Anglers have plenty of color options when it comes to crappie fishing. These factors play the biggest role in selecting the best color to use.
We’ve all been there. Tackle boxes strewn about. A collage of colors blanketing the boat deck, dock or bank. Desperately searching for the last remaining color that will surely be the hot ticket; an angler compulsion that has created a crappie bait kaleidoscope.
Sometimes crappie fishing can seem so random. But in that randomness lies some basic truths about crappie fishing – particularly importantly: Do not overthink it.
While each body of water is different, understanding these factors will take a lot of the guesswork out of crappie bait color selection – no matter the location or conditions.
Water Clarity & Sunlight
The first and most important factor to take into consideration is the color of the water you intend to fish. Water clarity not only affects a crappie’s vision, but also has profound effects on the color of their forage.
Clear water allows sunlight to penetrate much greater depths than stained or muddy water.
Just like people’s skin, fish skin coloration is impacted by exposure to sunlight. The more time the skin is exposed to sunlight, the more vibrant hues it takes on. A lack of sunlight will have the opposite effect and pigment will appear pale.
Unlike humans, who might enjoy having different shades of themselves, depending on time of year, fish color serves a life and death purpose.
No matter the species or size, predator or prey, color patterns on fish will be layered in a similar manner with dark tones on the top half or back of a fish and the lightest tones toward the bottom or belly. This serves as a fish’s camouflage. The dark back blends with greater depth and bottom when seen from above protecting from avian predators. A lighter bottom half blends with the bright sky and shallower depths making it harder for aquatic predators to key in from below.
Crappie are tremendous sight feeders, with disproportionately large and high positioned eyes, which is why they are so effective feeding upward on other fish. They can sort the maze of colors above them and single out individual baitfish for a meal.
This is a key reason crappie have a reputation for being picky eaters and why so many bait colors have been developed over the years to target them. The slightest change in water clarity and/or light penetration can subtly or dramatically change a crappie’s preferred bait color.
Variations in bait hue or pattern can be unique to certain lakes, but these general principles will cut out a lot of guesswork and get you dialed into the bite quicker:
- Clear Water – Try natural and translucent dual-colored (laminate) jigs with a hint of flash. Purple, brown, silver/gray, blue, green and red represent the most common colors found in clear water baitfish. Blue is a must for lakes with strong threadfin shad populations. Purple is a great representation for gizzard shad and sunfish. Brown, silver, green and red fill out the color spectrum for darters, shiners, chubs and minnows. The most popular colors are Monkey Milk, Purple Monkey, Junebug Pearl Chartreuse, Glacier, Crystal, Blue Ice, Bleeding Shad, Live Minnow, Threadfin Shad, Patriot, Blue Shiner and Pecan Cream.
- Stained Water – Try bright solid and laminate patterns, especially those with chartreuse. The most popular crappie catchers include Bluegrass, Electric Chicken, Green Lantern, Outlaw Special, Cajun Cricket and Bone White/Chartreuse.
- Muddy Water – Try dark solid and laminate patterns. In muddy water, it is important to offer the fish a pronounced silhouette to key in on. The most popular colors are Lights Out, Black Gum, Black/Hot Pink, Bayou Booger and Tuxedo Shimmer.
Crappie are piscivores, meaning their diet is primarily composed of fish. The type of fish varies greatly depending on location. In the South, shad, particularly gizzard and threadfin shad, make up a good portion of a crappie’s diet. In the North and West, in addition to shad, forage includes smelt, shiners, cisco and yellow perch. Crappie, like most sunfish, are opportunistic feeders and will search all columns of the water table for forage depending on time of year and availability. Other food sources include insect larvae, crawfish, mollusks, tadpoles, fry and winged insects.
In water less than 10 feet, especially near shoreline, crappie have the widest array of available forage. In the spring and early summer, this might include sunfish, baby bass, minnow species, tadpoles, shad and insects. Baits 2 inches and less are best at this time of year.
In the fall, crappie tend to follow shad and minnow schools into creek arms. They feed voraciously at this time and are willing to give chase to baits in the 2- to 3-inch range.
