How to Fish for Crappie
Curated Fishing Expert Alex Johnson shares his guide to catching crappie and all of the tips he's learned along the way.
Whether you pronounce it “Crap-ie” or “Craw-pie,” I think most anglers will agree crappie is one of the most fun and accessible species to target in freshwater. Crappie can be found in nearly every state in the U.S., and even much of Canada. Papermouths, as they're sometimes called, are a favorite among novice and veteran anglers alike. From a kid with a cane pole to an old-timer in a $20,000 boat, crappie are a worthwhile target species for anyone! I personally love crappie fishing, and if I'm taking out my Jon boat, odds are I’m going after some crappie. They don't put up much of a fight, but they make up for it by being a delicious and crowd-pleasing choice for an afternoon fish fry with friends and family.
Aside from their excellent table fare, what I love about crappie is that they're relatively easy to locate and catch in most cases, even when other species have decided to stop biting. Crappie are ferocious predators in their environment and are only below large bass, catfish, and pike on the food chain in most bodies of water. Crappie spend much of their time chasing schools of shad, minnows, shiners, and other small fish as well as insects when the opportunity presents itself. They're so ferocious in fact, that in a couple of my local lakes they outcompete the bass population for food and prey on their fry. This leads to a large number of crappies, but a sparse population of bass, much to bass anglers’ (including myself) dismay. With hardship comes opportunity. So if you're like me and you want to put numbers of fish in the boat or on the stringer instead of spending all day chasing a couple of bites, follow my tips for a successful day of chasing the beloved crappie!
Where to Find Crappie
The great thing about crappie is they're very widespread. They inhabit all manner of rivers, lakes, creeks, and ponds across the U.S. You'll encounter crappie most likely in the Mississippi River watershed where they're native, from a clear water lake in Minnesota, to a muddy water bayou in southern Louisiana and everywhere in-between. They're not too difficult to locate either, as long as you remember the fundamentals of what habitat game fish gravitate toward.
Any underwater structures or cover, whether it is a shoreline laydown or an offshore brush pile, is bound to hold crappie. Drop-offs, weeds, and man-made structures like docks and piers are good bets too. During the spring spawn, crappie will be easy to find in shallow water, but an important factor to keep in mind with crappie is that during most of the year crappie travel in schools, so if you catch one, odds are there are quite a few other crappies in the same spot. You can find schools of crappie if you have and are proficient with your boat's fishfinder, but the low-tech tried-and-true way to locate schools is to fish likely spots, and when you catch one, work that area diligently. The classic saying, “never leave fish to go find fish” should be your mantra when locating schools of crappie, so do your due diligence when you find the first crappie in a given area. This will often make the difference between a couple of fish in the boat to everyone catching their limit.
Crappie are synonymous with ponds, lakes, and marshy areas, but water that I think is overlooked for crappie are rivers and streams. I have caught several crappies that were nearly 15” while smallmouth bass fishing at one of my local rivers, and these were spots with a fairly strong current, so just about the last place you would expect to find crappie. To target crappie in rivers, focus on the current seam of rapids, eddies, and near submerged timber and log jams. Also, focus on dams, break walls, and other man-made structures if present. Techniques that I've found to work best for river crappies are casting small lures such as twister tails and in-line spinners into the areas I just mentioned.
Rods, Reels, and Line for Crappie
Crappies do not require the most high-tech or technique-specific gear, which is why they're such a popular sportfish. The beauty of crappie fishing is you can pretty much do it all with one spinning setup that’s fine-tuned to your preferences and fishing style. As I mentioned earlier, you could just use a cane pole and some basic line, but I'll outline a few more modern setups that can do just about any crappie technique. A good do-it-all setup for crappie would be anywhere between a 6’6” to 8’ light power rod, a 1500-2000 spinning reel, and 4-6 pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon line. You can also get away with a medium or medium-light power rod and 8-pound line if you want to go after bass as well, but that's as heavy of a setup as I would go. For ultimate sensitivity and to be able to cast super-light lures, go with a 6’6’’ to 7’ ultralight spinning rod, a 1000-1500 sized spinning reel, and no more than 4-pound line. Once you have a good crappie setup, you can just about handle any technique to target them, so strive to get a high-quality rod, reel, and line setup for your designated crappie slayer!
Live Bait Techniques
By far the most effective way to catch crappie, as with many other species, is with live bait. Crappies aren't too picky in most cases, so if you just have a handful of worms you gathered from your garden, that’s a great start. However, you'll want to figure out what bait the crappie in your area prefer, and this simply comes from good old trial and error. Your best choices for live bait when targeting crappie include minnows, red worms, wax worms, nightcrawlers, crickets, and some fishing companies even make artificial baits often called “nibbles.” Inevitably you will encounter other panfish such as sunfish and perch, as these are also common baits for them and they will hang out in the same spots as crappie, but adding some variety to your stringer is never a bad thing in my book. Some live baits are easy to obtain yourself, while others are difficult to acquire anywhere other than your local bait shop. Some live baits are also easier to keep alive than others, so keep that in mind as well when choosing a live bait. Worms will keep for quite a while in not so much as a cup of dirt, while minnows will require a Livewell equipped with a bubbler to keep them alive for any reasonable amount of time.
As far as rigging your live bait for crappie, there are three that are the most effective and widely used. The first rig would just be about the most simple rig there is, that being to tie a small panfish hook to your line, baiting the hook, and tossing it in the water. If you want to get really fancy, you can add a small split shot a few inches above the hook to help it sink. This rig is really only useful if you are casually fishing from a dock, so the other two rig options are more suited for nearly every other situation.
