On a warm, windy day in late March last year, Joe Bragg and David Harrison got in a little spring training at Clinton Lake.
The main event that many Kansans look forward to –the crappie spawn—wouldn’t take place for several weeks. But the popular panfish provided a sneak peak of what was to come.
Looking at the LiveScope at the bow of his boat, Bragg pointed out a big swimming mark on his screen and instructed Harrison to drop his plastic grub to the fish.
When Harrison put it right in front of the crappie, his rod bowed sharply and he knew he had a big fish.
“That’s a tank,” said Bragg, who runs the Thump Thirty Guide Service.
Seconds later, a scale confirmed that the fat fish weighed 1.91 pounds—Harrison’s personal best and proof that eastern Kansas holds some trophy crappies.
Each year, Bragg follows the speckled panfish from their winter haunts to the spring spawning sites in the shallows, where they are the most accessible to the common angler.
In late April and May, the crappies will move en masse to the brushy shallows and they will be met by thousands of fishermen across Kansas fishing either from the bank or in boats.
It doesn’t take an expensive boat, high-dollar electronics or the latest tackle to find the fish and catch them. Spring is everyman’s season for crappie fishermen.
But to maximize your success, it pays to understand how the spawn operates, Bragg said.
The pre-spawn period often starts when the water temperature warms into the low 40s. The shad move from their deep winter haunts onto the shallow flats, and the crappies will follow them there to feed up for the spawn.
Because the females are heavy with eggs and the baitfish they are feeding on, some of the biggest crappies of the year can be caught during that phase.
They can be surprisingly shallow—sometimes in less than 5 feet of water.
As the water temperature warms into the mid-50s, spawning activity begins. The males will move to the banks first to build the nests. They can be recognized by their dark spawning colors.
The females will join them in the shallows to spawn but won’t stay there long. In fact, the females often hang in brush just out from the places where the males are building the bests, waiting for the right time to move in.
“The first full moon after 13 hours of daylight is when they’ll spawn,” Bragg said.
A week to 10 days before that, the males will be in, building the nests. That time period often translates to the last part of April to mid-May in Kansas. Bragg often searches for coves with brush or willow thickets in the back of pockets. Rock or gravel banks can be productive. And transition banks—say, where a mud bank transitions into rock or gravel—also can attract spawning crappies.
Bragg keys on north banks, which warm up first. Timing is everything. The best fishing can last only 10 days in one part of the reservoir. Luckily, the crappies in a reservoir don’t all spawn at the same time. The upper end of a reservoir turns on first, It may be more than week later that the crappie spawn heats up at the dam end.
That stretches out the best shallow fishing and often gives fishermen up to a month of good action.
In eastern Kansas, Clinton, Perry, Council Grove, Pomona, Melvern, and Hillsdale all have outstanding crappie populations and can produce great spring fishing.
“Kansas fishermen have lots of options,” Bragg said. “A lot of our reservoirs have strong crappie populations.
“High water and the weather can throw things off. But as long as conditions are right, we’ll see a lot of crappies caught this spring.”