Jack Smith sets lines at the start of an evening of fishing. (Photo: Ken Perrotte)
Hot Slabs in the Summertime
Lighting Up the Crappie in the Sweltering Florida Summer
by Ken Perrotte
Late afternoon thunderstorms in central Florida sometimes pop up with such regularity that you can, as the saying goes, “Set your watch by them.” Heat and humidity go together like biscuits and gravy down around Deland, Florida in mid-July. While saltwater fishing in nearby places such as New Smyrna Beach can still be good, many freshwater anglers, especially crappie fans, find the bite a tad on the sparse side. Then there is Jack Smith, a lifetime crappie angler who says the “nighttime is the right time” when it comes to catching slabbers.
Smith, a horticulturist by trade, grew up in Florida where his father served as a game warden. Father and son enjoyed fishing together but job requirements meant most of their opportunities came at night. They fished both saltwater and freshwater, but Smith recalls the only fish they wanted when it came to freshwater was crappie.
Nighttime anglers have used lights to attract fish for many decades. Smith and his father began by using Coleman lanterns and then switched to the lights that were, basically, a vehicle headlight floated in a molded piece of Styrofoam and powered by an alligator clip on a 12-volt battery.
Smith owned a landscape company but began guiding for nighttime crappie 20 years ago. He fishes year-round, but says his best success comes during the hottest months of summer.
“I catch my biggest Florida crappie when the water is almost bathwater hot, ranging from 85-90 degrees,” Smith said, rattling off a host of night fishing advantages, among them almost nonexistent boat traffic, cooler temperatures and diminished chance of storms.
“Come April, many people switch from trying to catch crappie to targeting bluegills, shellcrackers and other panfish. I’ll walk into a bait store in summer and people will ask, ‘What are you fishing for?’ When I tell them it’s crappie, they say, ‘I didn’t know you could catch crappie in the summertime,’” Smith said.
The way Smith looks at it, those fish still have to eat.
“I can tell you that in the summer I seem to have a lot more minnows attracted to my lights than at other times of the year. When the water is cooler, you hardly see any minnows. Maybe it’s because they stay in shallower water with more cover and dissolved oxygen when it’s cooler,” Smith said.
Smith lives near Ocala. He fishes many of the small lakes in and around the Ocala National Forest.
“They’re all stocked, have good numbers of fish (crappie) in them,” he said.
His home is along the Ocklawaha River, which also has crappie, but his favorite river is an hour-long boat tow away, the St. Johns River, where the river sharply narrows just west of Deland.
No matter where and when he is fishing, he targets deep water. Water depths can drop quickly in the St. Johns River. Even if you’re fishing close to shore and tied up or anchored in 8 feet of water, depths can approach 30 feet out where the bait is deployed.
While crappie sometimes move into shallower water as nighttime temperatures cool, they’re usually hanging around the thermocline. Good electronics can help pinpoint that depth or, as Smith notes, the condition of your minnow can help tell you when you’ve found it. Minnows will remain active much longer if they’re positioned in the cooler water of the summer thermocline.
Instead of looking for structure or other underwater features many anglers seek, Smith counts on his lights to bring the fish to him.
“Bridges and structures are always good, but many of these lakes have no structure whatsoever,” Smith said. “They’re shaped like a bowl with a sandy bottom. I’ll set up, put the lights out and, often, stay in one spot all night, bringing the minnows and fish to me.”
Smith’s lights are unique, a twist on an existing design.
“I tried to do something a little different on the inside that would attract zooplankton. I worked with another person on the design and he came up with a gas and an igniting system that goes into the light to produce a different type of glow,” he explained.
The lights, either two or four feet long and powered by a generator, are extended vertically into the water via a boom system. He also makes lights that can draw power from a traditional battery.
Smith said he tested the lights at varying distances from the boat. He gets the best results when they are about 5 feet out.
“I fish with different length poles – a 12-foot, a 10-foot and then two short ones I place right under the light. Early in the evening, the fish seem to bite better on the outside poles; later in the night, they move right under the light,” Smith said.
He considered using LEDs as the light source but opted for fluorescent.
“The LEDs might be a little too bright. They attract baitfish, but the crappie seemed to stay out farther from them. We also tested different colors of lights to see what worked best. Pink and green stood out. I’ve made a few pink lights but most are green,” Smith said.
The bait is almost always a live minnow, hooked just behind the dorsal fin on an Eagle Claw 1/0 rotating hook below an egg sinker – anywhere from ¼-ounce to ½-ounce – and a large bobber stop.
“There have only been a few occasions where I’ve been able to jig up a fish under the light. The crappie seem to want live bait,” Smith shrugged.
Once set up, Smith sometimes stays in the same location all evening.
“If I’m on the river, I’m hitting the same spots, the same five to eight places I’ve worked for the last 25 years. I know at one spot I’ll likely catch fish during a certain period of the night and then can move to another spot where I know they bite better later in the evening,” he said.
Smith said the crappie bite in the river can happen very soon after deploying the lights and setting out lines. In the forest lakes, though, the dinner bell might not go off until 9 or 10 p.m.
“You might not catch a fish until 9:30, but then find yourself with a limit by 11,” he said. “And, the later into the night, the bigger the fish.”
Some people are put off by the thought of night fishing due to concerns about insects, but Smith scoffs at the worry, explaining, “The only time mosquitoes really bother me is if I’m up close to the banks.”
Smith likes to get on the water 30-60 minutes before dark. This lets him motor to his destination without lights and set up his gear while there is still some natural visibility. He turns on the fluorescent lights about 30 minutes before dark.
Florida isn’t the only southeastern state where summertime swelter can make daytime crappie fishing challenging on many fronts. Smith’s tactics, though, can be applied on many lakes and rivers. He sells light kits to anglers looking to do just that. The key is finding that right depth to fish and on deeper lakes, it’s often deep – 20-40 feet. In shallower lakes, look for the deepest sections – and if you find structure down 15-25 feet, give it a try.
For more information about Jack Smith and his Crappie at Night guiding, check out his Facebook page or call 352-425-3096.
(Ken Perrotte is an award-winning writer and photographer, with more than 2,000 published articles. Articles have appeared in USA Today Hunt & Fish magazine, Safari, Outdoor Life, the Military Times Media Group’s publications, Recoil, Blue Ridge Country, North American Hunter, Virginia Wildlife, Turkey Country, Ducks Unlimited, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Mule Deer, Whitetails Unlimited, and more. He is an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Southeastern Outdoors Press Association and current Vice-President of the Great Lakes Outdoors Writers. Visit his website, The Outdoors Rambler.)