth and body compared to white crappie.

two black crappie held up

Black crappie tend to like shade from cover and prefer clearer water, while white crappie handle murky water better and can also be found in open areas and sometimes in larger schools than the black crappie.

An exception is the spawn. Both species line up at the mouths of creeks and around other shallow coves and shoreline areas to create the next generation.

Some lakes have both species of crappie, and anglers generally aren’t picky which one they catch … as long as they actually catch crappie.

Want a little more detail into distinguishing the two crappie types? Read What Kind of Crappie Did You Catch?

How to Catch Crappie

The first secret to crapping fishing are understanding how and where to find them during different times of the year. Next, you’ll want to deploy one of the top methods to catch crappie during those times. Next we’ll tackle the where, when and how of crappie fishing.

two crappie on one line caught at prineville reservoir
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Bass & Panfish Club

Underwater structures like submerged branches and aquatic vegetation attract tiny baitfish like minnows, which in turn attracts ole slab sides. Structure can be shallow to deep.

Crappie are a schooling fish. Where you catch one, you will catch more.

However, these schools do not stay in one place all the time. You have to look for them.

Trolling is a great way to find schools. Watch your fish finder for structure, sharp ledges and drop offs. Find deeper water with trees hanging over the water.

In deep water, jigging lures or live bait works very well.

Night fishing under a floating light can fill a cooler in a hurry. The light attracts minnows, which is a buffet for crappie.

Warmer water means you need a more active presentation. As the water cools, slow it down.

Crappie Fishing Equipment and Tackle

a crappie caught on a jig

Crappie are not tough fish. The nickname papermouth refers to their delicate mouth, and hard hook sets can rip out the hook. When it comes to gearing up for crappie, small hooks, small baits and light lines are typically going to be your best bets.

Six-pound test is ideal, possibly bumping up to 8-pound in heavy structure or murky water.

If you want to troll and keep the lure higher in the water, you can go up to 10-pound test.

Use lightweight rods for casting. Your lures will rarely be more than 1/4 ounce.

Many anglers will use the same rods they employ for other panfish as well as lighter-weight trout and bass rods.

There are crappie specific poles that can be up to 16 feet long and have a reel built into the handle. That way, you can drop your offering straight down without spooking the fish by getting too close to the fish-holding structure. You also can fish as deep as you need.

Jig Fishing for Crappie

Jigs are the top artificial lure for crappie fishing. Jigs range from completely soft-bodied lures to hair or feathered baits. Crappie jigs come in every color imaginable, including transparent and rainbow-hued. They can be fished alone or at times with spinner blades.

two crappies caught on jigs below a bridge
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club

It’s best to have a selection of jig colors because the crappie may be hitting one color some days while ignoring the same color the next trip. Your selection should always include solid black, solid white, lime green and yellow jigs.

Maribou jigs are a perennial contender as a top lure crappie lure. Maribou feathers, hairs or artificial material is tied to a lead head jig hook.

The feathers dance in the water with the slightest twitch of the line. Depending on the maker and the style, the jig body will vary.

Maribou jigs will sometimes have mylar strips tied into the body and the hair for added flash. Crappie are predators, but not as aggressive as some species. Sometimes that extra flash is needed to draw a strike.

Soft body jigs always appear in a dedicated crappie angler’s tackle box. They can have a straight body, split tail, curly tail, swimming tail, tube lures and with or without body fins.

a crappie on the surface of the water hooked with an orange jig

Any of these lures can be paired with a spinner blade. Some have a blade integral to the lure. Blades can be set above the lure or mounted below.

Whether or not to use the bladed version is another case of letting the fish tell you which they prefer that day.

All these lures can be fished under a cork, cast alone, trolled, or vertically jigged. Vertical jigging works very well when the fish are suspended in deep water. Also, vertical jigging is ideal for ice fishing.

Many serious and professional crappie anglers tip their jigs with bait to add scent. Both natural and prepared baits often will work.