The next rig is also one of the oldest in the book, which is the standard bobber rig. This rig requires a good high visibility bobber (I prefer spring bobbers), a small split shot sinker, and a small panfish hook. To tie this rig, simply tie your preferred fishing knot from your line onto the hook, place the small split shot about 4-6 inches above the hook, then put your bobber about 4-6 inches above the split shot. You can always adjust your bobber according to the depth you want to present the bait at as you start to figure things out. This rig is a great all-around technique for fishing in coves, near shallow brush piles and laydowns, rock piles, weed beds, and around docks and other shoreline structures.
The next rig that is a great option for live bait crappie fishing is a slip bobber rig. It is by no means as popular as the standard bobber rig, but it is a very popular technique among walleye anglers, and crappie anglers have started to utilize it as well. It can be just as, if not more effective of a rig, especially for crappies that are holding in deeper water. A slip bobber is essentially no different than any other bobber, aside from the fact that the line is fed through an opening that runs the whole length so the bobber moves freely up and down the line, and the bait is presented based on depth. A slip bobber allows you to target crappies that are much deeper than what you could target with a standard bobber rig, and you can adjust depth for a much wider range.
To tie a slip bobber rig, what you’ll need is the same components as the standard bobber rig, with a few key differences. First, of course, the bobber is a slip bobber, and you will need a bit bigger of a split shot sinker, probably the biggest one you have in your tackle box to help the bait sink to a greater depth. Next, you’ll want a string or yarn stopper that is cinched to the main line. This is what’s referred to as a bobber stopper, as it will stop the bobber from moving further up the line at the desired depth. The string or yarn material of these bobber stoppers also makes them small and supple enough to be reeled and cast through the reel spool and rod guides. In theory, you can place the stopper as deep as you want, but it’s rare to need to put the stopper at a depth of more than 20 feet. You can get these yarn bobber stoppers pre-tied and in packs of a dozen or so. Finally, for your hook, the same #4 Aberdeen hooks will work equally as well with a slip bobber rig.
Slip bobbers excel at targeting offshore brush piles that are about 10 feet deep or more, or really any deep water structure. It’s easy to overlook a slip bobber rig because it seems intimidating and complicated at first glance, but a successful crappie angler is willing to use any tool in their arsenal!
Artificial Lure Techniques
Much like other popular sport fish such as bass, crappie can be caught with a variety of artificial baits and lures. My #1 go-to lure for crappie is without a doubt a 3” white twister tail rigged onto a 1/8th ounce jig head. I catch a lot of crappie just by picking cover to cast at and make a slow retrieve. I’ve found that if you reel just a little too fast, you will not get many—if any—bites. Another great lure for crappie are in-line spinners such as Mepps or rooster tails. The flash and vibration from these lures produce plenty of strikes, so don’t forget to put a few in your tackle box for your next trip. Twister tails, small spoons, and other small jigs can be jigged vertically as well. If you find offshore structure, or you are pretty certain you have located a school of crappie, vertical jig a lure by letting your lure reach the bottom, reeling up a little to get it slightly off the bottom, then lifting your rod tip up and down to give it action.
Small jerkbaits and crankbaits work exceptionally well for crappie too, and these hard baits are nothing more than smaller versions of the same lures used for bass and other larger species. Crankbaits and jerkbaits can be cast to likely spots where fish may be holding, but I have had great success trolling these lures for crappie. Trolling is an effective and popular technique for many species, but it is especially helpful for crappie fishing because it helps you to locate schools. Once you hook into a fish or two while trolling, you can focus on that spot and begin to target the school with lures or bait to really start bringing them in. Trolling for crappie can be done with a multi-species medium-power spinning rod, and you really don't even need rod holders, though it does help (the exception is if you are trolling using a spider trolling rig, which is a fairly technical and advanced crappie trolling technique that won’t be detailed in this article). Most of the time I’ll have fishing buddies hold the rods, or I’ll hold one myself. You’ll want to go very slow when trolling for crappie, so go as slow as your boat, kayak, or canoe will go. Set your trolling motor to the lowest setting, or you can even use the wind to push you while also putting out a drift sock to keep you from drifting too fast. Bites tend to be subtle and quick, so make sure to be alert, and reel in fast to set the hook when you feel a bite.
Another useful artificial lure technique for crappie is a jig and float setup. Think of it as a hybrid between a standard bobber rig and an artificial lure. A jig and float rig consist of a very small jig, typically as light as 1/32 ounces, and a standard bobber about 6-12 inches above the jig. The bobber accomplishes three key things. One, it allows you to cast super light lures that would be difficult to cast even with an ultralight setup. Two, it suspends the lure above the water or at the desired depth. Three, the bobber indicates when you have a bite. When using this rig, cast to where you think the crappie are and let it sit for a few seconds, then, lift your rod tip to give the jig some action every few moments. This rig gives you the ability to suspend the jig at the desired depth, allowing you to keep the bait in the water longer for better odds of a strike and hookup. If the fish don’t seem to want to bite on the jig, tip the jig with a wax worm or crappie nibble, which should convince them to bite. Jigs used for this rig are typically made with tied feathers or constructed of soft plastic. They come in many colors and styles, so try a few different kinds to see what works for you.
There are so many species to go after, but I hope you take some time to use my tips and go after some crappie. I believe they are a great way to give yourself more opportunity and time on the water and are also a great species for anglers just starting out, or those looking to try something new. Make it as simple or as technical as you want, just get out there and catch some slab crappie! Reach out to a Fishing Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.