Good things happen in April. Turkey season opens. Baseball returns. Crappie spawn.
Crappie come in two flavors: whites and blacks. White crappie are what most Kentuckians catch unless they are fishing Kentucky Lake, which has experienced a shift in recent years toward black crappie as the dominant of the two fish. Biologists can only speculate about this but tend to think that the drought conditions that have waxed and waned since the 1980s probably have something to do with it. Black crappie prefer clearer water than whites and while Kentucky Lake’s clarity will never be confused with that of Lake Cumberland, clearer water is one drought by-product.
Crappie, like their brutish largemouth bass cousins, are members of the sunfish family. But unlike their pretty-boy, tournament-darling bass relatives, crappie are not sought for their tackle-crushing strikes, fierce fighting ability or acrobatic leaps. Crappie are meat fish. Crappie fishermen fish for food, an exercise that in light of today’s tournament induced catch-and-release mentality has become an almost abandoned part of angling. There’s no better reminder that it’s okay to catch and consume fish than to sit down to a plate of fried crappie filets.
Crappie also are not difficult to catch, which is probably another reason for their popularity. Locate a crappie, place bait in front of it and the odds of hooking the fish are surprisingly good. Locating these tasty, light-fighting fish, however, is sometimes not so easy—except during April, when the fish shed their winter doldrums and answer the “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters” command recorded in Genesis 1:22. The directions are clear. But like many Biblical directives, the timetable is a bit fuzzy.
The beginning of turkey season and baseball’s first pitch are calendar specific (April 13 for Kentucky turkey hunters; April 1 for most big league ball clubs). But the crappie spawn isn’t easy to pin down. The fish don’t spawn according to the calendar. The spawn is triggered by water temperature, which can be affected by more variables than can be listed here. Biologists say the optimal temperature range that prompts crappie to move into shallow, shoreline cover to lay their eggs is 58 to 63 degrees, which, across Kentucky, usually occurs in April. It also can begin when water temps touch the 50s and extend until they approach 70. Or variables can collide and the spawn may not occur in any measurable amount. This yields what biologists tend to refer to as a “poor year class” of fish.
Most crappie fishing veterans advise that to hit the peak of the span, anglers need to be on the water the week before and the week after April 15. This is sound but basically useless fishing advice. But it’s about the best one can expect from anglers who guard their fishing spots like family secrets: It’s general enough to be dependable, vague enough be worthless.
So you stop by the tackle store. You listen. You watch the weather. You check the water temperature. You check the Internet. You contact a couple of guides. Booked through April, they say. They’ve been booked for months.
Rumors abound. The fish are spawning now. The spawn peaked last week. The fish spawned in March, and you missed it. The spawn hasn’t started yet. Any could be true. But the only reliable crappie spawning information comes from fishermen because there is no way to gauge where the fish are unless you’re on the water looking for them. Or talk to someone who is.
This is in one way a strange exercise. There is no closed season on crappie. They can (and are) legally caught year-round. And there are, of course, as many crappie in the water in August and January as there are in April. Only in August, they are scattered and in deep water and in January, they are in a cold-induced stupor. In April, they are shallow and shore bound, active and aggressive. At least some of them are. But whether they’re prowling the Gulf for tuna or Taylorsville Lake for crappie, all anglers seek an advantage. And no one will debate that searching for fish where they are known to be (or have been) is a powerful advantage.
The spawn starts. It builds. It peaks. It slows. Then it’s over. Maybe a week. Maybe three weeks. But there is no start date and no cut-off date, unless the weather turns freakishly cold on the heels of a rare, spring cold front that plummets the temperature 25 degrees overnight and turns the wind so it rakes the water in hateful, northern gusts that rattle the teeth of fishermen who had quickly been spoiled by shirtsleeve temperatures and unfiltered sunshine.
It’s crappie season. Or was. Or will be. The only way to find out is to fish.