Slip knot technique

One trick that may not sound like it works for crappie fishing is a slip knot. Simply tie the lure on but use a loop instead of tightening the line down to the eye. This lets you add even more action to the lure. Done right, you won’t miss any more fish than you otherwise might.

Bait Fishing for Crappie

In many parts of the U.S., live bait is king for crappie fishing. Small fish are exactly what any crappie wants for dinner, so using swimming minnows as bait is almost sure to catch crappie. However, it’s worth noting that some states do not allow anglers to fish with live bait.

a crappie caught with a bobber in the background

In some areas, escaped or released non-native bait fish have become established and wreaked havoc on fisheries, so please be responsible and carefully read and follow the regulations where you fish.

But minnows aren’t the only bait option. Crappie hit worms, leeches, grubs, crayfish and crickets. Just use fairly small hooks that fit your bait type and aren’t too big for panfish.

You can fish bait any way you like. The most popular way is on a line under a cork over and around structure.

Rigged right, bait also can be slow-trolled, especially when put on a maribou or soft body jig.

Crappie Lures

While jigs are an extremely popular artificial lure used to catch crappie, there are a wide variety of hard-bodied lures that can be extremely effective for this type of fishing, whether you are casting, jigging or trolling for these game fish.

We’ll divide hardbody lures for crappie fishing into three categories:

1) Crankbait or jerkbait

2) Spinners

3) Spoons

Crankbaits

Crankbaits are an excellent artificial lure for crappie fishing because they so often imitate exactly what these fish feed on: Minnows, shad, and the young of other fish such as carp. But keep in mind that you’ll need small crankbaits because crappie have much smaller mouths than bass.

Crappie are not surface feeders. If you throw crankbaits, you have to get them down to where the fish are.

Sinking and/or diving crankbaits may be run deep enough, but if not you may need to add weight.

You can add belly weights to the lure to get it down. Belly weights come in adhesive-backed lead strips and dots or pieces of lead with an eye to tie it in place. 

You can place a weight ahead of the lure on the line like a Carolina Rig worm for bass.

A very small three-way swivel lets you add a weight that is not directly in line with the lure. Weights are especially handy to get floating lures down where the fish lurk.

You can add a spinner blade arm to a very tiny crankbait for some additional flash.

You can vertical jig lipless baits or ones designed for ice fishing for crappies, which is popular in some northern states.

a crappie being pulled up through the ice with a jigging spoon in its mouth

Spinners

In-line spinners are just deadly on all kinds of fish, including crappie. The legendary Rooster Tail has caught uncounted numbers of fish.

These lures come with and without tails. These lures are typically better on a steady retrieve or trolled, but you also can jig them up and down.

Spoons

Spoons are metal lures that come in various colors, although simple bright chrome often is the best for crappie.

Spoons are in two categories:

Casting/trolling. The Johnson Spoon, a curved piece of metal with a single hook and weed guard, is something every veteran angler has thrown a few times.

Other companies make similar offerings with single or treble hooks. The twisting motion as the spoon comes through the water provides plenty of flash and vibration to attract strikes. Use tiny spoons for crappie.

Jigging. Jigging spoons are meant for vertical fishing. These are straight pieces of metal, colored or not, and sometimes with a hammered finish to imitate scales. 

Just drop it over the side until it hits bottom. Jerk it up, let it fall down a bit and jerk again.

Repeat this through the water column, from the bottom to the surface. When you get a strike, you know where the fish are. Target that zone.

Jigging spoons for ice fishing often have the eye for the line in the middle. Deeper water spoons have the hooks on one end and the eye on the other.

Spoons and jigs can be tipped with a soft body or bait.

Trolling for Crappie

Trolling lets you cover a lot of water. It can be an effective way to locate crappie before switching to a more targeted method, such as jig or bait fishing. Or when crappie are scattered, trolling may just be the best way to catch crappie all day long.

Serious and professional crappie anglers often troll with “spider rigs.” Seen from above, the spread-out poles make the boat look like a mutant spider, hence the name.

Lines are set to different depths and lures are different colors. When the fish announce their dining preference, all the rods are switched over to that setup.

