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Spawning by degrees

By STEVE VANTREESE outdoors@paducahsun.com

Figuratively, crappie were breaking out their cargo shorts and flip-flops until the reality of winter put an end to such premature foolishness.

Well, actually, crappie were moving at an accelerated schedule toward spawning because of the advanced warming of water temperatures. A mild winter, especially gentle through most of January and February, had water temperatures in area crappie habitats running well above average.

Thermally, it was looking like an early spring. But wait, said winter.

Then it all went south -- northern cold fronts, that is. Air temperatures went the other direction with a series of recent weather systems, spring-like warmth departing and conditions more appropriate for mid-winter socking us with the chill.

Suddenly, water temperatures that were above average all winter dropped back to typical for the date, then they even slipped to below normal.

A big deal in the outdoor world of this region in March and April is crappie fishing associated with these fish moving toward shallower water en masse for their annual spawning activities. It's sort of a spotlight event because Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley are nationally known as producers of exceptional crappie fishing.

The biological phenomenon of scads of crappie swarming to the shallows, however, is predicated on water temperatures. There may be some influence from time of year and length of daylight (photo period), but most signals resounding with the crappie are those from their internal thermometers -- how cold/warm the water is that surrounds them.

As water temperatures in late winter to spring warm through the lower- to mid-50s (speaking in Fahrenheit degrees), crappie tend to move from deep wintering areas, migrating into major and secondary bays along creek channels toward shallower water.

When temperatures reach the upper 50s, some say starting at 56 degrees, male crappie begin moving into shallow areas where they begin preparing spawning sites, beds, in advance of the females. Beds may be in 2-20 feet of water, but realistically a great deal of them will be in the range of about 3-8 feet on Kentucky-Barkley.

Many female crappie begin moving shallow at water temperatures around 60 degrees, give or take a bit. Each lady crappie is apt to be met by a male that escorts her to a nesting site, where they do the voodoo that they do so well. She's coaxed into spewing out eggs there, and the fellow crappie fertilizes them.

The female usually moves back out a short distance after spawning, lingers a bit, and then she may return for another run or two to spawn subsequently with other males at other nesting sites. They spread the genetics around in this fashion, and a single mature female may squirt out as many as 160,000 eggs before the spawning season is over, fisheries biologists say.

The bulk of this active spawning may occur when water temperatures are in the range of 60 to 68 degrees.

Male crappie guard the nest for a few days after the spawn, typically staying until the fertilized eggs hatch into fry and then some. After that, they meander back a little deeper, both sexes hanging around in the pre-spawning staging areas a while before easing out along the migration routes toward deeper haunts.

So, OK, crappie had their bags packed and were all but ready to move in for their honeymoon stays (earlier than usual) because several days ago water temperatures were knocking around 60 degrees. And then the bottom fell out.

Earlier this week, surface water temperatures on Kentucky-Barkley had slipped down to 52, according to some monitors.

Before the recent spates of wintry weather, numerous reports of good catches of crappie were coming in. This year, there is an abundant class of "keeper" crappie, fish that have grown to exceed the 10-inch minimum size, and that segment of the population apparently is paying off well for anglers who have been going to the right places at the right times.

Anglers had been taking a considerable number of crappie from out in deep water, and then more were coming from mid-depth areas along migration routes. True to form, as the water temperature was flirting with 60 degrees, an increasing number of fish were being caught in depths just off the spawning areas.

I don't know if it's been confirmed, but some very early spawning might have taken place.

With the water temperatures abruptly rolled back, however, it's likely most crappie halted their advance on the shallows and even backed out a little deeper. At the least, the sharp cooling trend probably has put the spawning drive of the fish on hold pending a reversal of temperatures.

This doesn't mean a temporary return to winter is going to scuttle this year's crappie spawn. It only alters the timing. The fish are going to do what nature dictates, make babies, but it's a matter of when conditions trigger it.

Another thing anglers should remember is that the spawn doesn't occur just at one magic moment. Individual differences in fish -- some being early birds, some being foot-draggers -- mean that they don't all do the deed at the same time.

There may be some March spawners, there will be gobs of spawning throughout April, and a few stragglers may even procreate into May. Nature is careful not to put all those eggs in one basket.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

Comments made about this article - 1 Total

Andy Lehman posted on: Sunday, March 19, 2017 11:19 AM

Title: Great article.

Great article, I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks and keep up the good work.

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