How to Find Crappie on a New Lake

I can’t think of anything more frustrating than going to a new lake and not finding fish.  With fish that seem easy to catch, such as crappie, getting skunked just adds insult to injury.  

On a lake you know and fish often, finding crappie is straight forward.  Just go to the same spots you’ve caught them in the past.  But on a new lake that you might only fish once?  Well, that’s a different story.  I’ve wasted plenty of days on a new lake without any luck and I’m sure you have too.

Eventually, I decided to learn everything there is to know about finding the most likely crappie spots on a new lake.  Using a simple process to narrow down likely areas allows me to start catching fish as soon as I get to the lake.  

If you’re tired of coming home empty handed, then keep reading to learn how to easily find crappie on a new lake.

Finding crappie in a nutshell

There is one simple reason why 10% of anglers catch 90% of the fish.  That’s because those anglers understand the behavior and needs of the fish they are after.  If you don’t understand the needs of crappie then you won’t know where to find them, whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter.  

The first step to finding crappie on a new lake, or any lake for that matter, is spending the time to learn about the life of your average crappie.  

In a nutshell, crappie want to eat, spawn, avoid predators and live in a spot with the most comfortable temperature and oxygen levels.  That’s basically it.  

By knowing what they want and when they want it, you can eliminate all the “dead water” that doesn’t hold crappie and start fishing the most productive spots.  Most of the work required to narrow down likely spots can be done before you even get to the lake.   

Understanding seasonal crappie patterns

So, as I mentioned above, crappie only have a few things on their mind throughout the year.  That’s spawning, eating and finding ideal water conditions away from predators.  

The importance of all those things are not equal throughout the seasons.  Sometimes spawning trumps safety and other times it’s all about water temperature or oxygenation.

We can essentially break up a crappie’s life into four phases.  Pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn and then the less active winter period.  Each of these times puts more importance on one basic requirement over the others and we will take a deeper dive into how that helps you find crappie.

For an excellent primer on finding crappie during each phase of the season, take a look at Seth Burrill’s video seminar that covers everything you need to know.

Pre-spawn

The pre-spawn period generally starts after ice out through early spring.  Depending on your area, water temperatures are between 50°F and 60°F and crappie often suspend off steep breaks within close proximity to the shallow spawning flats.  

During this time, it’s all about food.  Their winter reserves are depleted and big females need to gorge on prey so they can start developing eggs.  Whereas males pack on calories since they’ll be guarding spawning beds for several weeks after the spawn.

You’ll start seeing crappie pushing into 8 to 12 feet of water to feed on emerging forage near fresh vegetation like cabbage beds.  They will also school around submerged structure.  

But they won’t venture far into the spawning flats yet.  Often, in early spring, you’ll see a pattern where fish start deeper in the morning and move shallow in the afternoon as the sun heats the water.  Then, as evening approaches and the water temperatures drop again, crappie push back off the edge of breaks where they suspend over deep water.  

When predatory fish like bass, pike and walleye start overlapping into the same areas, crappie tend to stay suspended in dense schools over deep water.  However, they won’t be far from those same pre-spawn spots.  This is the time to keep an eye on the fish finder while cruising over deeper water around points and the mouth of bays.

Here is the main take away about the pre-spawn period.  Resist the urge to fish too shallow.  Focus on the transition areas with deep water close to the late spring spawning flats.  Fish structure like weed beds and docks that sit close to steep drop offs.  This will be the first stop for feeding crappie early in the season.  If you don’t find them here, look for suspended schools in deep water.

Spawn

Yep, this is the moment crappie fanatics wait for all year.  Water temperatures start to reach the mid to upper 60s and crappie move into the shallow spawning flats.  Males enter 3 to 6 feet of water, sometimes shallower or deeper, and start grooming their beds.  Soon after, females follow to deposit their eggs and then move back out to deeper holding points to recover.

Now things really start to heat up.  Males protect their beds and fertilized eggs with everything they’ve got.  Anything within their sight is too close for comfort and just about any lure or bait you throw will get bit.  

Be sure to put on your polarized glasses because in lakes with clear water, it’s a blast to sight fish for big slabs defending their beds.  Look for beds among brush piles, gaps around weed patches and along rock or concrete walls.  Dock areas are another likely crappie spawning spot.

Just remember to practice catch and release if you are pulling males off their beds.  It’s important that they can return to defend the next generation so we can keep catching them each year.

Post-spawn

The post-spawn is one of the hardest phases to catch slab crappie and an even harder time to find crappie on a new lake.  By July and August, the water heats up and the spawn winds down.  Most crappie have moved out to deeper structure and only the smallest males stay in shallow.  If that’s all you’re catching, you need to look else where.

