Backwater Crappies – An Autumn River Bonanza
Recently, we published an article on fall crappies in lakes and reservoirs, stating how the fish dropped to middepth basins and structures after the fall turnover. These areas provide stable conditions and abundant forage for crappies during both fall and winter. Thus, it might surprise you when we now say backwater Crappies. In rivers, crappies often migrate out of the main channel, back into backwaters and bays, once autumn leaves begin turning colors and falling. At first glance, this seems like a contradiction; in fact, you might expect them to do just the opposite as water temperatures progressively descend from chilly to cold…and eventually to ice in our northern climes.
Not so. Here’s the deal:
The fall crappie movement in rivers is away from current, to moderate depth areas offering stable fall and winter habitat. As water temperatures plummet, cold-blooded, slab-sided crappies lose whatever limited ability they possess to feed and live near significant current. Rather than being swept away every time they poke their noses out into the flow to grab a passing minnow, they opt instead to head for calm water, or at least to areas with substantial current reduction.
Backwaters with slow flow during winter are pretty ideal; they provide food, oxygen, likely some flooded wood cover, and ideally, basins somewhere from 5 to 15 feet deep that won’t freeze over and trap the fish in ice. On big rivers like the Mississippi, this is where crappies lurk during the cold weather months.
Very importantly, note that we didn’t say they simply moved into shallow bays, such as where you might find them during spring spawning conditions. The back ends of extensive, shallow (less than 5 feet) bays with no current of any kind are not likely to be great fall and winter spots.
What does work for both anglers and crappies, however, are moderately deep bays with, say 8- to 20- foot basins, often rimmed by weed or wood cover. Technically, these are not backwaters, featuring both entrances and exits. They will most likely occur as offshoots from a reservoir portion of a river, with a narrow channel mouth or creek entrance connecting them to the river. In fall, crappies migrate through these slots and dump down into the basin of the connected water, forming larger and larger schools as fall progresses.
Thus, the next time you’re fishing a river for fall walleyes, invest a couple of hours exploring connected backwaters, bays or dredged boat harbors with sufficient depth to attract crappies in fall and winter. Slowly criss-cross the basin, scouting with your electronics for the presence of large schools of fish near or slightly off bottom. Then shut off your engine, and either drift across the school, or slowly maneuver above them with your electric motor, dangling a small 1/16-ounce jig at or just above the fish’s level.
If they’re aggressive, they’ll strike plain jigs. If they’re not, add a crappie minnow to the hook, inserting the hook point either up through both lips, or up through the jaw and out the top of the skull. Slowly lift-drop the bait, frequently holding it a bit off bottom, or just above their eyeballs. Active fish will rise to the bait, eyeball it, and then slurp it in. As the battle commences, nearby fish will grow excited by all the activity. In other words, let the feeding frenzy begin!
And guess what? Crappies aren’t the only species to behave this way in fall. Chance are, you’ll experience a mixed-species smorgasbord featuring bass, yellow perch and big bluegills, plus a few pike and dogfish, with perhaps with a couple of slightly-confused current-seekers like walleyes and catfish tossed in for good measure. If it bites, it fights. And the more, the merrier!