by Keith Sutton
What’s the toughest time of year to catch crappie? Survey your buddies who fish year-round and chances are good you’ll find them in agreement; finding and catching America’s favorite panfish is most difficult during the summer-to-fall transition period.
Working a jig beneath a cork helps Ohio angler Russ Bailey nail big fall slabs like this.
As summer’s heat gives way to autumn’s comfort, days grow shorter and nights grow longer. The water temperature drops, and as favorable oxygen levels return throughout the water column, crappie start roaming like nomads. One day they’re deep, the next they’re shallow, and the day after that they’re suspended at mid-depths. Pinpointing schools can be as frustrating as trying to fillet a fish with a butter knife.
So what’s an angler to do? One good idea is consulting with folks who are on the water more than most this season—folks like fishing guides and pro anglers. Years of experience give these fishermen a special knack for dealing with tough situations. When fishing gets difficult, they employ specialized tactics that can turn a potentially dismal day into a memorable crappie-catching experience. Here are some of those tactics that can help you catch more crappie this season.
Fine-tuning and mastering the use of your sonar fish-finder is an important aspect of finding and catching transition crappie, says Arkansas guide Darrell Morris.
Sailing For Crappie
Tennessee fishing guide Jim Duckworth (www.jimduckworth.com) says he often “sails” for transition crappie.
“This time of year, crappie schools often hunt shad on big flats,” he says. “On breezy days, I catch them by placing sixteen 8- to 16-foot B’n’M rods in Driftmaster T-Bar holders and letting the wind blow me across these flats. My reels are spooled with 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100-percent Fluorocarbon, and my lures—1/8- to 1/16-ounce Blakemore Road Runners—are set from 8 to 15 feet deep until I determine the depth where crappie are feeding. As I drift, I use a Humminbird 787 sonar/GPS combo to mark my path. This allows me to retrace a path when I start catching crappie, using my trolling motor to keep me on course. If it’s extremely windy, I put out one or two MinnKota driftsocks to slow the boat to 1.6 mph or slower. This is one of the best ways I know to find and catch crappie this time of year.”
Corks & Jigs
“When fishing in the summer-to-fall transition period with jigs, give corks a try,” suggests tournament pro and TV fishing show host Russ Bailey of St. Marys, Ohio. “When you locate the depth where crappie are holding, you can set the cork and therefore keep the jig in the strike zone. A cork also allows you to slow your presentation. Many times crappie will strike after you give the jig a small twitch and then let the jig stand still.”
Using a cork of the proper size is important, Bailey adds.
“Always try to use one just big enough to hold up the size jig you are using,” he says. “For this technique, many times a 1/48-ounce jig head is all you need, and this will allow you to use a very small cork. The fish will feel very little resistance, and you’ll put more in your livewell.”
Windy Shores and Crankbaits
Missouri anglers Travis and Charlie Bunting have racked up an impressive series of tournament wins on crappie waters throughout the country.
“We’ve noticed over the years that when the water temperature drops, crappie gather in large schools, either chasing shad or on shallow brush,” says Travis. “Wind is your friend during this time period. The wind will move the baitfish and stack the crappie up on wind-blown banks. That makes them very predictable.”
As the water temperature drops, the water clears up, so keeping some distance between themselves and the fish is essential to success, Travis continues.
“To do this, we use 3- to 5-inch-long, 3/8-ounce Lucky Craft 78DD crankbaits,” Travis says. “We cast them using a 6-foot, 6-inch B’n’M Buck’s Graphite Crappie Spinning Rod and 8-pound-test Vicious Elite fluorocarbon line. This allows us to cast long distances. The lure is made to suspend between 4 and 6 feet deep, which allows us to stop the bait directly over a target. When twitched, it has an erratic side-to-side movement that mimics a wounded baitfish and triggers a reaction bite. Crappie will come a long way to hit these baits because they are suspended above the fish, and we catch a lot of transition crappie as a result.”
Mastering your Electronics
Darryl Morris of Family Fishing Trips Guide Service (www.familyfishingtrips.com) takes clients fishing year-round on lakes Hamilton, Greeson and DeGray near Hot Springs in west-central Arkansas. He says a key factor in pinpointing often-scattered crappie this season is fine-tuning and mastering your electronics so you can identify the exact depth and structure where fish are holding each day.
“Your sonar unit is like your eyes underwater,” Morris says. “I use Humminbird units, but no matter which unit you have, learning to use it fully aids you in catching more crappie this season.”
Begin by correctly setting the unit’s sensitivity.
“Most units have two sensitivity settings: one for the unit overall and another for the fish ID,” says Morris. “If your unit is set correctly, you should be able to get a sonar return on a small jig but not identify it as a fish.
“To do this, drop a jig into the unit’s cone. Turn your sensitivity down until it disappears and then back up until it reappears as a fine line on your screen. As you move the jig up and down, turn the fish ID sensitivity down until it stops identifying it as a fish. Your unit is now set, and you can have confidence what you see is true.”
Next, you should set your unit’s depth offset.
“If your transducer is 1 foot under the water’s surface, your depth offset should be +1,” says Morris. “But don’t stop there; check it for accuracy. On a calm day, drop a bank sinker to hard bottom, mark the line at the water’s surface and measure the actual depth. Adjust your depth offset accordingly. Now learn the relationship between your depth reading and the grid lines. Have confidence you can precisely read the depth at which the fish are holding.”
When your sensitivities and depth offset are perfect, you must learn to correctly interpret the sonar return.
“Learn to distinguish fish and cover, and learn to read a fish’s sonar return when the fish is in the cover,” Morris says. “Newer color units make this simpler by displaying different colors for varying densities. Also, understand that when the boat is moving or the fish is swimming through the cone, a nice arch will form. Otherwise, when movement is minimal, the sonar return is a flatter, longer line as opposed to an arch.
“Ultimately, your skill should grow from just finding fish to targeting specific groups of fish at specific depths. Such abilities will put more crappie in your livewell because you’ll no longer waste time fishing 5 feet above the fish or 10 feet below them. You’ll be able to identify the fish and know exactly the depth where you should present your lure. Your catch rate will soar.”