Beat the Heat: Look Deep for Summer Crappie
June 28, 2016
Many crappie anglers only fish the pre-spawn and the spawn, when crappie congregate in huge numbers around shallow brush piles and other cover, turning to other pursuits as crappie scatter throughout the lake. Under a broiling summer sun, crappie fishing often more closely resembles hunting than fish, but in the right place and with the right techniques, anglers can put a lot of fish in the boat — frequently with little competition.
"Typically, most anglers fish for crappie in the spring, but the summer can be a very good time to catch crappie," explained Brian Van Zee, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist. "Crappie must eat all year long. In the summer, crappie are under much less pressure as people do other things."
When the sun kicks into overdrive, crappie typically drop deeper to find more comfortable temperatures. Not as affected by capricious weather, deep water remains relatively stable throughout the year. As long as crappie can find temperatures they like, abundant oxygen, cover and plentiful forage, they won't move very far for weeks. Anglers might need to almost tickle their noses, but in the right spot, persistent crappie enthusiasts can fill a limit.
"In the summer, anglers need to look for crappie in deeper areas with good structure," Van Zee recommended. "As water starts warming up, crappie start moving deeper to look for structure. Good electronics can save someone a lot of time trying to locate fish and structure that might hold crappie. In June, concentrate on places with submerged structure, brush or timber in deeper water."
During the hottest months, the trick comes in finding the first fish. After that, good anglers can usually figure out how to catch them. For finding fish in deep water, anglers today rely heavily upon electronics.
With modern electronics, anglers can find bottom contours, brush piles, stumps, rock piles and even baitfish schools better than ever. Some units can practically detect the scales on an individual fish, while others almost seem like looking at a video. In fact, anglers can actually use a camera to really see what goes on below.
Once a device reserved for well-funded oceanographers, underwater cameras have come down drastically in size and price in recent years. Anglers can now find some highly compact underwater camera units that provide an incredible clear image for an affordable price, making them another invaluable instrument in a fisherman's toolbox. With a good underwater camera, anglers can determine exactly what lies below and perhaps even see fish.
While many crappie plunge to the depths during the summer, deeper doesn't always mean better fishing. Frequently, the deepest waters contain little or no oxygen. Sunshine beating down on a lake can cause water to separate into two distinct layers. Similar to a membrane, the thermocline creates a divider between the layers. The warmer upper layer typically contains the most oxygen. Below the thermocline, the cold, dense layer may not hold enough oxygen to support life.
Often, fish stack up along this invisible line in the water as if hovering just over the bottom. Like people diving into a pool on a hot summer day, fish may briefly drop down into the cold lower layer to refresh themselves during the hottest weather, but quickly return to the upper layer to breathe.
Depending upon the weather and other factors, the thermocline depth might vary greatly throughout the summer. If anglers can determine the thermocline depth, they can often troll baits just above it and catch crappie.
TROLL YOUR WAY
"I like to pull double rigs with two jigheads," advised Mike Baker, Crappie Fisherman Guide Service (www.thecrappiefisherman.com). "One weighs 1/48 ounce and the other weighs 1/32 ounce. I try to pick colors that mimic natural baitfish in the area. I may go through 50 different color combinations before I catch a fish, but once I find out what they want, I can usually catch a bunch of crappie."
Trolling tiny shad-colored crankbaits parallel to weed lines, banks or around humps can also produce good action. Channels leading from extremely deep water to the shallows also make good places to troll. Such channels offer crappie a choice of depths. Like other fish, crappie often use channel edges like underwater highways to move from deep water to the shallows and back again.
Sometimes, fish drop down into the channels. Other times, particularly early in the morning and later in the day, crappie move up into the adjacent shallows to feed. Big crappie frequently hover just over dropoff edges where they can ambush passing baitfish. Place baits near the top, along the sides of the drops and in deeper water.
After tallying a couple strikes in one area, thoroughly probe the area with vertical presentations or by fan-casting jigs to zero in on the school. After determining the best depth, always dangle a bait slightly above the crappie. Predators generally look up to spot prey silhouetted against surface glare. Crappie may rise several feet to snatch a bait, but not even see a jig bouncing just below.
CAUGHT EM' JIGGING
When fishing channels, some anglers try "strolling" or "walking the dog." With this method, use two jig poles, each equipped with very light single jigs. Throw one ahead of the boat and then the other in a rhythm while slowly moving the boat forward with a trolling motor. Use electronics to keep the boat positioned over the dropoff edge. Frequently, fish hit slowly sinking jigs on the fall.
"Anglers can catch a lot of crappie on small jigs or minnows by moving slowly along the channel drops until they encounter a school of fish," advised Steve Brasfield. "Don't move along too quickly. Once an angler finds a school of feeding crappie, he or she can expect a lot of quick bites."
Along channel shelves, look for secondary cover. A major rock or brush pile sitting on a channel edge can provide incredible action, but be careful about snags.
"I like to fish with a single rod and one bait," said Jo Haley, professional crappie angler. "With one pole in hand, I can detect subtle bites when the fish hit really soft. Sometimes, I can't even feel the bite. I just watch for a little line change. It might just go slack or something else subtle."
Start by dropping a bait just above a brush pile, stump or similar cover, being sure to fish all around the cover. During hot weather, cooling currents may position fish on one side of cover or the other. In addition, pay attention to the position of the sun. In hot weather, fish frequently move to the shady side of a brush or rock pile. Vertically probe these areas with small jigs. If the fish don't want jigs, try sweetening them with live minnows or simply use minnows.
"Sometimes, crappie want jigs and sometimes they just want minnows," explained Joe Carter, professional crappie angler. "Sometimes, fish prefer the combination. To fish deep water, we use a 1-ounce sinker at the bottom of the line and come up 18 inches with a No. 2 Aberdeen hook or jig on a loop coming about 2 inches off the main line. We add a second hook or jig 18 inches above that. We drop the line all the way to the bottom and reel it up two turns to keep it just barely off the bottom."
For fishing really deep cover, try vertically jigging chrome spoons. Small, heavy and compact, a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce spoon sinks quickly to the bottom and resembles a dying shad when fluttering down. After the spoon hits bottom, reel the slack and lift the spoon off the bottom a foot or two and let it plunge back to the bottom. Lift the spoon up through the water column, pausing every few feet to work the bait to determine the depth fish want.
In the summer heat, some anglers don't even attempt to fish until the sun nearly sets. During hot times, anglers can often find night action with little competition. In heavily pressured lakes, especially those with clear water, crappie might become skittish during the day, but lose some wariness at night. Some crappie even see light and rise from the depths to investigate.
Some anglers equip boats with generator- or battery-powered lights to score huge crappie catches on summer evenings, or target lighted docks, marinas or bridges that holds fish. Light attracts plankton, insects and other small creatures. Minnows, shad and other baitfish gather to feast upon the plankton or bugs, and crappie follow baitfish.
"Fishing at night under the lights is a good way to catch a lot of crappie in the summer," said Darrell J. Baker with Weiss Lake Crappie Guides (www.weisslakecrappieguides.com). "Some people bring their own lights, but anglers who don't carry their own lights can always find docks with lights on them."
Chasing crappie during the hot summer typically requires considerable patience and determination. However, in the right spot with the right bait, anglers can often enjoy exceptional action that certainly beats staying home and waiting for spring.