John's Journal...

Fish the Right Depth for Crappie

Day 3: How to Catch Extremely-Shallow Crappie

Editor’s Note: To catch crappie at any time of the year, you need to find the right depth to fish for them. Over the years, I’ve learned that fishing at the correct depth influences whether or not you catch more crappie more so than the kind, the sized and/or the color of bait you use.

Click for Larger ViewOne day during spring turkey season when I hadn’t heard a turkey gobble in about 20 minutes, I decided to play the waiting game, rather than continuing to call and trying to battle with him for the hens I assumed he’d found. I’d set up to call just above a backwater slough close to a nearby river. I soon heard the words, “Golly, what a crappie.” When I looked-down, below me I could see two fishermen in a johnboat catching what looked like some really-big crappie. Dressed in camouflage from head to toe, I realized the anglers never saw me. I moved slowly and quietly and retrieved my binoculars from my turkey vest to spy on these successful crappie fishermen. With their cane poles bent like limp noodles, they pulled crappie out of the water as fast as folks shop during a blue-light special at K-Mart. First of all, I couldn’t believe the size of the crappie these guys caught nor the number of big slabs they consistently pulled out of the shallow water. I had to find out how they caught so many big crappie.

I laid my binoculars on a limb to steady them and watched carefully when one fisherman brought a crappie to the boat and began to unhook it. To my surprise, the angler’s red-and-white float rested only about 1 to 1-1/2-inches above the gold wire crappie hook.

Click for Larger ViewThe anglers once more swung their minnows right beside stumps and logs. By the time the tail of the minnow got into the water, the crappie had sucked the minnow and the float down and under the water. As the men came closer to me, several times I saw the crappie moving in the shallow water, not more than 1-1/2-feet deep, next to the stumps. The two anglers placed their minnows so close to the shore and to the stumps and the logs, that the crappie couldn’t have had more than 1/2-inch of water over their backs. I soon abandoned my hunt for the big tom and watched the men for an hour as they boated 35 to 40 crappie that weighed between 1-and 2-pounds each. They had the most-awesome stringer of crappie I ever had seen.

The next day, when I returned home, I called a fisheries’ biologist who was a friend of mine and told him what I’d seen that, “There was hardly enough water to float a crappie where these guys were fishing.” The biologist explained, “This early in March there are three reasons the crappie may be in shallow water next to stumps and logs. First, shallow water bays, oxbow lakes and sloughs cut off from the main river warm up much quicker than the rest of the lake. Secondly, because wood absorbs heat, the water right next to a stump becomes the warmest water in the oxbow. Finally, when crappie find water that warm that early in the spring, they’ll move into extremely shallow water and begin to spawn. Any bait fish that’s in that shallow water with the crappie will usually be eaten.” On this turkey-hunting trip, I learned that extremely-shallow water where most crappie fishermen don’t fish often contains the depth that the first spawning crappie of spring frequent.

Beaver Sticks Will Create the Right Depth For Crappie:

Click for Larger ViewThe late Red Cotton, who fished the lake at West Point, Mississippi, taught me how to create the right depth to fish for crappie, especially during the early spring, before and during the spawn. “Crappie will hold on vertical wood structure in the early spring because standing trees and bushes attract and hold heat,” Cotton said. “The fish will generally be deep in the morning and begin to move closer to the surface later in the morning and early afternoon when the water begins to warm up. Until you know exactly where the crappie are holding, you have to search for them and learn the pattern. I use a crappie pole with a spinning reel. I start by swimming a 1/32-ounce jig on 6-pound test line just under the surface of the water. If the crappie refuse to take the jig, I assume that they are deeper. So, I let my jig down about 5 inches and swim it all the way around the tree or bush again. I repeat this procedure until I either catch a crappie or get my jig down to about 15 feet. Most of the time the crappie will be staging between 2 inches from the surface and 12-feet deep in the early spring. Once I catch a fish, I remember the depth at which I’ve caught it and then swim my jigs around the cover at the same depth where I’ve caught the first crappie. Usually I continue to catch crappie for an hour or two.”

Click for Larger ViewCotton explained that as a day warmed-up, he continued to raise his jig higher in the water, because he believed the crappie fed higher in the water as both the sun and the water temperature rose. Cotton also put-out beaver sticks during the pre-spawn. I didn’t know what magic surrounded these beaver sticks-poles he would find around beaver lodges-with all the bark gnawed-off them. However, Cotton swore that they produced more crappie than regular sticks would. Cotton preferred 5- to 6-foot long beaver sticks and would force them into the bottom of the lake in shallow areas, near where the crappie spawned, leaving only 4 or 5 inches of stick showing above the water. Cotton would place the beaver sticks about 6- to 8-feet apart in a straight line, out from a clean bank with little or no cover on it. “Because big crappie are loners, they want to make their beds, without anyone else around them,” Cotton told me. “Just before the water is warm-enough for the big females to move into shallow water and make their beds, they will hold on any type of vertical structure just off the bank. I usually start swimming my jig on the up-current side of a beaver stick and move the jig up and down on the backside of the beaver stick until a big crappie bites. I generally can catch a 1- to a 1-1/2-pound crappie off each beaver stick almost every day during the pre-spawn. Sometimes the crappie will be high in the water. At other times, they will be almost on the bottom. However, once I catch a crappie on a beaver stick, I then know at which depth the other crappie will be holding on those beaver sticks.”

Crappie: How To Catch Them Spring and SummerTo learn more about crappie and how to fish for them from the masters of the sport, click here for “Crappie: How to Catch Them Spring and Summer, a new eBook from Amazon’s Kindle by John E. Phillips. Or, you can go to and type-in the name of the book to find it. You can also download a free Kindle app that enables you to read the book on your iPad, computer or SmartPhone.

Tomorrow: Locating Open-Water Crappie

Check back each day this week for more about "Fish the Right Depth for Crappie"

Day 1: How Kent Driscoll Uses GPS to Find Open-Water Crappie
Day 2: Kent Driscoll’s Trolling Tactic for Crappie
Day 3: How to Catch Extremely-Shallow Crappie
Day 4: Locating Open-Water Crappie
Day 5: Gathering Spots for Crappie

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Entry 671, Day 3