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THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing GuideExpert Articles by John Neporadny Jr. - March 2009

Prespawn/Spawn Tricks for Lake of the Ozarks Crappie

by John Neporadny Jr.

Find a shallow brush pile and drop an anchor. Cast out a couple of minnows with bobbers and start hauling in crappie.

Springtime crappie fishing used to be that easy, but heavy fishing pressure has caused many anglers to change tactics. Prime spawning spots get worked over daily. If you're the first angler to dunk some minnows at one of these spots, you have a chance to catch some fish. But if you arrive after the area's been visited by four or five other boats, your chances diminish drastically.

This trend has led some anglers to adopt bass fishing's run-and-gun philosophy of moving around to several spots and firing off a couple of casts in each area. Aggressive fish can be taken this way, but complicating the situation are detractions such as high pressure weather fronts and falling water levels. During these conditions crappie tend to leave the shallows or cling to cover and develop a case of lockjaw.

Former Lake of the Ozarks guide Mark Dahl has developed some techniques to overcome tough conditions anglers face during the crappie spawning cycle. The Gravois Mills, Mo., angler tracks down fish in three different stages of the crappie's procreation cycle. He lists the stages as pre-pre-spawn, pre-spawn and spawn. In the pre-pre-spawn, the fish suspend in schools along the mouths of creeks and coves. The fish will suspend at various depths depending on the weather. "On warm, sunny days, they're up higher," Dahl says.

Crappie in the first stage are least affected by weather conditions and falling water levels since they reside in deep water (20 to 30 feet). But they can still be hard to find and even more difficult to catch.

Electronic fish finders make the search much easier. Dahl watches his paper graph recorder and keeps a marker buoy in hand while cruising along potential staging areas.

When he finds a school, he drops a buoy and starts fishing over it. He will either fish vertically over the school or use his trolling motor and the wind to drift his lure through the mass of crappie. The local angler keeps track of the school and determines the depth of the fish of fish by constantly watching an LCD mounted on the bow of his boat. After determining the depth of the greatest concentration of fish, Dahl sets his lure at that depth to keep it in striking range.

After he catches a fish, Dahl works the area thoroughly because he knows he has a chance to catch some more. "When you have that many fish together, some of them are going to hit," he says. "If you're lucky enough to be out there when they're feeding, you can catch one about every time you drop your line in." To increase his odds, Dahl uses a dual jig setup, which sometimes results in catching two fish at one time. He ties on a plastic-skirted jig with a 1/32-ounce head first, then adds a 1/16th or 1/8th-ounce plastic-skirted jig of a different color 18 inches to 2 feet below the first lure. Dahl prefers plastic skirted jigs over feather versions because he can change colors by merely replacing the skirt rather than havingto retie the jig. Sometimes he'll hook minnows through the lips ontothe jigs to entice finicky crappie.

The selection of jig colors depends on water clarity. In clear water, Dahl selects bright colors such as yellow or fluorescents. The best hues for murky water include red or purple.

The first phase of the spawning migration usually lasts one to two weeks. During stage two (pre-spawn), the crappie move back into the coves and closer to the bank. "They're not actually in the spawning beds yet, they just relate close to them," Dahl says. The fish will be staging 12 to 16 feet deep. Some will be suspended and others will be moving in and out of the shallows checking on spawning conditions.

Crappie in the second stage tend to be more moody. "It sounds funny to says, 'Let the fish tell you how to fish for them,' but sometimes they want the jig held perfectly still and other times they'll want a horsehead-type jig with a blade on it reeled right along," Dahl says. "You should try different colors and different retrieve speeds until you find what triggers the fish."

High barometric pressure or cold fronts push the fish into deeper water. "You have to slow your presentation down and stick it right in front of their nose," Dahl says. During these periods, Dahl resorts to the vertical jigging and drifting methods or a "dead fall" technique. "When you cast and retrieve, the jig moves a lot faster than it does on a dead fall," Dahl says.

The "dead fall" method resembles a light-tackle version of bass fishing's flipping technique. The Lake of the Ozarks guide trades in his dual jigs for a single 1/16th-ounce jig. Before flipping, Dahl measures out about 10 to 12 feet of line. He flips the jig which propels to the shallows pulling along the unspooled line. The longer rod helps Dahl keep slack out of his line and gives him a better feel of the lure as it falls back towards the boat. Most of the time, he imparts little or no action to the lure as it drops. The slow-falling jig tempts crappie into investigating the intruder that has moved into their domain. "Since fish don't have hands, the only way a fish can tell what something is, is to swim up and grab hold of it with their mouth," Dahl says. "If they ever come up with a fish that has hands, all fishermen are in trouble."

When Dahl feels the fish need coaxing, he usually twitches the lure. "Sometimes twitching a jig going down will trigger a fish into hitting," he says. "They think it's trying to get away or is injured. Other times they hit it out of curiosity more than out of a desire for food."

Using the "dead fall" method, Dahl can catch fish that are suspended when the lure sinks and also take fish on the bottom as the jig drags along after it has fallen back toward the boat. Sometimes Dahl will let the jig drag along the bottom while he flips out another line. By keeping track of both lines he can catch fish cruising in the shallows and the crappie staging in the deeper water next to the spawning bank.

Catching crappie gets easier when the fish move into the spawn stage because the fish hit at anything that moves into their bedding area. "When the fish are spawning, they're not really feeding, they're protecting their territory," Dahl says. "They grab hold of your bait and try to get it out of there."

The spawning period offers the best opportunity to catch fish shallow, but the fishing can be spotty at times. One day you'll work along the bank and load up the livewell, but the next day its as if the fish disappeared. Dahl reminds anglers that not all the fish move to the bank at one time, and there will be crappie in the 10- to 12-foot range near by. "If you work the shore and don't catch any fish on the beds, back up a little bit," Dahl says. "There will be fish out a little bit deeper from where you caught them the day before spawning." Probing the deeper water can also result in catching larger crappie. If he continually catches small fish along the bank, Dahl will turn his boat around and start working the same area in a little deeper water. "Bigger fish usually spawn first and they usually spawn deeper," he says.

When the fish establish themselves in the shallows, they usually stay put. "Once it gets to where conditions are right, it's hard to keep them from spawning," Dahl says.

Rather than abandon the shallows during high pressure or cold fronts, the crappie will burrow into the thickest cover they can find. Since casting to these areas usually results in your lure becoming a brush pile decoration, flipping becomes the most effective way to haul the reluctant fish out of the cover. Dahl usually looks for the best looking cover available along the spawning bank. "The bigger fish always get the choicest spawning and feeding spots," he says. If he fails to catch a fish or takes only small fish along the outer edges of the cover, Dahl will flip his jig into the middle of the brush where he usually catches slab-size crappie.

If your favorite spawning bank fails to produce this spring, rememberthat the fish are still there and can be caught by slowing down your presentation and maybe fishing a little deeper. For information on lodging and other facilities at the Lake of the Ozarks or to receive a free 152-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.

Copies of John Neporadny's book, "THE Lake of the Ozarks Fishing Guide" are available by calling 573/365-4296 or visiting the web site www.jnoutdoors.com.

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