By Jeff Samsel
Crappie seek respite from the heat when summer hits hard. That provides an advantage to crappie anglers because it makes the fish’s behavior more predictable.
A good reservoir strategy is to travel up a creek or river arm until you find moving water and then look for cover in shoreline eddy areas, close to the current.
I’ll confess. Angler instinct didn’t draw us toward the bank. The sun was blazing, making the shade of the overhanging trees inviting. With similar looking brush along the bank and out on the flat, my buddy and I figured it made sense to try fishing where we would feel more comfortable.
Seems the crappie had the same notion. When we moved up into the shade we began catching fish, and it seemed like there was a crappie or two on every stick-up under the trees. Any time we strayed from the shade, we stopped getting bit.
Late summer can create borderline uncomfortable conditions for crappie in vast portions of many lakes. While too much warmth can cause the fish to get lackadaisical, it can also provide anglers a substantial advantage because it forces the fish to utilize less toasty waters, which makes them easier to pattern than at other times. We’ll look at four specific ways that crappie seek thermal refuge, all of which equate to opportunities for you.
Go With the Flow
Moving water has less time to bake than still water, so any area that has consistent current tends to maintain moderated temperatures. Crappie still don’t like battling current, so they typically won’t be found out in strong flows. However, they often will be in eddies that are adjacent to moving water and in areas of systems that stay a bit cooler. Find cover in slack water that’s close to moving water, and you may have found a treasure.
The best shade sources during the summer are lower covering structures like docks or pontoons because they provide all-day shade.
Fishing in current can mean working a true river, possibly by wading or floating in a johnboat. In many cases it simply involves running well up creek or river arms of reservoirs until you find moving water and even slightly cooler temperatures.
Because river fish are apt to be fairly shallow, even in mid-summer, the best way to target them often is to cast a jig past cover and reel it back slowly. If the fish are tight to specific pieces of cover, calling for less movement, an alternative approach is to put a minnow under a float, cast it close to the cover and wait.
Little seems more cliché than night-fishing for crappie during summer, but there’s good reason for that. When summer days get blistery hot, many fish lay low, and they feed better after the sun goes down. Fishing at night also allows you to be more efficient because the fish tend to congregate.
The most effective way to find and catch crappie at night on many lakes is to set up under a bridge that spans a significant channel and shine a light down in the water. Bridge pilings hold fish all summer for a variety of reasons, including shade provided by day and structure offered at a wide range of bottom depths and from the surface to the bottom.
Shining a “crappie light” down into the water draws plankton to the surface, which in turn attracts minnows and crappie. Because attracting the crappie is a process, avoid changing spots very often. Scout with your electronics before you set up, pick a likely spot, set up and stay there. For fishing in lights right beside the boat, it’s tough to beat simple minnow rigs, with each minnow either suspended beneath a float or fished straight down on a tight line.
If a lake has lit docks, a waterside walkway with light that hits the water or other sources of manmade light that stay illuminated, those spots can also be excellent, and they don’t typically receive nearly as much pressure as bridges.
The fish tend to be shallow around lit areas, and they may be close to docks or other structures or suspended in the middle of the lit area. Ether way, a good strategy is simply to cast a grub across the lit area and reel steadily so that the bait swims a foot or two beneath the surface. If a lake has only a handful of lit spots the fish might be heavily congregated. If a bank is lined with lit docks, you’ll likely need to stay on the move and you might only catch a fish or two from any given spot.
Between the Layers
In lakes that stratify during summer, many forage fish and game fish congregate around the thermocline, which is the middle later of the water column that has tolerable temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels. The deep water is the coolest, but tends to be oxygen depleted; the upper later has the opposite problem.
The thermocline, which varies dramatically in depth from one lake to another and generally gets deeper as summer progresses, often shows up as a recognizable band on a graph. Even if the thermocline itself isn’t visible, it’s typically easy to tell where it is because of a large number of fish of various kinds all suspended in the same depth range.
Crappie are less likely to suspend in the open than many fish, though, so the key to finding them is to first identify the level of the thermocline and then look for humps, points and channel edges that provide good structure at that depth. One you’ve identified areas, search them with your electronics for brush, stumps or other cover that might hold fish. If cover is localized, use a vertical presentation with the boat stationary. If quite a bit of structure is at the right depth, fish are likely to be widespread, a better approach is to slow troll, still with vertical lines, and search with baits and electronics at the same time.
In the Shade
Shade can be an important factor during the summer, but it’s vital to consider the nature of the shade. A spot that doesn’t get any shade until late in the afternoon, after a day of baking, is not going to offer any great cooling virtue. Look for cover that offers all-day shade, such as a dock or pontoon boat or an overhanging tree with plentiful branches and leaves.
One specific technique that has broad applications for shade fishing is shooting of jigs because shooting allows you to get jigs into so many shady places. Shooting also is normally done with a very light jig, so the bait falls slowly through the shade and appeals to fish that may not be very aggressive when the water is quite warm. Shoot baits as far as you can up into the shade and let them fall on a semi-tight line. If you see the line jump at all, set the hook.
For tangled cover such as brush or willows, where cover is localized and hard to get into, trade the shooting rod for a long crappie rod rigged with a single 1/8-ounce jig. With the jig reeled to the tip of the rod and the boat positioned close, put the rod tip in the cover, exactly above where you want to present the bait, let out line, and work the jig vertically.
Key to catching crappie now is a realization that fish are no fonder of roasting than you are. Think about areas that could provide a hint of respite, and test you theories with your temperature gauge. Even a degree or two can make a huge crappie-catching difference.