Story & photos by: Darl Black
When the “gales of November” blow across the Great Lakes, crappie anglers in northern states realize it’s time to go deep and go vertical on inland natural lakes and reservoirs. But the debate then turns to whether to go with bling or no bling.
I know anglers who only fish for crappies in the cold water of late fall with flashy jigging lures. Other fishermen could not imagine using anything other than subtle plastic-bodied jigs and live bait.
Of course the really smart anglers are prepared with both. Here’s what you need to know to cover all bases for late fall crappies up north.
First, a quick tip for locating crappies during the late fall coldwater period. Crappies in natural lakes follow bait into deeper water, setting up on hard bottom points and humps – sometimes as deep as the silt line where hard meets soft. In reservoirs, crappies tend to stack up around natural cover (stumps) or man-made cover (cribs) not far from either the main river channel or major secondary creek channels – with fish on both the channel drop and associated deep flats. Depending on the lake’s features, water clarity and forage, you will typically find crappies somewhere between 15 and 35 feet deep.
Crappies are attracted to the flash and fall of metal baits. This action resembles a struggling baitfish – a very common occurrence during the late fall on lakes which have a gizzard shad population. The extreme cold of northern lakes results in a high shad die-off as winter approaches.
Enter bling baits.
Blade baits are teardrop shaped metal fins with a head of lead molded to the bottom front edge. Some models have one treble hook while others some have two trebles or two double hooks. The 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2-ounce models that are less than 2.5 inches in length are the best choices. Among the popular brands are Johnson Thin Fish, Heddon Sonar and Reef Runner. These lures are available in polished metal or painted finishes, whoever I have always found a chrome, silver or gold finish to be superior for crappies in fall.
Slab style and slightly concave jigging spoons which range from 3/16-ounce to 3/8-ounce in weight with lengths under 2.5 inches include Johnson Splinter, small Hopkins Shorty, and others. As with blades, polished metal finishes are better than painted ones.
Typically blades are dropped when suspected crappies are visible on sonar within a couple feet of the bottom. Using the rod tip, firmly lift the blade until you feel it vibrating. Then slowly lower it back down. Ripping the blade forcefully rarely pays off. Hits usually come as the bait descends on the slow drop following a lift.
Spoons can be fished in a similar way to blades. But I prefer a spoon presentation that targets crappies stacked above cover. Count your spoon down to the depth just above the suspended crappies. Then alternately shake and pause the spoon, maintaining the approximate level of the fish on the sonar. Lightly shake the rod tip for perhaps 5 seconds, then stop and hold the spoon in positon for about 5 seconds before shaking again.
With each lure, execution of the vertical presentation can be observed on sonar so you know the bait is right in the fish zone. Never overwork the blade or spoon.
Also, to reduce line twist when using both blades and spoons, create a 12-inch leader using the same pound-test as the main line with a small free-spinning power swivel on one end and an interlocking snap on the other end to which the bling is attached.
In the early days, I always backed up the flash dance of metal jigging lures with a simple jig tipped with a fathead minnow. The jig could be a 1/8, 3/16 or 1/4-ounce head, with a hook size no larger than a #1. The body is a simple 2-inch split-tail grub, small tube body or just a piece of plastic worm cut to the length of the hook. The plastic body serves as both a color attractor and a minnow keeper to prevent the fathead from sliding down the hook shank.
The jig is fished vertically, suspended amid crappies observed on the screen. However, under breezy conditions it becomes difficult to keep lightweight jigs on target in deep water.
Some years ago I decided to try a drop-shot rig to put minnows straight down on the money. A drop-shot rig is a single hook take-off of the old Kentucky Lake rig using a colorful Mister Crappie Caster weight as the bottom sinker. This allowed increasing the weight to 1/4, 3/8, or 1/2-ounce if needed to keep the line vertical.
Recently I have eliminated the live minnow on the rig. Instead I use a Bobby Garland Baby Shad on a 1/48-ounce Overbite Sickle Mo’Glo Jighead. The jighead is attached with a double overhand loop knot in the same fashion as a plain bait hook.
Baby Shad is the perfect imitation of a small baitfish, and it is available in several natural minnow/shad/shiner colors which usually work better for me in the fall than the typical multi-colored jig bodies.
Generally, in our region the lakes are clearer than anytime during the summer so natural colors tend to dominate when fishing very slowly. But if color is needed for stained water or low light conditions, I go with one of the Garland Mo’Glo colors.
An application of Mo’Glo Slab Jam to the plastic body provides desired scent of minnow to the bait.
Whether fishing a straight jig or a drop-shot rig, the presentation is similar. Lower the jig or drop-shot rig to the bottom until contact is made then take up several inches of line so you are in the realm of crappies on the sonar. Hold and shake the rod tip lightly about every 5 seconds.
Use the trolling motor to gently move the boat around the cover while holding the rod to detect a light bite.
Whether you choose bling or no bling – right now is the time to fish deep for crappies on northern lakes.