King Crappie

By Mike Colvin | April 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 1996

Missouri anglers love to fish for crappie. One reason crappies are so popular is their eagerness to bite. They are fun to catch and great to eat.

Because crappies tend to congregate, anglers might catch a stringerful in one spot. However, crappies can be just as finicky one day as they were eager another day. By knowing a little about their habits, you can increase your chances of catching them.


Good crappie fishing is often found during the spring spawning season. Late April through early May usually is best, but the peak typically will be a little earlier in southern reservoirs. Spawning begins when the water temperature at the nest warms to the mid-50s, and usually peaks in the low to mid-60s. Some spawning will continue until the water warms to the low 70s.

You can tell that crappies are spawning when you catch the dark-colored males near the bank. Males spend more time near the bank because they prepare the nest and guard the eggs and fry. Males appear near the bank for about 10 days while females are only there for a day or two to deposit their eggs.

Most spawning occurs in coves or near their mouths, but you might find crappie along any bank with a gravel or sandy bottom. Crappies will spawn at 6-inch to over 20-foot depths, depending upon the water clarity. The clearer the water, the deeper they spawn.

Determine the spawning depth by lowering a white jig or similar object into the water and measure the depth when it disappears. Crappies will usually spawn at that depth and up to three to four feet deeper. You can locate crappies by fishing the appropriate depth along likely banks. Once you catch a spawning crappie, more will usually be in the area.

Spawning crappies can be caught with jigs (1/32 to 1/8 ounce), minnows, or small crank baits or spinners. Jigs are preferred by most anglers. Fish brushpiles and standing timber where crappies concentrate. During spring, you might find crappies grouped off the bank around brushy structure and suspended at about the same depth as other spawning fish. Sometimes these are mainly females waiting to spawn.

Summer and Fall

Crappies are typically hard to catch in summer and early fall, but fishing improves during October and November. Throughout this period, crappies are in deeper water (from 15 to 30 feet) at the mouths of coves or along steeper banks and bluffs.

They still like to concentrate around woody structure. Fish here with jigs or minnows, moving often to find the fish. In some lakes, anglers have success trolling along steeper banks with small, deep-running crankbaits.

By October, crappies head into shallower water again, changing location and depth frequently. In addition to the steeper banks, try fishing around points.


Winter can be one of the best times for crappie fishing, if you're willing to brave the elements. Small jigs or minnows fished slowly around structure in deep water along steep banks or bluffs is usually the best method. Crappie hits can be light during winter, so watch for line movement.

The Management Story

How did crappie fishing get better in Missouri's large reservoirs? When research on crappies started some 25 years ago, Conservation Department biologists had to ignore the prevailing philosophy that large reservoirs are too big and too complex to manage for better fishing. Our biologists were told more than once that it couldn't be done.

It took several years of research on Missouri lakes to unlock the secrets of crappies in large reservoirs. We learned that anglers were catching mostly small crappies because few fish remained in the lakes long enough to grow to a larger size. We found that more than half of the small, young crappies in some reservoirs were harvested by anglers every year. A few years of fine tuning what we had learned resulted in crappie regulations for Missouri reservoirs.

Minimum size limits with lower daily creel limits ultimately provide the best quality crappie fishing. We also learned that each reservoir is unique. That's why there are different length limits for different reservoirs - they match the growth potential of the fish. The faster the growth, the higher the size limit.

In a few reservoirs the growth of crappies is erratic or slow, so size limits are not the best answer. Currently, there is a nine- or ten-inch size limit on eight Missouri reservoirs. On six of the reservoirs these regulations have been in effect for at least seven years.

Conservation Department biologists sample these reservoirs annually to determine if the regulations are working. If necessary, the regulations are modified. One of the best ways to determine if a regulation has been effective is to see if the populations have shifted to older and larger crappies. Included here are some of the highlights of the crappie regulations on six Missouri reservoirs where crappie fishing is popular.

The 10-inch size limits -

Table Rock Lake and Stockton Lake:

The most dramatic improvement in the quality of crappie fishing is on the James River Arm of Table Rock Lake where harvest has shifted from 1- to 2- year-olds (7") to 3- to 5-year-olds (12 inches). Recent samples from all areas of Table Rock Lake reveal good numbers of 10- to 14-inch crappies. However, they can be difficult to catch in parts of the reservoir that have clear water and steep banks.

At Stockton Lake the size limit has been in effect since 1984 and harvest of crappies has shifted from primarily 2- and 3-year-old fish to 3- and 4 year-old fish. Before the 10-inch size limit, the average length of crappies harvested never exceeded 10 inches. Since the size limit, the average length has increased to over 10.5 inches.

The 9-inch size limits -

Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre, Truman, and Smithville lakes:

Like Table Rock and Stockton lakes, the harvest of crappies on Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre, and Truman lakes shifted from 1- to 3-year-olds, to fish ages 3 years and older. The average size of the catch subsequently increased to about 10 inches on the three lakes. This is an increase of about 1 inch on Pomme de Terre and Truman and over 1.5 inches on Lake of the Ozarks.

Much more of the anglers' creels are now fish that are 10 inches and larger. Prior to the 9-inch limits, only one of every five crappies kept was 10 inches and longer, but now nearly half are that long.

The 9-inch limit at Smithville Lake is an example of how regulations capitalize on a reservoir's specific characteristics. A 10-inch size limit on crappies was begun in 1984 to prevent over harvesting young fish in this new reservoir. Although this regulation prevented over harvest, the crappies were not growing fast enough to reach 10 inches in a reasonable time.

Consequently, few fish were harvested. The size limit was lowered to 9 inches in 1989 so that more crappies would be harvested. The crappie fishery in Smithville Lake is now similar to other lakes with 9-inch size limits. The change from 10 to 9 inches improved the fishery in this popular north Missouri reservoir.

Cooperation and Teamwork

It took time, patience and the cooperation of a lot of people to learn about management of crappies in Missouri reservoirs. Fishery biologists worked for several years to identify the best management approach. This was a slow and painstaking task because we had to throw out a lot of the "old" things we knew as we tried to understand the "new."

Conservation agents helped educate anglers about the benefits of the new regulations and paved the way for a smooth transition to the more restrictive size limits. Missouri's anglers also need to be commended for their patience and cooperation with new regulations on their favorite reservoirs. In fact, what we accomplished together in Missouri has been a model for crappie management in other states.

So what couldn't be done is done, and the future of crappie fishing in Missouri reservoirs is bright. Biologists are constantly looking for opportunities to improve the quality of crappie fishing, and that can only mean good things for Missouri anglers.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer