By Tim Huffman
Drop-Off: a very steep or perpendicular descent; a marked dwindling or decline.
Fishermen have learned that a drop-off is where fish often live and feed. As the definition describes, a drop-off is a steep descent or decline. As in, the bottom countor of the lake dropped from 15 feet down to 25 feet. In the fishing world, the rate of decline may be very sharp or somewhat gradual.
Also, most fishermen use drop-off as a general term for the drop, ledge and flat. There’s nothing wrong with this assumption or generalized grouping.
A drop can provide many things for crappie. One of the best summer advantanges is baitfish. Open water drops are common places to find schools of bait, a basic requirement for a crappie.
Depth of water can be important to a fish. Moving up and down the ledge offers protection, comfort and light penetration depth adjustments.
Cover is often found, or placed, on a drop or just adjacent to a drop. Cover at the right depth on a drop equals fishing action.
A drop is a good travel route. Crappie will use a drop like we use a highway. They’ll also suspend above it.
Twenty years ago finding and fishing ledges was a skill. None were better than the team of Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman. They used paper maps, flasher sonar units, paper graphs and years of experience to find and catch open water crappie where few other fishermen knew how to fish. They were masters at finding and returning to these spots long before GPS units were in boats.
Finding a ledge today is much easier. Paper maps are still useful but for those with GPS mapping units, it’s a matter of seeing a ledge and positioning to it. Use sonar to see fish, cover, the right type of ledge and other items after a drop-off is found, but it takes much less time with today’s knowledge and gear.
Vertical jigging, casting and trolling are all methods for catching summer crappie.
Slow Trolling- Lakes
Summer may not be a time when slow trollers relate to fishing deep ledges but it can be a good tactic. The key is to focus upon catching suspended fish along with those in cover. For example, crappie may be in 7 to 10 feet of water suspended over an 18 foot drop-off. The fish are definitely relating to the drop but are suspended up above it.
The fish are relating to shad so also watch for the baitfish on your electronics. Slow troll at around 0.2 miles per hour and gradually move up to 0.4 mph until you find the right speed that crappie want.
Double-hook minnow rigs or jig/minnow combinations are good choices. A ½-ounce weight should be enough to keep baits down at summer depths. Don’t be afraid to switch bait size because summer crappie may be feeding on larger shad.
Bait depth is more important than bottom depth. When you catch a fish pay careful attention to it’s depth. Repeat successful depths. A thermocline may be present.
A thermocline is a layer of water where temperature and oxygen levels change rapidly. Crappie will be above the thermocline in “sweet water” that has better oxygen levels. If you can’t see it on your locator do a minnow test. When you get the minnow below the thermocline it dies within minutes. When you find that level you know to keep baits above that depth. Again, catching a few crappie is the best way to know you’re in the strike zone.
A drop-off is made up of more than just the drop itself with the three main components the drop, ledge and flat. #1 is a typical crappie location with fish suspended up over the drop. #2 is a crappie spot on a PVC stakebed. #3 crappie holding spot is brush located on the top of the drop.
Boat control is critical when slow trolling. You can make other mistakes but you have to have control of the boat or you won’t catch fish. This means the proper speed, full control in the wind and staying with the drop-off. Going into the wind is ideal but if it is too windy it’s best to go with the wind using wind socks to keep the boat straight and at a slower speed.
Another popular technique is trolling crankbaits. It works at some lake and some lakes it doesn’t. But where it does work, it is often the best way to target suspended summer crappie.
The two basic tactics are pulling and pushing. Pulling means that line is released until the crankbait is behind the boat. Serious pullers use line-counter reels so when they catch a fish with 90 feet of line out, they can return to that exactly 90 feet. With line size and all baits exactly the same type, depth is controlled by the amount of line used.
Long lining is not the easiest way to follow a ledge because the baits are trailing the boat and they don’t follow the exact path of the boat. If the boat makes a turn to follow a ledge, the cranks will take a shortcut toward the boat, not following the exact path of the ledge.
Pushing crankbaits is better for following contours. Pushing is done with long 14 or 16-foot poles and a heavy 2- to 6-ounce weight to keep the line in from swinging under the boat. Having a heavy weight that holds the line realitively vertical, the depth is easy to set. Also, when a fisherman follows a contour the baits follow with the boat.
Push or pull? It’s a personal preference. There are advantages and disadvantages to each tactic. Pushing gives good control for following contours but it’s work to land a fish on a longpole. The wieght of the fish, a flying sinker, along with a flopping fish and treble hooks makes it a challenge. It takes strength to handle everything.
Typical speed is 1.5 mph. The best catching speed can vary greatly from day to day and even hour to hour. 1.2 to 2.0 mph is the normal range for crappie.
Bandit crankbaits have always king for crappie trolling but other baits have proven as good for catching. Lindy Shadling and small Rapala Shad Raps are two proven baits. Newcomers, like the Johnson Shad Crank, offer a different action, sound and look. The Shad Crank has good action at very slow speeds. Newer baits have the advantage of giving the crappie a new look especially in heavily pressured lakes. A few favorite colors include shad, pink, orange and green/black firetiger.
Sunny/Cloudy Day: A difficult call to make, but being consistent is best. Sun will likely have fish a little deeper at mid-day compared to a cloudy sky.
Wind: A little wind is good for fishing open water. It helps hide the boat and makes fish less spooky. Slow trolling is good in light wind because boat control is critical. On very windy days there is no better tactic than trolling crankbaits. You don’t have to watch for light bites or bouncing poles. Long line or heavy weights takes care of most pole bounces.
Pleasure Boaters: Heavy boating traffic can cause fish to move deeper. Sometimes crappie quit biting.
Fishing Pressure: The good thing about summer is less fishing pressure than in the spring.
Summer Heat: Slow trolling is good early and late. The crankbait bite gets better with the heat and may be best at mid-day. No matter a fisherman’s technique, keeping hydrated and sun protected is critical.