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Gronaw: Just another crappie day

Dark, male crappies with their tuxedos on are shallow and guarding nest as we speak. Harvest wisely, keeping female fish and releasing the guardian males.
Dark, male crappies with their tuxedos on are shallow and guarding nest as we speak. Harvest wisely, keeping female fish and releasing the guardian males. (Jim Gronaw photo)

Ahh yes, the sounds and smells of spring.

Tulips and daffodils are blooming, song birds are singing and flowering trees are sprouting all their spring time glory! Yards and flowerbeds are in need of nurturing, stuff needs painting and all of those special spring-cleaning projects come to mind. But who on earth has time for all that silly crap?

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Certainly not I, so what is a retired, old-and-in-the-way fisherman supposed to do? Why of course — go crappie fishing.

To the devoted crappie fisherman, April and May is one of the premier times to enjoy crappie fishing in our local lakes, ponds and river systems throughout much of the Mid Atlantic region. To normal folks, have fun with the yard work.

As water temperatures reach the mid-sixties and into the 70’s, male crappies, both black and white, seek shallow spawning substrate that is near brush, weeds or fallen logs. They will fan a nest, usher in a few off their girlfriends, and after the gals lay eggs and the fry hatch out, the males will remain for a bit to protect the young ‘uns. During this time the boys may lose as much as 20% of their total body weight due to the rigors of the spawn. The entire process can take up to 10 days, especially if the weather is inconsistent with incoming cold fronts or cold rain.

There is often overlap of spawning crappies, even within the same body of water. The total length of the spawning process, start to finish, can last as long as three weeks.

My most recent crappie fishing trips were to a couple of small, local public venues that most would drive right by and ignore. I recently found nest-guarding males, coal-black with their tuxedos on, hanging shallow in some crystal clear waters. They could see me, so I had to be stealthy in capture. Often, if you place a tiny hair jig, small plastic worm or even a live earthworm on or near the bed the male will rush in and clobber it. Other times they will ignore your bait for extended periods as if it were never there.

Of course, the heavier females that are carrying eggs are usually a few feet to several yards out in slightly deeper water. When they come in, they are traditionally not on beds very long, dropping their eggs, then booking.

Tiny hair jigs can often coax shallow crappies during the spawn. Don't be afraid to try small plastic worms or live earthworms.
Tiny hair jigs can often coax shallow crappies during the spawn. Don't be afraid to try small plastic worms or live earthworms. (Jim Gronaw photo)

Catching crappies during the spawn has been a welcoming harbinger of spring for as long as I can remember. As a child growing up fishing Liberty Reservoir, we would catch them each spring and take them home for some tasty fish meals. Mom would fry them in a pan of hot oil, and we would de-bone them, peeling back the skin and forking the meat off the backbone and ribs. Many years later, we would learn how to fillet crappies that exceeded 10 inches and fry them much the same with a little bit of Old Bay, pancake batter and various seasonings. Man, oh man … a meal fit for a king.

About 15 years ago, the Maryland DNR enacted a 15-fish limit on crappies, per angler, per day.

Although some anglers surely thought this was too restrictive a limit, others found it to be a savior on many waterways. Locally, our water supply reservoirs have a healthy population of both black and white crappies with top-end fish going 14 to 15 inches, although the average is more like 10 to 11. Crappies also tend to exhibit a cyclic behavior where fish size may dominate for several years then either spike or drop in average size. Many factors can contribute to this “up and down” or “boom or bust” roller coaster of both crappie abundance and average size.

Although a good spawning year may put more fish into a system, it may also aid in crappie over-population — something that can lead to small, stunted fish stocks. On years that see marginal spawning, recruitment is minimal, but the end result after 3-4 years may produce fewer, but larger fish. Water levels, predator prey relationships and irregular weather during spawning periods can affect crappie bio-mass on any given year.

Alvie Sickle shows a plus-sized crappie from the tidal Potomac near Washington DC. This fish took a live minnow.
Alvie Sickle shows a plus-sized crappie from the tidal Potomac near Washington DC. This fish took a live minnow. (Jmi Gronaw photo)

Many anglers view the legal limit of panfish as a goal, rather than a legitimate management tool for improving panfish populations. In the state of Pennsylvania, the current limit on most public waters is 50-fish per angler, per day. However, on huge Pymatuning Reservoir in the northwest corner of the state, fisheries management recently imposed a 20-fish restriction on this 17,000-acre lake that once saw a no-limit status on crappies. This lake is partially shared by the state of Ohio, where there has been a “no limit” harvest on all panfish species for decades, to include Pymatuning. However, with depleting stocks of crappies, including fewer big fish over the years, both states agreed to change the limit to 20-fish per day to try and get those fish back to what were once historic numbers and size.

Even large, expansive bodies of water can suffer from angler over-harvest.

Closer to home, many crappie addicts hit the coves and beaver huts at Piney Run, Loch Raven, Liberty, Long Arm, Rocky Gorge and Cunningham Falls Lake for a chance for some tasty fillets and maybe a trophy fish that will hit the 2-pound mark. The tidal Potomac River is also a prime fishery for these springtime favorites. Small jigs and minnows fished below bobbers can be a standard approach as long as the fish remain shallow, which should be for the next few weeks. Check it out at your favorite lake and see if you might not have a “crappie” day!

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