They're pretty much everywhere in Missouri
Crappie are common in most of Missouri's large reservoirs, rivers, and streams, as well as many smaller public and private ponds.
When and how to catch them
Spring—fish the shallows
In spring when crappie are spawning in the shallows, anyone can cast a minnow and bobber toward the bank and catch a ton of fish. Crappie may spawn as early as mid-March in the southern part of the state and as late as the end of May in northern Missouri. The spawn generally occurs when water temperatures reach 55F. The depth at which crappie spawn depends on water clarity. In stained or muddy water, they may spawn as shallow as 1 or 2 feet. In exceptionally clear water, they may spawn as deep as 20 feet or more.
During the spring spawning period, use a trolling motor to move slowly and quietly close to the shoreline. Flip a small (1/32 to 1/16 ounce) jig into the shallow water along the shore. Move slowly and hit every nook and cranny around rocks, woody debris and vegetation. Pea gravel banks are also preferred spawning locations. Once you locate crappie, stop and continue fishing that spot until the fish stop biting or they’re not big enough to suit you. If a spring cold front sends crappie out to deeper water, concentrate on steep banks. Crappie won't be very far off the bank.
On waters that get high fishing pressure, try casting a tiny jig right onto the bank, retrieving the bait with the rod tip straight in the air, and erratically jerking the bait near cover on the bank. You often get strikes right next to the boat after the crappie follow the bait back.
Summer—move to deeper water or try night fishing
Post-spawn through September, crappie tend to stay in brush located in 15 to 20 feet of water, about 10 or 15 feet down. Concentrate on standing timber along creek channels and on brush piles out on the main lake. Vertical jigging works well when fishing the brush.
Fishing around concrete bridge piers is a productive technique for catching crappie in Missouri’s large reservoirs during summer. Focus on piers in water at least 20 feet deep. Vertically jig a minnow next to the pier beginning at a depth of about ten feet and slowly work deeper until you locate fish. If you’re not successful in locating and catching fish after several attempts, move to another pier.
Fish deeper brush near the thermocline (where the water suddenly gets cooler with depth) during hot summer months with split shot, a light wire hook and a small shiner or fathead minnow hung over the side of the boat.
During the hot Missouri months of July and August, try night fishing for crappie! Artificial lights such as floodlights on docks, street lights and commercially available floating and submersible lights attract insects and small baitfish that will in turn attract crappie. Fish much as you would during the daylight hours with either minnows or artificial baits, fishing at different depths until you locate fish.
Fall—try the docks
Crappie are generally very predictable and aggressive in October and November. Docks are a prime location for fall crappie, where they can be caught in the upper 10 feet of the water column.
Cast into the back of a boat slip or along the edges, letting the jig sink for 2 or 3 seconds, and then retrieve slowly. Crappie will also move into shallow water on warm days in the fall, where you can catch them in the same brush piles they inhabit during the spawn.
Winter—enjoy some of the best fishing of the year
Unfortunately, many anglers stow away the boat and fishing tackle before the first snow flies. Those who don’t can experience some of the best fishing of the year and have their favorite lake all to themselves.
You can find crappie in deep water (20 to 40 feet) in the winter, but they will move into shallower water during a string of warm days. The key to catching crappie in the winter is to use a very slow retrieve. In cold water, crappie will not chase a fast-moving lure like they will during the warmer months.
In addition, winter crappie tend to congregate in large, dense schools near structure instead of scattering in loose schools over a large area. Casts to one side of a brush pile may yield nothing while the other side may produce a fish on nearly every cast.
Tackle and technique
If you talk to a dozen crappie anglers, you will likely get a dozen different opinions regarding the best way to catch them, the best jig color, the best line to use, and so on. In reality, two anglers in the same boat can be using two completely different techniques and baits, and they will both be catching fish. The key is to not get stuck on any one approach. Experiment until you find a technique that works for you.
Crappie are attracted to woody cover regardless of the time of year. A good rule of thumb is to fish shallow during spring and fall, then fish deep during summer and winter. However, a string of warm days in January can send fish into water less than 5 feet deep, while a strong cold front in April can send them to the depths for a few days. When trying to locate crappie, target brush piles or other cover at a variety of depths, and let the fish tell you what depth they prefer on a given day.
When crappie are active, they will hit a bait presented in close proximity to cover. When they are not so active, you may need to get your bait down into the brush to be successful. The two most effective ways to do this are vertical jigging and casting. A weedless jig works best for these types of presentation.
To fish a bait vertically, simply drop it straight down into the brush until it hits bottom. Then slowly reel up until you get a bite. Note the depth at which you get a bite and concentrate on fishing at that depth. Another productive method is to use a very small jigging spoon. Fish vertically over deep brush and raise and lower your jigging spoon 1-2 feet. Crappie will often hit the spoon on the fall while it is fluttering. This is a good technique to use when you run out of minnows or simply get tired of re-baiting your hook.
When fishing shallow brush or in very clear water, you may need to back away from the brush and cast. Toss your bait past the brush and let it sink to the bottom on a tight line. Slowly retrieve until you contact the brush. When you feel your bait come over a limb, let it sink again. Keep doing this until you clear the brush. By doing this, your lure is actually penetrating down into brush instead of just skimming along the outer edges.
These are not just for young or inexperienced anglers. There are days when crappie will only pick up a jig or minnow that is hovering nearly motionless. Again, you may need to experiment with the depth of your bait to find the fish.