During the winter months, crappie typically suspend near deep cover/structure toward the bottom. Actively feeding fish will form small schools and roam higher in the water column near these areas and seek out schools of baitfish or individual meals. Shad kills in the winter are common on most southern water bodies. When shad die, they turn white and slowly flutter toward the bottom, making Bone White/Chartreuse a formidable color option during the winter months.
As water temperatures near 50 degrees toward the late winter, rocky bottom offers the best opportunity for a good crawfish bite.
Knowing the primary forage in the lake you plan to fish will greatly improve your odds of matching forage size and color. A quick call to a local bait shop or the state’s fisheries division can help answer those questions.
Exact matches are most important in clear water, where crappie can easily identify what is in front of them. For most of the year reactionary strikes are less common in these environments, meaning aggressive color patterns tend to spook fish more often than provoking bites.
Shad in stained water appear chartreuse to predators, which gives anglers the widest range of options when it comes to color patterns.
Forage in muddy water is mostly devoid of pigment, making dark colored bodies a prime option. Crappie tend to be the least picky about forage color matching in these conditions.
Baitfish Size & Stage
The size of forage crappie are targeting any given day can be quite nuanced. Bigger crappie can obviously eat larger meals but aren’t necessarily willing to in certain situations. Forage life cycle is an incredibly important factor for crappie anglers when selecting not only jig size, but bait color.
The simplest approach is two-pronged: color based on size and size based on time of year.
The smaller the forage, the more compact the color pattern will be. Hatchlings will typically have translucent bodies with a layer of horizontal color along the back or down the side. This is an important feature during the shad spawn, which takes place during the late spring and early summer. Some species of minnow will spawn again in the early fall. As fry grow toward becoming fingerlings, they take on solid body color(s) with accents of other colors in the form of banding, spots and back coloration. Some minnow species retain translucency, to varying degrees, throughout their life. As forage transition from fingerlings to adults they retain the color developed, however the depth and distance of that color grows in accordance.
Time of year is important when matching color with size.
Summer is dominated by fry. Where you plan to fish on a lake as well as the water clarity will determine the type of forage you should be looking to match. Near shoreline will offer the most options, including insects, crawfish, sunfish, perch, bass, crappie, minnows and shad. In deeper or open-water environments, shad should be the primary focus. The Itty Bit Series which features the Swim’R, Slab Slay’R and Slab Hunt’R were specifically designed to match all your fry options during the summer as well as frontal conditions when crappie can be the most finnicky.
In all reality, if you have the color right, the smallest profile baits around 1 to 1.5 inches will get bit day and night, year-round. Forward-facing sonar has proven this in recent years.
For experienced crappie anglers, the fall fishing window offers the most action when it comes to shad-profile baits. Crappie actively hunt schools of baitfish as they move from deep open water into creek arms, making good numbers of fish available to bank anglers at this time of year. During periods of stable water and weather conditions, a wide range of sizes and color profiles will get bit. When cold fronts or heavy rainfall push through, shift back to summer pattern.
Winter is typically the best time of year to explore large bait profile options as bigger crappie form small, loose schools and roam high in the water column in search of food, especially during afternoon warming trends. The 2.25-inch Slab Hunt’R was designed to excel during these conditions. White is a great base color during the winter, especially in the south, when crappie see an abundance of dying shad.
As spring arrives, anglers flood the shoreline, docks and boat ramps in hopes of hitting the epic pre-spawn and spawn period, when crappie flood shallow water in the thousands. Like whitetail bucks during the rut, crappie lose a lot of their sensibility during this timeframe. Except during strong weather fronts, the entire tackle box is at your disposal. Crappie will look to gorge in the days leading up to completing their spawn. Males will hang around for a few extra days to provide limited parental care and will strike anything that comes near the nest. Bright colors tend to be at their best during these conditions.
10 Most Popular Colors
- Monkey Milk
- Blue Ice
- Electric Chicken
- Lights Out
- Live Minnow
- Threadfin Shad
- Blue Thunder
- Pearl White