Avid angler Blake Tollefson shares some tips and tactics for targeting and catching summer crappies!
While bass are the nation’s most popular fish species, panfish, and crappies in particular, also find themselves high on the priority level for many anglers – and for good reason. Not only do they make great table fare, they also provide fast paced action. Crappies are found across the United States and inhabit a variety of water body types – including lakes, rivers, and flowages.
In the Midwest, crappies are popular targets during certain times of the year, but for many anglers these fish are the king of the spring. Springtime crappies pile into the shallows with intentions of creating the future generations. These mass schools of fish are followed closely by schools of fishermen with intentions of obtaining a few meals of fish.
As the season progresses and game fish seasons open, the drones of crappie fisherman quickly transition their efforts towards the toothier varieties of fish species – which can be viewed as a big mistake. Productive days during the summer months can often yield much higher catch rates than those in the spring. The challenges of mid-summer crappies can be a lot more rewarding than one might think.
Location, Location, Location
Anglers often question where crappies move to after they wrap things up in the shallows. In all honestly, they likely didn’t move that far. Start the search near the areas they were located during the spawn – which includes shallow, warmwater bays, often with some sort of vegetation. Day in and day out, lush, healthy vegetation adjacent to those spawning areas will typically have the highest productivity.
If you have no idea where they spawned, begin your search at the nearest healthy weed line. Not all weeds are created equal, but in general all weeds can hold fish. Depending on the body of water, certain vegetation types will be more productive than others. In this part of the country, coontail and cabbage are the ideal weed types, but there’s plenty of bodies of water where these aren’t found in high concentrations.
In these types of situations, look to vegetation types like lily pads or anything that provides a sense of security. Throughout the summer months, schools of crappies typically concentrate themselves along weed edges, as well as pockets and holes in the weedy cover. In certain situations, fish will push further into the weeds and in others, push out away from the edges, but still remain in close proximity to the weeds. Focus your efforts on these keys areas.
As the season progresses, crappies will also inhabit other areas, often in slightly deeper water. Woody cover – such as man-made cribs or submerged timber – act as crappie magnet regardless of the time of year, but they tend to concentrate fish towards the tail end of the summer. In addition to woody cover, crappies will often roam open water later in the season. In bothscenarios finding the fish can be more of a challenge, but they are a schooling fish by nature, so if you find one, you’ll likely find many.
Electronics are invaluable for tracking down summer crappies. Sonar, Down Imaging, and Side Imaging all play a big role in locating fish. Sonar and Down Imaging are more reliable for fish in deeper water, while Side Imaging technology is more valuable for locating weedlines, cover, and shallower fish. Using electronics allow an angler to quickly eliminate unproductive water and focus efforts on areas that actually have fish.
Rods, Reels, & Gear
There’s an old rule of thumb when it comes to the use of live bait – if your hands get cold dipping them into the bait bucket, then it’s a good time for using live bait. Well, your hands aren’t going to get too cold during the summer months, so leave the live bait at home. During this warmwater period, artificial lures will outproduce live bait in almost every scenario. Fish are often at peak activity levels, so artificial presentations are the way to go – including both soft lures and hard baits.
Paddletails, grubs, and tubes are among the top choices for summertime slabs. If an angler was forced to rely on just one lure, a 2-inch swimbait, like the Eurotackle B-Vibe, would be hard to beat – simply because of their versatility.
These small swimbaits can be casted, vertically jigged, and fished anywhere in the water column simply by adjusting retrieval speed or weight. Rigging plastics on a 1/32 to 1/8 oz jig head will cover almost all fishing conditions, with jigs in 1/16 oz class being the most versatile. Opt for lighter options in shallower situations or if there’s the likelihood to encounter thick weeds.
Hardbaits also have their place during the summer months. A less common, but ultra-effective presentation for weed oriented fish involves micro jerkbaits, like the Eurotackle Z-Spender.
This bait category is growing in popularity during the pre-spawn period, but it shouldn’t be forgotten in the summer months. Most small jerkbaits are designed to dive just a few feet, so they perfect for working over the tops of weed flats. Remember to pause on the retrieve — that’s usually when those fish will bite. Micro crankbaits are also a great choice for covering water, especially when trolling on weed edges.
When it comes to panfish rods, the choices are plentiful. Gone are the days of whippy, noodle-like panfish rods. Many companies have developed high end panfish rods with fast to extra fast action rods which allow anglers to precisely work light lures, make quick hook sets, and feel the lightest of bites.
The Panfish Series and Legend Elite Panfish Series from St. Croix Rod are finely tuned panfish catching sticks designed to function at the highest level. For most scenarios a Midwestern crappie angler will encounter, a 7-foot, Light Power, Extra Fast Action rod is hard to beat. The versatility of this type of rod allows an angler to fish lures from 1/64 to 1/8 oz via a wide spectrum of techniques including casting, trolling, and jigging. The overall length is advantageous for making long casts, as well as for fighting fish.
Rods of this type should be paired up with an appropriately sized reel, which in most situations is a 1000-2000 series reel. Lines in the four-to-six-pound class are preferred depending on the specific application. High visibility microbraids are advantageous for summertime crappies. They increase the overall sensitivity of the setup and allow anglers to watch line movements to detect fish before a bite is even felt. Braid presentations are best paired with a light fluorocarbon leader.
Cast, Troll, Jig
Summertime slabs are best located via a few key techniques – casting, trolling, and vertical jigging. Each technique excels in different situations.
For casting scenarios, soft plastic swimbaits and grubs are preferred. Slowly roll tover tops and edges of the weeds. On the initial casts, start reeling as soon as the lure hits the water. After a few casts let the lure sink a little before reeling. This method can help pinpoint the depths at which the fish are located. If you start getting bit, anchor up or spot lock, as there are likely more fish nearby. If you aren’t finding fish, keep moving.
Trolling patterns are most efficient for locating scattered fish – and work well for weedline oriented fish, as well as suspended fish. Trolling speeds vary depending on the situation and conditions, but typically occur between 0.75 to 2.0 mph. Micro crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, and soft plastics can be used via this method.
For weed oriented fish, do you best to follow the edges of the weeds. It’s sometimes necessary to move on top of the weeds, so pay attention to which speeds keep your lure just out of the weeds. Making sure you have enough distance between the boat and lure is imperative —sometimes being too close results in far less fish.
Vertical jigging is optimal occurs when fish push to deeper water or are located near woody cover. Because these fish often hold tight to woody cover, a vertical technique is sometimes the only way to effectively target them. Smaller open water plastics and ice plastics are ideal presentations for these situations.
Regardless of how you target summer crappies, don’t be surprised if you find a rogue largemouth, pike, or walleye in your ventures, as they also tend to roam these same areas. They are plentiful, provide fast paced action, and are found across a wide variety of water types.