Fall Crappies in Deep Water
Cooling water temperatures create chaos in the shallower water of lakes and reservoirs. Frigid rains and howling winds mix the surface layers, with the turbulence eventually reaching down to and disrupting the summer thermocline.
Surface water temperatures plummeting from 65 F down to about 55 F indicate that the disruptive fall turnover process is in progress. During the turnover, fishing is seldom easy at this time, as fish schools break apart, with individual fish scattering in all directions.
For an unpleasant week or two, it’s often a case of covering water, picking up one lonely fish here, another there, until conditions stabilize.
Once they do, you may witness brief flurries of fish activity again in the shallows, particularly if baitfish like shad or shiners move from the main lake to re-enter shallow bays. Gamefish like bass and walleyes often follow closely behind—at least for a while.
In short order, however, you see a general trend for most fish species to begin heading deeper in fall, to the stability provided by basin areas where daily fluctuations in wind and weather have little effect. And face it: As the baitfish move deeper, so will the larger fish that feed upon them.
Crappies are no exception. In fact, they exhibit classic fall behavior, switching from suspending around weeds and wood cover in summer, to dropping to the bottom in lake basins and river channels. Not into cavernous depths of 60 to 80 feet, mind you. Usually more like 20 to 40 feet in most lakes and reservoirs; perhaps a hint shallower if the water is stained rather than clear.
Electronics are Key
In shallow lakes, the general mid-lake basin of 25 or 30 feet is fair game throughout fall and winter, with crappies slowly patrolling the basin in search of meals.
In deeper lakes, stick to basin areas that only drop to about 40 feet. Avoid deeper ones if possible when you’re after crappies.
If only deep water is available in basins, stick to areas immediately adjacent to shoreline points or shallow humps. For example, try fishing a 30-foot mudflat adjacent to the inside corner at the base of a shoreline point, rather than the 70-foot hole off the tip of the point itself.
In all cases, scout potential areas with your electronics, searching for large groups of fish on or near the bottom. Bottom-hugging fish often appear in a layer two to three feet thick.
As fall progresses, and small schools join together to form megaschools of hundreds or thousands of fish, schools extending 10 or 15 feet upward from the bottom appear as a big ball or “Christmas tree” of crappies on your screen.
Small jigs of 1/16- to 1/8-ounce, in minnow-imitating colors like white, yellow, chartreuse or pink, are often your best bet. Dressing them with two-inch softbaits is about right.
Try gentle, natural actions that wiggle rather than throb, or those that mimic breathing motions at rest, like marabou-tailed grub bodies or jigheads tied with marabou dressing.
Fish that are relatively active should strike plain jigs fished slowly or paused at rest. If they’re fussy, try adding a small crappie minnow by inserting the hook point up through the minnow’s lower jaw and out the top of the head. When the bite is slow, a little extra scent and taste sweetens the deal.
Most of the time, slow, precise jigging is best, holding the jig at or just above the fish’s level–but never below eye level—and then dipping the rod tip occasionally to let it slowly descend. Rest your trigger finger on the line to help sense light bites as you slowly raise the jig a foot or so, pause, and then let it fall back to bottom, or to rest. When fish rise to the occasion to engulf the bait, all you may feel is a subtle tick on the line.
Keep the angle of the dangle to a minimum, fishing nearly directly beneath the boat. This enhances your ability to maintain lure control and feel what’s occurring below.
Maintaining your lure and the fish you’re targeting within the cone of your transducer signal, you’ll see fish, see your lure in relation to them, watch fish react by rising to eyeball your lure, and eventually witness the two signals merge as a fish takes your jig. Sweepset the rod upward to set the hook, and enjoy.
In lakes, deep basins are relatively snag-free, allowing you to fish 4-pound- test monofilament on a light action spinning rod. If wood snags are present, such as in a reservoir, 6- or 8-pound-test may be a better option, allowing you to straighten small jigs hooks to retrieve your lure from snags. It’s a tradeoff: the lighter the line, they better your lure control and feel; the heavier the line, the more you sacrifice efficiency, but are more able to save snagged lures.
Alternative Aggressive Tactics
Crappie presentations are generally subtle; the rule of thumb has always been, the more aggressive your presentation, the less effective it becomes. Pretty true—until now.
In recent years, vertical jigging with a #5 Jigging Rapala–a classic winter ice-fishing lure—has proven deadly effective on deep-water fall crappies.
Rather than imparting a subtle lift-and-hold action to the lure, it requires a fairly firm upward snap of the rod tip to make the lure sail up, pause, and then plummet back to the bottom. You seldom feel the strike, as it usually occurs when the lure is falling, or at rest on bottom. The next time you lift the rod tip to snap the lure upward, the fish is already on. Your lift sets the hook in its mouth.
You can also fish a Jigging Rap higher off bottom; once it falls, it simply hangs in place on your taut line. This is ideal for fishing fall crappies suspended 5 to 10 feet above the bottom. Just let it hang there for a few seconds before popping it upward again. With the lure suspended, chances are this time you will feel the strike.
Beef up a little to perhaps 8-pound-test line, and tie a #10 barrel swivel into your line about 16 or 18 inches above the lure to minimize line twist as the lure circles downward on the drop.
One school of thought suggests that, if you encounter a large school of crappies, you position your lure at or just above the level of the highest, most active fish. That way, you keep scooping active biters off the top of the school, rather than hooking them from farther down inside the school, dragging struggling fish upward amidst their buddies and perhaps spooking the rest.
A good plan…although…more often than not, the largest fish in the school lurk below the smaller ones, feeding on injured minnows that flutter downward, wounded by fish above them. This suggests that, once you catch a bunch of high fish, try fishing for some lower ones. Just a thought that might pay off with some real slabs.
Because crappies school so heavily in fall, catch and release is important to prevent overharvest. Catching and releasing fish at the 30- to 35-foot level isn’t possible, because the fish will suffer from barotraum and the likelyhood of survival after release is very low. When targeting fish that deep keep a few for a meal, but stop fishing for them once you’ve reached your quota. No sense trying to release additional fish that won’t survive.
Besides, in fall, trophy fish of all species are biting. Switch to another target species, and have fun!