by Darl Black
Consider the size of your jig for tough summer bites.
Many northern anglers base the size of jig they use loosely on the size of prey being consumed by crappies through the seasons.
During the ice-out bite, most successful crappie fishermen in my region reach for an extremely small body jig, less than an inch long to more closely resemble large zooplankton or tiny minnows drawn to the rapidly warming water in shallow black-bottom bays and canals. Minimal movement bodies (such as a tiny tube or split-tail) are preferred over ones with a swimming action tail. The jig is tipped with a couple maggots and suspended two to three feet below a float.
As water temperatures climb throughout the lake into the 50’s and eventually above 60 degrees, slightly larger minnows are preferred by crappies. Therefore, anglers gravitate to slightly bigger jig bodies – typically a 1.5 to 2-inch body on a 1/16-ounce head. Twister and shad style action tails now come into play.
By the time northern crappies finish their spawning routine, water temperature is in the 70’s and June is drawing to a close. Most crappies – blacks and whites – depart the shallows for somewhat deeper water summer haunts. In many offshore locations, crappies dine on rapidly-maturing openwater shiner and small shad schools.
I’ve caught some of my largest summer crappies on 4-inch grubs while fishing for bass. Therefore, intentionally using a 2.5 to 3-inch soft plastic body on a 3/32- or 1/8-ounce head for summer crappies does not seem unreasonable to me. Of course, I always have my “standard” 2-inch 1/16-ounce crappie jig tied on another rod as well.
But going larger in the summer isn’t always the answer.
Ken Smith, one of western Pennsylvania’s top crappie anglers, endorses the match the hatch concept. He says, however, many anglers may be missing summer hatches yielding fry that excite crappies.
“Adult crappies are meat eaters,” said Smith. “During summer their focus is almost entirely on minnow life. Crappies are opportunists willing to chow on whatever small fish are readily available; make no mistake – they will eat the fry of any fish species anytime.”
While he acknowledges there is a case for crappies to consume slightly larger prey during the summer as minnows, shiners and shad continue to grow, he points out that there are also opportunities for crappies to zero in on newly hatched fry throughout the summer period.
Smith has always been a very observant angler, keeping track of all that goes on around him during hundreds of hours he spends on the water each season. For years he had noted balls of fry hovering around branches of deadfalls during mid and late summer. He came to realize these were late spawning bluegills or a second wave of spawning bluegills – borne out by the fact that very tiny bluegill fingerlings would appear in these same trees a short time later. Other panfish and baitfish species may spawn more than once in the summer, which accounts for the very small fry that may be observed as late as September.
“So, when I encounter a marked slow-down in the number of crappies I’m catching during the summer with my regular-size jig bodies, I downsize,” explains Smith. “I drop down to tiny fry-size baits and fish them in areas I’ve noticed balls of fry. In most instances, this pays off for me.”
Smith says his favorite jig body is one that has only been on the market for a few years.
“The Bobby Garland Itty Bit Swim’R is the most realistic looking fish fry I’ve ever used and the Itty Bit Slab Slay’r is a good tiny fish imitator as well. When I’m fishing balls of bluegill fry or tiny fingerlings, I’m particularly fond of a combination of blue and chartreuse which is Bluegrass in the Garland lineup,” said Smith.
Monkey Milk or Double Silver would be a good color if finding shiner or shad fry. When fry are so small you have no idea what they are, black is always a good choice. Smith says the appropriate jigheads for these 1.25-inch baits weigh 1/32 or 1/80-ounce.”
To present these lightweight fry baits, Smith uses a small clip-on bobber. “I usually have two rods rigged – each with a fixed float and one of these jigs. On one rod the bobber will be set for around 3 feet, while the second rod will be set for 7 to 9 feet.”
Shoreline deadfalls and submerged brushpiles on moderate-to-steep-sloping banks usually near a creek or river channel are the focus of his presentation. These are areas of cover where he observes fry and fingerlings, and these spots are immediately adjacent to the depth of water where crappies suspend during the summer.
He casts to the cover and lets the jig slowly drift down. Once depth is achieved, he gently nudges the float. Then he may slowly move the float before resting it again.
“I’ll know in short order if there are crappies around the cover. They cannot resist rushing in on fry of any species,” he said. “Remember, matching the hatch in the mid to late summer season may mean going to smaller baits!”
Darl Black has been fishing since he was old enough to pick up a fishing rod. He penned his first angling article in the mid-1970s on a now-extinct writing device called a typewriter. During his career as an outdoor writer and photographer, Darl has fished throughout the US and Canada for many freshwater species but still enjoys fishing for crappies.