A Compass for Spring Crappies By Matt Straw

A Compass for Spring Crappies By Matt Straw

The boat rounds a corner and the vista of a huge bay opens before us. Crappie world in spring.

Here we’ve seen hundreds packed into the spaces between branches of one fallen tree. And we’ve seen thousands in a spot one day only to return the next and find them gone.

Happens to anybody who knows crappies for any length of time. Where did they go? The answer is on the screen of the nearest depth finder. Not the structure revealed by sonar. Not the depth, the GPS icons—not even the sidefinder function. The temperature readout. It points directly to spring crappies most days, though most fail to see it, let alone understand how or why.

spring crappie great lakes

Crappies are, by definition, “warm-water species.”

All species so designated tend to be very sensitive to temperature changes at the cold end of the spectrum. At ice-out, water temperatures always hover around 40°F in the main basin. But crappies will already be found shallow, usually in the back end of canals, the north side of bays, river backwaters, or in confined nooks that 1/ Experience more than average amounts of sunlight; 2/ Are protected from wind, and 3/ Therefore warm quicker than the rest of the lake.

When water temperatures on top read anywhere from 38°F to about 58°F, crappies are most likely to relocate when temperatures drop.

Even a drop of 1°F can push crappies to find warmer water at the low end of that range (about 38°F to 48°F).

If big winds push currents carrying closer water into those bays, backwaters, canals, and nooks, time to mount the horse, cruise around, and find out where the warmest water went.

The water in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs cools almost every night in early spring.

The overall effect is a gain in temperature as days become longer than nights, but every night the water chills and radiates away some of the heat gained during the day. Severe cold fronts might make temperatures drop even during daylight hours. Snow, cold rain, and heavy cloud cover will either hold the temperature steady or drive it down. In these examples of overall cooling during spring, the temperature may drop everywhere on a body of water.

matt straw crappie

Crappies really don’t like any of that stuff. In cases of overall cooling crappies tend to move deeper or suspend over deeper water and shut down. Before the dogwoods bloom (those white-blossoming trees in deciduous forests), the best times to pursue crappies tend to be afternoons and evenings, after the sun has a chance to warm the water.

It’s sometimes possible to finesse a bunch of springtime crappies early in the morning or after a spate of cold weather, but it’s not likely to produce lifelong memories unless somebody falls out of the boat.

Some of the finest crappie spots in spring tend to be in 5 feet of water or less near a fallen tree, brush pile, reed bed, or close to some other vertical-cover scenario.

Just finding shallow cover isn’t the key, however.

Only when that cover is found in a semi-enclosed or entirely enclosed area with a channel leading to it will it produce consistently well. Bays, river backwaters, small connected basins, and partially-enclosed bays are the most stable environments for crappies in spring. If crappies can’t find spots like that, they may use boat channels into housing developments, marinas, or little nooks and crannies along a northern shoreline—anyplace that gathers sunlight and negates the cooling effect of wind and current. The fewer directions wind can take to reach them the better, because wind can cool an area off even when sunlight is warming the lake overall.

Still, even finding enclosed or semi-enclosed areas is less than half the battle. Some bays and backwaters are huge and convoluted. Now where do you look?

The Compass Needle

The point is, crappies are more temperature sensitive in spring than they will be for the remainder of summer and well into fall. On a warm, sunny day with no wind or a light breeze, crappies will be biting like crazy in a lot of places in any lake, reservoir, or backwater. On a typical day? You need a compass.


Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” On tough days, don’t anchor, don’t stop. Keep one foot on the trolling motor, one eye on the temperature gauge, and keep moving until you find the warmest water in the area.

It can be possible to predict where that warmer water might be.

Even in backwaters and semi-enclosed bays, wind can affect localized water temperatures. The warmest areas tend to be where the wind has been blowing directly into shore for days—unless the wind is very strong and the waves substantial. The warmest waters are on the surface, tanking energy directly from the sun. In anything from a slight breeze to a moderate wind, the warmest areas will be along shorelines where wind is blowing directly into the bank. Where wind strikes the bank at an angle, the water tends to be cooler than where the wind hits shore dead on. It’s an important distinction in spring, when crappies are most sensitive to temperature, and a difference of 1°F can mean the difference between a hot bite and a non-existent one.

The compass is your temperature gauge. It’s the most important locational tool on the boat in spring. Find the absolute warmest water available in whatever micro environment the crappies are in, whether it’s a creek arm, a bay, or a series of canals. All the active crappies available will be there on the toughest days. And the bigger the slab, the more true this becomes.

If the water seems to be 48°F to 49°F everywhere you look, keep looking.

The right spots tend to be small in area. Passing through zones where the wind is blowing off shore, the gauge might read 47°F. Even if the hottest crappie bite in the history of the universe took place there yesterday, it probably won’t be happening there today unless the wind shifts 180°. Head to the opposite shore.

crappie fishing great lakes

Over there the first reading might be 50°F. Start fishing with the standard float, jig, and bait (waxworm, minnow, or Berkley Gulp!). No biters right away? Look at the waves. Keep the trolling motor going and work toward a curve in the shoreline, a point, or a cup where the waves are beating in most directly, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge. Where it hits 51°F, slow down and fish a little harder, but keep moving. The temperature might read 52°F on the other side of a point, or a little farther up the shoreline. If that’s the warmest water available, all the active crappies in the area could be crowded into a small area defined by that water temperature.

When the wind is really strong, colder sub-surface water is pulled to the top.