Trolling also can be done with a more conventional number of rods and a variety of lure types, including spinners and small crankbaits.

Just remember that crappie aren’t a speedy fish and most strike when you use a slow troll.

Fly Fishing for Crappie

You may not often see anglers fly fishing for crappie, but this approach can be a fun and sporting way to catch these fish. The fly can be designed as a wet or dry pattern, but the trick is getting it to resemble crappie food such as a minnow.

closeup of a wooly bugger fly
Black wooly bugger

Even with a dry fly pattern, you’ll likely need a sinking taper most of the time. You have to get the fly to the fish.

Just before and then during the spawn, crappie run shallow. That is the only time surface or barely sub-surface lures might work consistently, otherwise you need to deliver your fly to them.

Some of the best flies for crappie fishing are:

  • Clouser Minnow
  • Wooly Bugger
  • Crappie Special
  • Wooly worm
  • Bead head nymph
  • Bitch Creek nymph

Where to Catch Crappie

Just like in real estate, when it comes to crappie fishing it’s all about location, location, location. Your first priority is to find structure. Sunken trees, sharp inclines and brush piles are your typical targets, but the crappie-holding habitat may vary greatly lake to lake.

catching crappie around river pilings
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Bass & Panfish Club

The importance of structure is why so many people submerge fish attractors like dead Christmas trees (with all tinsel and other adornments removed) and artificial habitats in lakes, although definitely make sure the practice is legal where you fish and seek permission from the right agency or property owner.

If you do make fish attractors, or learn where others have placed them, be sure to mark the location on your GPS or by less technical means, so you can find it again and again.

Docks are great places, especially at night when the lights come on.

At the same time, you have to be laser specific where you fish. Literally, fish on one side of the boat and catch nothing. Fish the other side and haul them in.

As the water cools, this precise location becomes more important. Crappie will congregate on one side of a tree and not the other.

The fish often move into shallower water around dawn and dusk to feed.

As the water cools, the fish move deeper. As they get ready to spawn, they move to the shallows.

Regardless, you may catch a limit in one place in short order one day. Return the next day and nothing. This is why trolling is effective as a locating tactic.

Crappie also tend to school by size. If you are catching one size of fish in a spot, that age class of fish is likely all you’ll catch. If you want bigger fish, move.

When is the Best Crappie Fishing?

Water conditions and especially the time of year will dictate when and where to catch crappie. The pre-spawn period coming in late winter into spring, depending on location, is the real beginning and among the best crappie fishing times of the entire year.

angler with stringer of crappie
Photo courtesy of Oregon Bass & Panfish Club

In some areas, including where I fish in the Pacific Northwest, crappie fishing comes alive when the water reaches into the 55 to 59-degree range and the fish suddenly get active.

That water temperature range also is good in some other parts of the country, but early season fishing might pick up at different temperatures elsewhere, so it pays to keep track and learn your local lakes and rivers.

These early crappie catches are pre-spawn fish. The big ones are easiest to catch this time of year. And they are concentrated.

Pre-spawn crappie often will hang out and the entrance to sloughs and creeks, so that’s a good place to start your early season search. They are looking for gravel or dark bottoms to lay their eggs.

Crappie are likely to be in full spawning mode in these areas with the water temperatures in the 60s.

After the spawn, they scatter and move around a lot. They are chasing food.

Water temperatures matter just like with other kinds of fish.

In very cold water, keep the lure barely moving or still. Smaller lures and slower presentations are required.

Cold water crappie are typically deep. You can find them as deep as 40 feet or more in winter.

As it warms, you can use bigger lures and a faster retrieve. Again, be willing to experiment with the different approaches we’ve discussed, and the fish will tell you what they want.

Crappie Fishing Regulations

Check the fishing regulations before you fish. The laws help determine your crappie angling techniques, and bag limits vary from state to state and even across bodies of water within a state. Double-checking at tackle shops near the lake is another good bet.

As examples of rules that may affect your crappie fishing, some states do not allow fishing with live fish (such as minnows) or they limit the number of hooks per rod or number of rods per angler.