by John Neporadny
When spring arrives, it's prime time for catching crappie at the Lake of the Ozarks.
By following crappie through their spawning cycle in the spring, you can consistently catch these tasty fish at the Lake of the Ozarks from March through May. One of the premier crappie anglers on the Lake of the Ozarks, Guy Winters, Camdenton, MO, knows where to find and how to catch crappie during the two main stages of the spawning cycle--the pre-spawn and the actual spawn).
The pre-spawn period begins when the surface temperature climbs to around 50 to 52 degrees and crappie move into depths of 8 to 10 feet. "How long they stay there depends on how fast the water temperature jumps up," says Winters. This pre-spawn stage usually lasts until the water temperature rises to 61 or 62 degrees. This period usually runs from March through most of April. "A lot of people think the spawn happens the first couple of weeks of April on this lake, but it doesn't," Winters advises. "I've seen it in the first week of May sometimes before they actually go to the bank to spawn. Any time anybody asks me when they should come down to get in on the best fishing for spawning crappie on the Lake of the Ozarks I tell them the first or second week of May. Of course, there is some awfully good fishing before that but you have to work a little harder."
Winters targets cover near pea gravel banks, which are the ideal spawning spots for Lake of the Ozarks crappie. "Crappie will identify with brush piles pretty heavy that time of year," Winters says. "They follow the creek channels or the tributary stream channels pretty close." If the weather has been cold in March, Winters searches for banks with shale or chunk rocks which warm up faster on sunny days.
Finding a good area to fish for crappie is based mainly on personal preference. "I've got my favorite places but that's just because I know where I've put a lot of brush," says Winters. The crappie expert mostly concentrates on the Big Niangua close to his home, but he thinks the Little Niangua produces larger crappie than the Big Niangua because it receives less fishing pressure. He also believes the Grand Glaize has more legal-size fish because it also lacks fishing pressure. "You can find crappie in any area of the lake as long as you know where there is some good cover, it's not too far from a creek channel or tributary steam channel and it's within a quarter mile of a good spawning bank," says Winters, who finds fish both in the coves and on the main lake then. "The key is being close to that spawning bank."
The best time of day for Winters during the pre-spawn is from 3 p.m. until dark. "Light penetration in the water determines when is the best time to fish. Crappie stay out a little deeper when the sun is up high because there is more light penetration in the water and when the light penetration starts to diminish a little bit, the fish come shallower and you don't have to work as hard for them."
During the pre-spawn, Winters prefers Laker Paddlebugs (a cricket-shaped plastic body) and Curlybugs (a cricket-shaped plastic body with a curly tail) because these lures fall slower than the conventional plastic tube jigs. "I like the Curlybug and Paddlebug extremely well that time of year simply because the fish hang pretty tight to the brush lots of times and you have to float your lure right over the top of the brush. I can use those baits a lot of times when other people use tube jigs or curly-tail grubs and have to put a float on them." By keeping his rod tip at the 11 o'clock position, Winters can slowly glide the lure over the brush. He also likes to put a Laker StickGuard over the jig's hook which allows him to crawl the lure through the brush without getting snagged. This technique is especially effective when barometric pressure falls and crappie burrow into the brush.
Most of the time, Winters hooks his plastic lures on a 1/32-ounce jighead, which he casts with 6-pound test line. When fishing thicker brush that stands up in the water, Winters sometimes switches to a 1/16-ounce jighead and 8-pound test line. The only time he uses 4-pound test is when the fish are deeper than 15 feet.
A quick drop in barometric pressure causes Winters to present his lures vertically to crappie in the brush, but in most situations he pitches his lures to the cover and works them back. Stained water allows Winters to make short pitches to his targets, but clear water requires longer casts to prevent spooking fish.
During the spawn, water clarity also determines what depth crappie build their nests. The clearer the water, the deeper the fish spawn. The fish seek some type of shallow pea gravel bank, but the area still has deep-water structure nearby, such as a creek or tributary channel. Winters says the female crappie hold along this deeper structure until they are ready to move in to deposit their eggs.
When spawning in the shallows, crappie hang around any cover they can find. "A lot of times I've seen just one little stick sticking up and that's all that was there," Winters recalls. "I would cast there and not feel anything else but I would still catch 10 or
12 fish around it."
On a cloudy day, Winters can catch crappie all day long during the spawn. But on bright sunny days he tries to avoid fishing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the light penetration in the water is the greatest.
Lure selection is less critical during the spawn. "You can almost throw the kitchen sink at them and catch them then if you move it at the right speed," says Winters. "Lure presentation becomes more important than anything else during the spawn. A male fish guarding the nest is not an active feeding fish. He's defending a territory and if anything gets too close at too slow of a speed, he considers it to be a threat and he'll attack. If it's moving too fast he'll ignore it." Winters recommends keeping your lure 4 to 6 inches off the bottom to keep the jig in the crappie's strike zone. A jig-and-bobber rig becomes more effective during the spawn because the bobber allows you to work your jig slower through the nest and prevents the lure from falling to the bottom. In dingy water, you can set the jig 4 to 6 inches below the bobber since the fish will move as shallow as 1 1/2 feet.
Besides the Curlybugs and Paddlebugs, other effective lures during the spawn at Lake of the Ozarks include plastic tube jigs, curly tail plastic grubs and Roadrunners. Winters' lure color selection is based on water clarity. In clear water he favors the following combinations: red and pearl, blue and pearl or yellow and pearl. For darker water, he prefers black and chartreuse, red and chartreuse or chartreuse and silver glitter.
The spawn usually ends when the water temperature climbs to 70 degrees. The latest Winters recalls catching any crappie spawning along the bank is the beginning of the third week in May.
Weather slightly alters the spawning cycle schedule each year, but if you plan a trip to Lake of the Ozarks during the spring, you'll be picking a prime time for crappie fishing. For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 162-page vacation guide, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE or visit the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at funlake.com.