Most sunfish and both crappie species spawn in the spring. When they spawn, they are often very concentrated in their preferred spawning habitat, which often is in the same place each year. At this time, they are also very easy to catch.
Each species of sunfish normally spawns at slightly different times, depending on the water temperature. However, spawning of several species may overlap, which can result in hybridization. Often, the body of water you are fishing will only contain one or two species of sunfish. Not all individuals of a species will spawn at the same time, which extends the spawning season and your opportunity to have excellent fishing.
Bluegills, green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, and redear sunfish generally spawn in large congregations, and may spawn at the same time and in the same location. If mixed aggregations occur, like-kind fish generally segregate into their own groups of spawning beds that are adjacent to other species’ beds. In some situations, spawning is sequential, with one species spawning closely followed by a second species.
Male sunfish scoop out saucer-shaped “beds” in shallow water where they attract females. The beds are approximately 12 inches in diameter. Prime spawning areas are in shallow water over a sand, gravel or clay bottom. A prime spot may hold as many as 50 beds. In clear water, spawning may be in deeper water. Larger individuals tend to spawn in deeper water.
Spawning locations are often used at the same time of year for many years, so once one is located it is easy to plan on coming back at the same time in subsequent years.
Spawning for these species may begin as early as late March in the Deep South or as late as August in the North. Water temperature is the major trigger for spawning, but moon phase can have a strong influence. Full-moon periods corresponding with the right water temperature tend to concentrate spawning efforts.
While water temperature is a major trigger, each species has a relatively broad range of preferred temperature. For example, bluegills are reported to prefer 67 to 80 °F, while pumpkinseeds prefer 55 to 63 °F.
Unlike other sunfish species, redbreast sunfish prefer rivers or moving water and tend to build solitary nests or spawn in smaller, loose aggregations. They prefer sand or gravel bottom along the edge of the main current, and may spawn from spring until early fall. In rivers with abundant populations, some fish may be spawning from May to October.
Both species of crappies spawn in the spring. Like sunfish, the males make beds and attract females to them. They can be in large concentrations, but tend to be more difficult to see because their preferred spawning areas are over gravel, or within flooded brush or downed trees. The water in front of beaver huts is a prime spot. Like sunfish, preferred spawning sites are used year after year, as long as the habitat remains unchanged. Crappie’s preferred breeding temperature is 56-68 °F.
Fishing strategies during the spawn
Male sunfish that are building or guarding beds are extremely aggressive and will likely take any bait, fly or small lure that enters the bed. Females are also very aggressive while on or near a bed, but because they spend less time at the location, may not be caught as frequently.
Finding sunfish beds generally requires a simple tour around the shallow areas of the water body you are fishing. Look for numerous dished shaped “holes” on the bottom. They often show up as “clean” circular areas.
Polarized sunglasses are a great aid to help find beds and seeing the individual fish that are in them. They are particularly helpful in locating beds of larger fish that may be nearby, but in deeper water.
In many instances, you can actually smell bedding fish before you see them. It's a combination of a fishy smell and a sweet watermelon like scent along calm shorelines. It's a combination of the fish themselves and the slimy excretion that collects on the surface of the water above large groups of spawning bluegill or crappie.
Often, asking other anglers who may have more experience fishing a particular water body where they have seen sunfish beds will result in very specific locations. Experienced anglers may not be targeting sunfish and often will be happy to share their knowledge.
Evidence of bedding areas may last for weeks after the fish have finished spawning. If you have missed the spawn this year, keep your eye out for old, vacant beds and plan on arriving a few weeks earlier next year.
Garden worms, crickets, wax worms, small minnows, and artificial flies suspended under a bobber are enticing offerings. Because beds are located in shallow water, you will only need to suspend your bait a few inches below the bobber. Ideally, your bait will be presented approximately six inches from the bottom of the bed. That distance is not critical. The bobber may need to be gently twitched to entice a strike. Small floating “poppers” or artificial rubber-spiders will likely also work. These can be used with a fly rod, cane pole or behind a bobber.
Spawning beds are often located in or near aquatic weed beds, so lures that are cast out and reeled in are not recommended because they will likely be fouled with weeds before you catch a fish. Save these lures for more open water to avoid frustration. Baits, flies and hooks should be frequently checked for fouling. Even a small piece of aquatic weeds on your hook can cause the fish to reject your offering.
Crappie beds are more difficult to actually see, but are relatively easy to find because of their strong association with brush, logs, stumps and downed trees laying in the water. You may have to check several locations to find fish.
Suspending a small minnow under a bobber is often the best tactic for crappies. Light-wire hooks are recommended because you will likely get snagged when fishing dense cover. Snagged hooks, when pulled with steady pressure, often will straighten out. Carrying a pair of long-nosed pliers is recommended to carefully re-bend the hook back to its original shape.
Bobbers can be used to set the maximum depth for presenting your bait. The depth you present your bait may have to be adjusted until you find the depth the fish are feeding.
Other baits to use include small jigs suspended under a bobber and slowly twitched as they are reeled in. The jigs can be “tipped” with live minnows, dead, salted minnows, or plastic “curly-tailed grubs.” Small minnow-imitating lures can also be used. this can be great fun; however, be prepared – both mentally and physically – to be occasionally snagged in the weeds.
Because you are fishing around fairly dense cover, don’t be surprised if a larger bass, pike, or catfish takes your offering.
In some situations, crappies will spawn around rocks, which will allow minnow-imitating lures to be cast out and reeled in with less fear of snagging or fouling on vegetation.
Like sunfish, crappies will use the same spawning areas year after year. Once you locate a spawning area, you can plan on coming back in future years at approximately the same time.
Unlike sunfish, local anglers may be a bit more reluctant to share crappie-spawning locations. Crappies are generally more sought after as food fish, and good spots that are not obvious to the casual observer may kept as their “secret” spots. However, it never hurts to ask local anglers what they are catching; they may be willing to share a lot more than you expect.