In that case, the warmest areas tend to be wind-protected spots, where the wind is blowing off shore and sunlight has time to warm the surface. Or warm water will collect in eddy areas, where the wind sweeps along a shoreline and current swirls around a shoreline point, the tip of an island or opening to a bay, dumping warmer water into that calmer spot.  If the wind is heavy, search the calm spots first, starting with areas having the most sun exposure for the longest periods during the day.

I tend to toss a 2-inch Yamamoto or Berkley PowerBait Ribbontail Grub on a 1/32-ounce jig when searching for temperature breaks. The line will be 4-pound Maxima Ultragreen mono on a light spinning reel attached to a 7- to 8-foot St. Croix or G. Loomis ultralight rod. Rod tip pointed down, I let the jig sink for two to five seconds before starting a very slow retrieve. The idea is keeping the jig swimming along on a horizontal plane. Reel too fast and it rises. Too slow and it sinks. It won’t catch numbers, but it will be attacked or followed by the most aggressive crappies in the group. Where crappie numbers are dense, competitive feeding will take over.

After a bite or two, I grab Mr. Dependable—a 1/80- to 1/64-ounce jig under a Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A-Bubble on an 8-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rod. No sinkers required. The A-Just-A-Bubble is made of dense plastic and casts like a bullet. The slow sink of a tiny jig from the surface to the end of its leader is a great trigger in cold water. The leader will be 4.-pound Raven Invisible FluorocarbonWhere concentrations of crappies are dense, an un-baited marabou jig might be the ticket. Most days—especially tough days during uncertain and unstable weather—the jig needs to be sweetened with a tiny minnow,  waxworm, or 1-inch Gulp! Minnow.

Find a spot where the water hits 53°F and don’t be surprised to catch crappies on every cast as long as the temperature holds.

Find a bit of horizontal cover in that temperature zone and it can be lights out for hours. Sometimes the spot is only big enough for one boat. I’ve had boats position much closer than decency should allow to port and starboard after they saw us landing crappies, yet end up empty handed because the fish were crowded into a spot no bigger than a wide-screen TV.

Tomorrow, who knows. The warmest temperature band could be on the other side of the bay again. If so, those two boats that were crowding you yesterday will typically be found anchored on yesterday’s hot spot, wasting more time.

In a series of canals, the way wind affects temperature becomes trickier to predict. But the crappies are just as easy to find. Keep moving, fishing, and watching your crappie compass until the warmest water is directly under the hull. A pattern will develop. Sometimes it’s every east-facing corner. Other times it’s every west-facing bank. Most of the time, the warmest water will gather somewhere near the end of the canal.

It’s possible to have water temperatures over 55°F in one bay or backwater while the next area examined has no water warmer than 49°F. Crappies won’t leave that cooler area to cross the lake, river, or reservoir in search of warmer water.

crappie temperature compassCrappies will find the warmest water in the bay or backwater they are committed to by history. In other words, at ice-out crappies move into the areas where they were born and stay there or stage near there until spawning is completed, and spawning won’t take place in most cases until water temperature approaches or surpasses 70°F. Find the warmest water in the 49°F bay and the bite could be just as hot as it is in the 55°F water in an adjacent bay.

Check the areas where crappies bit furiously last year and the year before at ice-out. Sure. But if nothing is biting there, start hunting for warmer water, beginning where the wind is blowing into shore.

Even spots devoid of “proper cover” can draw the most crappies if the surface is a couple degrees warmer than the water in surrounding areas.

Other Factors

In perfectly calm weather, the areas that warm fastest in spring are shallow, south-facing enclosures or protected bays with dark bottoms. Dark substrates hold the most heat, making those areas solar collectors. The water that has the most sunlight striking it through the course of the day collects the most energy.

Dark-colored substrates like silt and muck in shallow water absorb and radiate more heat than light-colored substrates like sand and gravel. Plankton and invertebrate insect life will be most active and prolific early on in shallow, dark, south-facing areas, drawing lots of minnows. If a breeze or wind is blowing into such an area, all the better.

All other factors being equal, shallow solar collectors are the areas where we always start our search.

Often the shallowest bays only have fish in them for 2 to 5 weeks in spring and are otherwise little dead seas all summer. But just because these areas create warm water faster than other areas, it doesn’t mean the warm water always stays put. We check these classic solar collectors, note the water temperature, and if crappies seem inactive or are not present, we move around, looking at wind direction, to see if we can find warmer water nearby. Warm water can be moved out of a solar collector by convection currents, especially on cloudy, windy days.

shallow crappie fishing

In reservoirs, crappies move to the back one third of creek arms and inhabit shallow flats.

Finding an area that’s 2°F warmer than the rest of the arm tends to be far more important than simply making the rounds to cover all the brush piles, stake beds, and fallen trees one at a time. Consider the wind history of the past few days and note the current wind direction before determining which shoreline to cover first. This is especially true in water temperatures below 60°F.

Severe cold fronts, when the barometer drops suddenly then, as the front passes, shoots upward, can drive crappies out to more stable environs. They typically move to the nearest drop into 15 feet of water or deeper and suspend 10 to 12 feet down or so, becoming very inactive.  In that case, finding the warmest water won’t help. In fact, finding the crappies themselves won’t help. Being more susceptible to sudden pressure changes than most other fish, crappies simply won’t bite after a severe front. Sometimes the smaller fish move shallow to feed tentatively, but rarely those big slabs we all know and love.

Otherwise, in most springtime scenarios, water just a couple degrees warmer than any other spot in the surrounding area can hold all the fish.

To find more and bigger crappies this spring, use a crappie compass.

The temperature gauge on your sonar will tell you precisely where to be.

 - by Matt Straw

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