To catch big crappies this spring, target shallow reeds and wood with VMC® jigs and Trigger X® soft baits once water temps hits 42 to 44 degrees. When the water warms to the upper 40s, add a Rapala® Ultra Light Shad to your arsenal.
“Anywhere from 42 to 48 degrees is perfect water temperature to get crappies up shallow,” says Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Legendary Guide Tom Neustrom, who favors VMC Boot Tail and Nymph Jigs and Trigger X Curl Tail Minnows rigged on VMC Moon Eye Jigs. “That’s about as good as it gets. You can catch a lot of crappies and bluegills up shallow, especially when the weather’s consistent.”
And you don’t even have to get up early to get ‘em, he says.
“It’s kind of a bankers-hours bite,” he says. “After about 9 a.m. the water has warmed up a bit and they’ll start wanting to bite.”
The next best bite window opens right before sundown. “Those are the two times of the day that early-season crappie fishing seems to be really good,” he says.
Although many anglers believe panfish head shallow to spawn when water temps warm to about 42 degrees, that’s a misconception, Neustrom says.
“People think they go in shallow to spawn in spring — well they do, but it isn’t until the water hits 58 to 60 degrees,” he says. “But in early spring, they’re not in there spawning, they move in shallow to eat. They feed on little insects and small minnows.”
And that’s exactly what Neustrom’s favorite early-spring panfish baits resemble, both in appearance and action. “These jigs VMC came out with in the last couple years, I’m really liking,” he says.
Pre-rigged with a Trigger X Nymph soft bait (also sold separately) VMC’s Nymph Jig resembles the small aquatic insects that panfish feed on year-round. It’s a great primary panfish presentation as well as a finesse walleye offering. A tubular body makes rigging a Nymph easy, while life-like appendages flicker and flutter, enticing even wary fish to nab it.
“You can work it really, really slow and still get enough action to get those crappies interested,” Neustrom says. “If the water’s really shallow, I like to fish it on a slip-bobber.”
“When you have some turbidity in the water, when the water is really riled up a little bit, you’re going to want something that’s got a little more color to it,” Neustrom advises. “Orange, greens or shades of yellow are good.” One of his perennial favorites is a white-pink combo.
No matter which bait he’s throwing or what he’s targeting, Neustrom’s boat is usually sitting in about six to eight feet of water and he’s pitching up into three or four feet. And he rarely reels in his baits all the way back to the boat.
“I’ll usually bring it half way in then reel it up quick and throw it back out,” he says. “Because the fish this time of year are often really decisive about where they’ll bite. The location has to be close to what you’re casting to. Once your bait is out and away, they’ll usually scurry back. They don’t usually follow it back to the boat.”
“Early in the year, when it’s cold, they’re not really chasing too much,” Neustrom explains further. “So if it’s front of their nose, they’ll bite it. But you’ve got to be really specific with your casting — and change that cadence on it to slow it down and speed it up. But not too fast.”
Where to Fish ‘Em
Neustrom has three favorite targets for early-spring crappies when water temps are in the low to mid-40s — pencil reed clumps, docks and submerged trees, all in about three to four feet of water. If there’s a breakline dropping to deeper water nearby, it’s even better.
“It doesn’t have to go down to 20 feet, but if you have access to a little deeper water nearby, that’s good,” Neustrom says. “If you’re fishing in three, four feet and they have access to eight to ten — 12 feet maximum — that’s what you’re looking for. They’re not going to move out way into deep water unless there’s a big cold front that comes through and drops that water temperature down five degrees. Then you sometimes have to pull out to 12 to 15 feet, because they won’t be up shallow anymore.”
To find and catch active shallow fish, Neustrom hits his targets from three angles. “I fish a third to the right, the center third, then a third to the left,” he says. “And then if I don’t get bit, I move forward to the next target.”
Pencil reeds, Neustrom explains, grow predominantly in and around hard-bottom areas, which is where panfish will spawn when water temps near 60 degrees. But they feed there too, because the tiny invertebrates and small baitfish that comprise their diets eat micro-organisms that feed on algae that grows on hard bottoms.
“So, the pencil reeds tell me there’s a hard-bottom there,” Neustrom explains. “On the outside of them, it’s usually softer bottoms and inside of them, it’s harder bottom.”
Laydowns and other shallow wood will see Neustrom’s baits as well. “That kind of cover can hold fish early in the year,” he says. “That’s where a lot of times we locate them.”
When he encounters a submerged tree with branches or roots that aren’t exceptionally thick, Neustrom will often fire out a Rapala Ultra Light Shad. Especially if the water has warmed into the upper 40s.
“Sometimes when those fish are up in the wood, I’ll throw that Ultra Light up inside of that cover,” he says. “But you’ve got to be real specific on where you’re throwing it, because you don’t want to get snagged up.”
At a mere 1/8 oz, the Ultra Light Shad is Rapala’s smallest shad-profile bait. Running true even at high speeds, its slow sink when paused is often just the ticket when fish aren’t aggressively feeding.
“Stop and start it — don’t completely retrieve it right in,” Neustrom instructs. “Crank it maybe four cranks and let it sit for just a second and then start cranking it again, four, five or six cranks. You want to try and change the cadence on it a little bit.”
Ultra Light Shads run four to five feet deep, measure 1 1/2 inches long and feature two No. 10 VMC treble hooks.
This early in the spring, many docks are not yet in the water in Neustrom’s Minnesota environs, nor elsewhere across the Upper Midwest. But that can make any early-in docks “key spots,” he says. Target hard-to-reach spots under the middle of the docks as well as the posts.
“You’ve got to be specific about where you’re throwing your casts,” Neustrom says. “It’s got to be right up against the post or somewhere where there’s some shade or ambush spots.”
When pitching VMC jigs and Ultra Light Shads for spring crappies, Neustrom strings 7-foot, medium-light, fast-tip spinning rods with 4-pound-test Sufix Elite monofilament line.
“You don’t need 2-pound test,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll use fluorocarbon, but it’s not usually necessary.”