If you’re anything like us, slab hunting can keep you up at night, and at the very least, the prospect of hitting the water the next day before dawn can make your sleep a tad restless!
Here, we’d like to take a look at one specific aspect of sac-a-lait fishing, answering the question, “What’s the best time in each season to catch crappie?”
Virtually every slab hunter will tell you that the bite is best in the 90 minutes bookending dawn and dusk, and that’s a pretty hard-and-fast rule whatever the species.
But there are exceptions to that advice and tweaks that can help you load your livewell with a mess of tournament-winning monsters!
Best Time To Catch Crappie
You’ll notice that the trees in the background haven’t gotten their new leaves yet.
As the days lengthen and the water warms, crappie will gradually shake off their torpor, rise in the water column, and move shallower in search of prey. The spawn will drive them into even skinnier water, and as a general rule, the farther north you travel from the Gulf Coast, the later this migration will happen. In southern Florida and Louisiana, this may be as early as January; in Ohio, this may be late February or early March.
The key is more sunlight and warmer water temperatures, and when the lilacs start blooming where you fish, you can be pretty sure the crappie are moving.
There’s no one spawning season across the U.S. That’s because winter water temps in Thibodaux, Louisiana are pretty much summer conditions in Baudette, Minnesota--and as you’d expect, the spawn isn’t happening in the same months in these two crappie hotspots.
However, expect the spawn when your local waters reach 56 to 60 degrees.
More on When Do Crappie Spawn?
where do crappie spawn in the North?
crappie fishing in spring in Louisiana
It’s that gradual rise in temperatures that allows you to exploit timing.
Consider this: in cold water, crappie will remain relatively inactive, and after coming off a long, slow winter when prey was scarce, slabs are looking to fatten up and find the energy for spawning. They’re hungry, and they’re looking for a quick meal.
That’s well understood.
But what most people don’t think about is how sunlight plays into this activity.
While pre-dawn fishing might be ideal if the water’s pretty warm--say, closer to summer--in early spring especially, waiting till the sun has had a chance to warm things up a bit can be ideal.
I might push my time back an hour, working from dawn to a few hours after dawn, and focus on heat sinks like pilings, rocks, and other structure that warms up quickly and holds heat.
I also like to hunt the sunny side of my lake or pond, where the water’s warmer sooner in the day. Long spring shadows aren’t your ally when the water’s still cold.
Another tip is that the afternoon can be more productive than the morning. As you’d expect, water temps are going to peak pretty late in the day, and in the early spring, that’s when you’ll find the crappie most active, too.
But as the spawn settles into its seasonal groove and the water has warmed to 60 degrees--or higher--night fishing starts to take on more importance.
Crappie will be clustered in truly shallow water, and by this point in the season, dark doesn’t mean temps that push them back to deeper water or slow down feeding.
The spawn is an ideal time to start fishing just before dusk and to keep fishing well into the night in shallow water.
Check out our full guide on how to catch crappie in the spring!
Summer’s heat can be used to your advantage.
The dog days of summer can test the patience of even the most dedicated angler, and with choking humidity and oven-like heat, it’s a tough season above the water.
But it’s tough below the surface, too.
Especially in warmer climates, the oxygen-rich water near the surface may just be too warm for crappie. It stresses them and pushes them lower into the metalimnion, commonly known as the thermocline--a narrow zone separating the hot, oxygenated water at the surface from the cool, oxygen-depleted water near the bottom.
And it’s here that you’ll find the crappie when the heat is on.
That’s why spider rigging and trolling are the go-to techniques for summer.
But, timing matters a lot, and you can pull fat slabs from the shallows if you know when to look.
Summer water temperatures soar once the sun really gets cooking, and pre-dawn fishing is some of the best of the season. As the first light breaks, you’ll find me working the shady side of the lake’s structure, essentially reversing my spring pattern.
Since I know that crappie are holding in moderately-deep water, sliding up higher in the water column when oxygen gets scarce, I work the shady side of structure like channels, humps, and points.
I’m not alone, either. You’ll find plenty of pros do the same thing.
As Dan Dannenmueller explains, "At sunup, I look for crappies on the east (shady) sides of the channel ledges and go to the opposite, west-side ledges closer to sundown.”
And nothing is as effective for me as night fishing.
As I’ve discussed before, nightfall brings relief from the heat to slabs, allowing them to climb higher into the water column and venture to the prey-rich shallows.
Especially if you fish from shore, night time is the right time!
Check out our full guide on how to catch crappie in the summer!
No question: it’s Autumn!
Fall sees increasingly dark days and plummeting water temps in most places, making it the mirror-image of spring.
As water temperatures drop below 55 degrees, crappie will head for deeper water and begin to cluster in large schools. Because they’re actively feeding again to build fat reserves to see them through the winter, autumn can be a killer season for crappie hunters.
The trick is timing.
In early fall, as summer’s heat just begins to break, the shade is your friend. I look for the pre-dawn spots that still offer a hiding-place from the heat, just as I do in July and August.
But as the days shorten and the water chills, my pattern changes.
I’ll start working the sunny sides again, look for heat sinks, and shift my fishing times backward to allow more heat in the water. Afternoon becomes my prime-time again, and I’ll work the sunny sides of channels, humps, and points.
Check out our full guide on how to catch crappie in the fall!
Cold water doesn’t mean the crappie aren’t biting. Notice the rocks...
Cold weather and cold water drive crappie deep, inducing torpor and slowing movement and feeding.
That doesn’t mean that sac-a-lait are inactive, but it does mean that you’ll need to change gears a bit if you want to move forward. Especially if you fish from shore or don’t run expensive electronics, timing is everything.
In the coldest months, I switch to day fishing exclusively. I’m looking for the sun to be up, warming heat sinks like concrete pilings, big rocks, and man-made structures that descend into the water.
As they warm, they’ll raise the water temp right around them, increasing activity and inducing more aggressive feeding. This will even draw crappie from deep holes higher into the water column toward that warmer water.
On sunny days, that effect is more pronounced, and I’ll use it to my advantage. You should, too!
That warming sun also raises the temperature of creeks and streams that feed the main lake, often warming the temps where they meet by a few degrees. That tends to attract prey items and, in turn, draws crappie for warmth and food.
These creek mouths are good places to ring the dinner bell for winter slabs, and if I’m not working concrete or rock, that’s where you’ll find me
Check out our full guide on how to catch crappie in the winter!
Related: Crappie Fishing Tips