Reading a lake is an interpretive skill. To be able to scout the conditions and features of a body of water, process the information, and then form a plan for addressing it. At no other time of the year is this more true than spring, especially when you're after crappies.
Fortunately, one of a lake's best indicators reads like an open book - bulrushes. Winter leaves behind browned skeletons of the once lush, hardstem greens. Tattered, bent and broken, these beds of dead rushes prove to be a well stocked pantry for spring crappies.
The bottoms beneath bulrush beds are full of life. And as the spring sun rises and its rays penetrate, aquatic insects come to life and baitfish arrive on the scene. The rushes themselves capture the sun's warmth, too, heating the surrounding water. Better yet if that bundle of bulrushes lies on the north end of the lake where sunlight is more direct, and rides longer and higher in the sky.
On the bottom, look for areas with the most debris and decaying vegetation, as they warm faster and tend to hold the most foodstuffs, not to mention offer the most cover. That actual bottom is likely composed of a sand to gravel mix, as true hardstem bulrushes seldom thrive in pure muck.
The beds with the greatest potential are also the thickest, and typically the largest - more cover and space for crappies to roam around and forage. Get in as tight to the bank as possible, as the shoreline itself bounces heat back to the water. Typically, my most productive spring crappie spots feature bog-like shorelines. Here, warm water leeches into the lake. Crappies will actually back under the bog like a tuck-under garage, too.
The day's weather conditions definitely dictate the bite. On warmer days, say with temperatures into the 60's, crappies move right in. More sun equals more fish as well. Even further defined, I've caught more shallow water crappies on days with broken sunshine than sheer bluebird skies. And you know things are really going your way if it's calm. Onshore winds cool the shallows, not to mention make fishing in snaggy rushes challenging. And given a choice, I try to be on the water during the warmest part of the day - 10 am to 2 pm.
Assuming I've located a larger bulrush bed, it's going to take time, and patience, to isolate the best crappie holding areas. Bow-mount Minn-Kota trolling motor down, I slide along ever so slowly and quietly. Shallow ranging crappies are easily scattered.
With my Lund pushing as deeply into the vegetation as possible, I first present a slip-bobber with a tiny, ice fishing sized Northland Bro Bug - sometimes tipping it with a live crappie minnow; other times with one of Northland's new IMPULSE soft plastics. The fish will divulge a preference. Bobber and bait set only 12-inches apart, I cast to openings. The combo hits the water, sits idle for several seconds, and then I begin a methodical retrieve. Slow and steady for about three feet, then a pause, letting the bait pendulum back beneath the float. Oftentimes, spring crappies are sluggish and only strike after following and studying the presentation for several feet. It's at that very moment of motionless that the sale is closed. Suddenly the bobber vanishes and you're sweep-setting into beautifully patterned spring crappie.
Lure color deserves some discussion as well. Pink and pink/white patterns are timelessly proficient. No matter the lake, color of the water, or time of the year, I find myself opening the day with some variation of pink and white. Purple, uniquely, is its understudy. When pink and white aren't getting it done, the abrupt change to darker, earthier colors can convince crappies to eat.
Along with specificity in lure selection goes a definite preference in rods. St. Croix's new and unrivaled Panfish Series rods were crafted specifically for crappies, bluegills and perch. And once you play around with one, you'll quickly feel why they're superior to a repurposed light-action, general use rod. Precision bobber placement is critical when hurling baits in blockades of bulrushes. With that in mind, I opt for one of the shorter St. Croix Panfish Series rods, like the 6-foot, fast action, ultralight.
4-lb test BIONIC Panfish line, the camo version, pairs perfectly with the bobber outfit. I will, however, lighten up to 3- or 2-lb test while making long casts with naked jigs. When clearings appear, I reach down for a pre-rigged St. Croix with the lighter line and jig - no bobber - and sling the bait low and deeply into the cut as possible. The retrieve is essentially a dead pull, no jigging. The bait simply swims back. Dressed with a live minnow, the package produces enough natural quivers and quakes on its own.
The formula isn't doctorate level. Reviewing the basics, locate last year's hardstem rushes in the warmest water on the lake; fish through them all the way to the bank; cast and slow retrieve a bobber and jig; move slowly and quietly; reel the bait back slowly; and patiently blanket as many and big of beds as possible; and time your trip for the brightest and warmest part of the day.