Crappie by Steve McCadams

Kentucky Lake guide Steve McCadams shows one of the reasons that throngs of anglers turn out for the crappie spawning season.

Spring is a thermal rollercoaster, and crappie ride it.

Plenty of people are seasonal anglers. Quite often that season is all about crappie and the gyrations of temperatures that affect them.

Crappie are a bit unique as fishermen’s prizes. They do not grow to huge sizes and they are not especially robust on the other end of the line. Relative to size, they are not fierce fighters. They do not strike with vigor nor do they jump.

But crappie are celebrated as food fish. They rank high among our native fish species that anglers enjoy introducing to deep fryers. Combine that with abundance. They are a fish that can be harvested in significant numbers without stressing their population.

The seasonal thing about crappie is that they move to shallower waters to spawn in the spring. Once on the huge headliner fishing waters of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the spawning season was everything.

Decades ago, when the lakes were more nutrient rich and the water more stained with particulate matter in the runoff, spawning crappie went to the shorelines. Crappie were present in ridiculous numbers during these green water times, and the sunlight filter of murky water allowed them to spawn in knee-high depths.

At risk of overly glorifying the old days, crappie were really easy to catch then. People could collect stringers of slab-sized crappie fishing from the banks with cane poles, offering minnows under bobbers. No sophisticated tactics, no electronics, not even boats were necessary to tap into the bounty.

But this was only valid during the spawn. Before the crappie came to the banks and after they left, they might as well not have existed for most fishermen. That on/off phenomenon related to the spawn gave rise to the term “crappie run.”

In more recent times, the big lakes have aged, nutrient levels dropped and the waters have cleared. Light penetration, once a few inches, is now measured in feet.

Crappie numbers are still significant but nowhere what they were decades ago. Part of that issue is crappie fishing pressure. It has increased greatly along with the skills and improved equipment over time. With sonar and advanced methods, crappie fishing is now a 12-month proposition, which dramatically elevated harvest pressure.

When spawning time comes, fish still move shallower. But crappie typically do not go all the way to the shoreline to spawn now. Much clearer water leaves those places illuminated by sunlight. Now crappie are more likely to spawn in water that is 4-8 feet deep where there is stained water. Where water is more transparent, crappie may spawn even deeper.

Rising water temperatures signal the fish to spawn. As the temperature goes from the lower 50s Fahrenheit into the mid 50s, crappie move from deep wintering areas, migrating into major and secondary bays along creek channels.

Recent record low temperatures slowed the process, but above-average warmth earlier this week hurried the transition. The lakes probably now top a surface water temperature of 60 degrees, the threshold around which many female crappie move up to spawn.

A lady crappie is intercepted by a suitor male that escorts her to a nesting site for the procreation act. She spews out eggs there, while her mate of the moment fertilizes them.

After that, the female backs out a bit deeper and lingers. She may return to the spawning shallows for another run or two as other males find and guide her to their nesting spots. Most of this happens between water temperatures of 60 to 68 degrees.

A single female may release as many as 160,000 eggs to be fertilized by multiple males.

After the spawning ritual, mama crappie is absentee, but the male guards the nest for a few days, typically until a little after the fertilized eggs hatch into fry. After that, he splits, and the tiny new crappie are on their own.

Both male and female post-spawn crappie back out around the mid-depth staging areas where they paused before the spawn. After lingering a bit, rising water temperatures nudge them toward deeper haunts where they live the greatest part of the year.

There are individual differences, however. Some crappie came earlier, and some will do the spawning thing later. Much of the action should be firing up right now, but some will lag into May. As a safeguard, nature doesn’t put all the eggs, even crappie eggs, in one basket.

And this does not address the species differences. Most everything here is based on white crappie. Black crappie are a similar, yet distinctly different species. Black crappie favor clearer water and rockier habitats, and consequently, they are far more prevalent in the big sister lakes than in the early, green water days. Kentucky Lake especially is a black crappie stronghold now, despite the observation that most anglers still subscribe to white crappie tactics.

Black crappie typically move to spawning areas sooner that white crappie. They also are known to spawn shallower and stay there longer. But in clearer water habitats, they are less approachable (without spooking) and thus anglers fare better with horizontal presentations. That is, casting or long-line trolling works better on black crappie than vertical presentations.

It is not the crappie run that it was long ago, but it is still the spawn that brings these popular fish as shallow as they come. For seasonal crappie fishermen, this is the season.