By: Andy Mack
Just before I cross the Highway 51 bridge coming into Minocqua, I roll down the windows and the fresh spring air with the smell of pine comes rushing in. After a quick stop at the bait shop, I’m launching the boat at one of my favorite lakes. A loon welcomes me with his long familiar call and a pair of bufflehead take off and disappear over the horizon. Upon reaching my first spot, I cast out with excitement and anticipation. After a short wait, the bobber slowly disappears below the surface and it’s fish on! A beautiful black and gold colored crappie rolls and fights on the surface.
This is what springtime in the Northwoods is all about!
“Hope springs eternal.” When Alexander Pope wrote those words, he was expressing that people always hope for the best even in the face of adversity. I believe those words describe the attitude of every fisherman who is about to venture out after their quarry; no matter the species or time of year. Springtime weather in the Northwoods of Wisconsin can be a fisherman’s biggest adversary. One day it is sunny and 75 degrees and the next it is cold with 6 inches of snow! Adapting to various conditions, using the right equipment and understanding your quarry will make you a more successful angler.
The first thing to consider when targeting springtime crappie is the body of water. I prefer to target small, fertile lakes where the water tends to warm up faster than bigger lakes. Often, these smaller lakes are relatively shallow and have stained water clarity. However, do not overlook larger bodies of water. A large lake, chain or flowage can be broken down into “smaller lakes” or smaller areas likely to hold crappie and other panfish in the spring.
On any lake, the north side of the lake will be the fastest to warm up. Look for shallow weed flats and pay attention to the water temperature on your locator. A difference of only a degree or two can make a huge difference. Look at the south side of any islands on the lake. If a lake has a feeder creek or thoroughfares like those found on chains, check those areas as well.
As the water temperature begins to reach the 50-60 degree mark, male crappies will start coming into the shallows to search out and prepare spawning areas. Look for submerged tree stumps, pencil reeds, brush or any other cover that a crappie can hide in. Once the male crappie selects a spawning site, he will become aggressive and defend it. Peak spawning activity occurs when the water temperature reaches 68-72. Once this optimal temperature is reached, the spawn will typically last a couple of weeks. However, if the water temperature cools off, spawning activity may cease. If this happens, look for crappie to be roaming a nearby weed or mud flat adjacent to their spawning areas. Crappie will stage there until the water temps warm back up. Sometimes, the water temperature cools and does not warm up in a timely manner and the spawning process is abandoned and the female crappie will simply absorb her eggs.
Rods, Reels and Line
With all the advances in fishing equipment available today, I like to keep it simple when it comes to crappie fishing. I prefer a seven-foot ultra-light spinning rod. I find it is easier to cast light jigs and small lures with a longer rod. “Pitching” or dropping lures into precise locations is easier as well. When you have a fish on and it takes you into brush or weeds, the longer rod gives you the leverage to pull that fish out. As far as spinning reels, any high-quality reel with infinite anti-reverse will work. For line, I am a huge fan of Berkeley FireLine Crystal. I like to use 10 lb. test, which has the same diameter of 4 lb. monofilament line. The sensitivity of FireLine is incredible. The ability to use a higher pound test line is more than handy when pulling fish out of heavy cover or when your lure gets hung up. Most of the time I will tie my lure directly to the FireLine. However, if the water is very clear or when using live bait, I like to use a small barrel swivel (#8) to attach a 24-inch piece of fluorocarbon leader to the FireLine. I use a barrel swivel to join the two because it helps prevent line twist and does not allow your jig to spin like a helicopter when suspended below a float.
Baits can be broken down into two categories: live and artificial. I consider artificial lures to be “search lures.” They give you the ability to make many casts without the worry of live bait coming off your hook. In recent years, the variety of jigs, plastics and other artificial lures has exploded. Everyone has their favorite. I believe that the most important factor when using artificial lures is using one that you have confidence in. That confidence comes from past personal success. My first go-to artificial lure for crappie is the Mini-Mite. You know, that little jig and plastic tail that comes in a tube. I’m not sure what it is about that lure, but it is deadly for crappie and other panfish. In fact, I’ve caught almost every species of freshwater fish on it. I have a good friend who swears by it for walleye.
Mini-Mites come in a variety of colors. The pink jig with a white tail is my personal favorite. I like to fish the Mini-Mite under a one-inch round float. First, the float adds a little more weight for easier casting. Second, a float gives you better control when trying to keep your lure in the strike zone. And finally, to me, there is nothing like seeing your float getting pulled under by a fish. Another artificial lure I like is a tube jig. Various colors work well but I like red and white and all white. Other artificial lures that work well are the classic Beetle Spin, Power Bait grubs and Kalin’s Crappie Scrub. Again, use a lure that you have confidence in and you can’t go wrong.
As a young boy, I worked at a bait store in Lac Du Flambeau called “Grizzly Bill’s.” I cannot begin to estimate the number of crappie minnows I sold to fishermen. At the time, I believe they were $1.00 per scoop and a scoop contained 4-6 dozen. There is one main reason why I sold so many minnows; they work! Whenever I go crappie fishing I have minnows along. Often, minnows have saved the day for me.
As I previously mentioned, I like to use artificial lures to “search” for crappie. After it appears I’ve caught all the “active” fish on artificial lures, I will toss out a line with a minnow. More times than not, I will proceed to catch a few more crappie in the same spot. When fishing with minnows I use a #6 or #8 Aberdeen hook. The reason being is if I get hung up on something, the thin wire hook will straighten out slightly and pull free. I hook the minnow either below the dorsal fin or near the tail. I like to use a “stick” style float when fishing live bait. It offers less resistance to the fish when they bite. And when a crappie strikes and swims up in the water column, you will be able to detect the bite because the stick float will “lay over.”
Springtime crappie fishing can be a challenge, but can also be very rewarding. The most important thing is to get out and fish. We cannot always pick and choose the perfect weather day to go fishing, but even in the worst weather, going fishing is better than sitting at home. Fish on!