Once again, crappie start schooling around the deep water drop offs that are closest to the spawning beds.  As water temperatures fluctuate throughout the day, crappie move in and out of the shallows in search of food, which is their primary focus now.  

Like the pre-spawn, crappie move in and out of deep spots along predictable paths.  The only difference is they now migrate in reverse of the pre-spawn pattern.  Start fishing shallow in the morning and move deeper by mid-day.  Then, work your way shallow by late evening.  

Late evening is the best time to catch big crappie during the post-spawn.  Cast your bait or lures along the deepest weed edges you can find.  Usually in 12 to 18 feet of water.  If you’re not catching fish, you are too early in the afternoon.  Just before dark, crappie move in to hunt for food along those deep weed edges.  

Winter

You can catch crappie all year long but anglers, including myself, really struggle with finding crappie under the ice.  Especially, on a lake you have never fished before.  

Finding crappie on early ice is fairly straight forward.  Locate those pre-spawn staging contours that have healthy weed beds around and fish a few feet off the bottom.  Work your way higher in the water column until you find them.  An electronic flasher makes this task much easier.  

As we get into late winter, you’ll start to see an inversion in the habitable zone of water.  Ice and snow block light from penetrating to vegetation which then starts to die and decay.  This decay releases CO2 and consumes oxygen.  Crappie are now forced to move to the upper layers of water a few feet beneath the ice. 

If you are struggling to catch crappie on late winter ice, more likely than not, it’s because you are fishing below them.  It will still take some moving around to locate schools of suspended crappie but concentrate your time in the top half of the water column.

Find the right structure

It’s not always enough to just point at a map and say that crappie should be there.  Ruling out dead water is the first step.  Now you need to find the spot within the spot.  

Whether you’re targeting crappie in their beds during late spring or hunting down pre-spawn crappie in deeper water, structure will play a big role.  Even though crappie are a suspending fish, they almost always relate to some nearby structure that fulfills one of their basic needs.

Even if you are sitting over fish suspended 20 feet over a 40 foot deep hole, there is a reason they are there.  I would be willing to bet that a mid-lake hump with good cabbage weeds or a spawning flat is just a short distance away.

The key to getting on that spot within a spot is to look for good structure and vegetation.  Submerged brush, healthy cabbage beds close to deep water transitions and fallen trees all are prime spots depending on the time of year.    

Make life easy with electronics

I can’t over state it enough.  Contour maps for whatever area you fish will prove invaluable in your search for the most productive crappie areas.  There are all kinds of resources now for getting your hands on lake contour maps.  

If you have a newer model fish finder, like a Lowrance or Humminbird, then you’re ahead of the game.  Most come with built in base maps and you can even upgrade to higher resolution mapping with LakeMaster or Navionics chips.  

Google Earth is also a great way to see contour transitions and bottom composition when you’re fishing on clear water lakes.  While Google Earth doesn’t have contour lines built in, you can still get a good idea of how the topography looks beneath the surface based on the land around it.   

When you actually get to the lake, a fish finder will be your best friend.  Side imaging, sonar imaging and built in GPS all play a role in pin pointing crappie.  Once you do the work at home and weed out unproductive water, a fish finder gets you dialed in even further.  

Professional anglers use all the tools at their disposal to find bigger fish more often.  Pro bass angler, Brandon Palanuik, uses what is called the “percentage triangle” to locate hot spots on a lake.  Take a look at this video to hear his insights so you can apply it to crappie fishing.

Again, your ability to use mapping and imaging tools all play a role in decreasing the time it takes you to find crappie on a new lake.

The importance of online resources

You are not the only angler looking for crappie on new lakes.  Take advantage of other angler’s knowledge to help get you on fish faster.  Online fishing forums and communities are a great place to interact with local anglers who know the area better than you.  They may not give you exact coordinates of crappie hot spots but they will probably get you in the general area.  

More often than not, people want to share what they know and help out new anglers.  Just make sure you don’t blab their spots to others without permission.  

Final thoughts

Finding crappie on a new lake can be a daunting task.  But once you start analyzing a lake from a crappie’s perspective, you can start breaking down a body of water into more manageable pieces.   

Most of the hard work happens before you ever start fishing on a new lake.  Do your homework and use lake contour maps to hone in on the likely crappie holding spots.  Think about the time of year and what crappie want.  Once you get to the lake, put the pieces together and use electronics to find the spots within a spot.  By breaking down a new lake this way, you’ll spend more time catching and less time guessing.