If you’ve been catching Arkansas crappie on deep structure all summer, get ready to do some prospecting. Fall crappie are about to make their autumn shift.
Crappie fishermen in Arkansas look forward to autumn almost as much as they do spring. That’s because fall is the second peak of fishing.
Spring speaks for itself. That’s spawning season, when crappie move shallow and you can catch a cooler full of slabs that are swimming in mere inches of water.
Summer is a good time to fish, too, but it’s difficult, often technical fishing. In addition to enduring brutal heat and humidity, you have to study your graph to find a brushpile or two that holds fish, and they’re usually about 20 feet deep. You have to mark it with buoys, anchor downwind of the brush, count a tiny jig down to the point where it’s about level with the top of the brush and reel it ever so slowly across the top.
On the other hand, the difficulty is part of the fun because successfully fishing during the daytime marks you as an expert.
And then comes fall. Crappie move not exactly shallow, but shallower than in summer, and they move according to water temperature. You have to keep up with them because today’s hotspot can go cold overnight in the wake of a cold front, but you can still fill a freezer if you stay on top of the fish.
That’s where Arkansas Game & Fish comes in. We’ve consulted some of our state’s best crappie fishermen to help you get your limit this month.
Mark Hedrick of Little Rock, who along with Bryan Hendricks, outdoor editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and legendary broadcaster Ray Tucker, co-host the popular radio program “Ray Tucker’s Arkansas Outdoors, It’s a Natural,” Wednesdays on KABZ, 103.7-FM. Hedrick and J.O. Brooks of Little Rock are the most accomplished crappie anglers on Lake Maumelle, but Hedrick is renowned for catching crappie over deep structure in the big water supply reservoir west of Little Rock.
For many years, anglers called Lake Maumelle the “Dead Sea” because of its low biomass of game fish compared to similar lakes. That’s because Maumelle supplies drinking water to central Arkansas, and Central Arkansas Water long suppressed aquatic vegetation to keep the water as clean as possible. That, in turn, suppressed the entire food chain, all the way down to phytoplankton.
Acknowledging the lake’s burgeoning recreational value, Central Arkansas Water has adapted its management philosophy over the last 10 years. One of CAW’s major concessions was allowing anglers to sink artificial PVC structures into the lake.
In addition, several years of low water allowed a lot of vegetation to re-establish below the normal pool level. When the lake finally refilled, water inundated the new growth, releasing nutrients into the water and creating vital nursery habitat that fueled a boom in fish production.
Crappie numbers and quality surged, and Hedrick has demonstrated the largesse by consistently boxing some outstanding crappie catches through the year.
The main thing to remember in all waters that are part of the Arkansas River watershed, including Lake Maumelle, is that September is a transition time in which late summer and early fall feeding and migration patterns are in play.
Early to mid-September in central Arkansas is hot, with air temperatures in the high 90s and water temperatures often in the 80s. Fish go deep to find cooler water.
As the days progress, the sun’s arc shifts a little farther north, and the rays aren’t as direct. Days are still warm, and often hot, but nights are cool and breezy. You can feel a cooler season coming. It feels good, and it puts an extra spring in your step.
Fish feel it, too. They start eating again, and they’re more aggressive than they were at the first of the month.
You’ll also notice that if you’re still fishing the same brush you fished at the first of the month, you’ve stopped catching fish. That’s because crappie are moving back into the creeks. They’re following baitfish that move shallow to find warmer water.
“Those fish are going to start schooling up in the channels on brush,” Hedrick said. “The first thing you need to do, obviously, is find a school of fish.”
With the help of downscan and sidescan graphing units that look like big-screen television sets, bass tournament anglers have refined the use of sonar to a fine art. Hedrick uses the same equipment to find crappie. More to the point, he uses it to find structure that holds crappie. If crappie are present, they produce a distinctive screen image.
“They look like a big haystack,” Hedrick said.
To catch them, Hedrick uses the same tactics he uses in summer. The only difference is that the structure is a little shallower, and on channel edges instead of points.
First, he drops a buoy on the upwind side of the structure. Some anglers anchor on the downwind side, but Hedrick uses his trolling motor to stay on point. That enables him to work the structure from different angles. He also uses a 1/8-ounce or 1/16-ounce jighead with a small, white Sassy Shad type of swimbait. He uses a pink Zoom marker pen to paint the sides of the lure, and he paints the head chartreuse.
“That’s the color out here,” Mark said. “Zoom doesn’t make pink marker pens anymore, and they’re hard to find. Whenever I see them, I buy every one of them.”
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of customizing your swimbaits, Hedrick said you can do well with the electric chicken color. The pink/chartreuse combination is the key.
“Some folks like to use something with a little more blue, but I don’t like blue,” Hedrick said. “I’m trying to mimic a minnow.”
With a light or ultralight spinning rig, Hedrick goes to work on the structure.
“I use 6- or 4-pound fluorocarbon or 4-pound monofilament, depending on what rate of fall I want,” Hedrick said. “The lighter the line on Maumelle, the better. As clear as this water is, 6-pound test looks like rope. If I could do it without breaking off all the time, I’d use 2-pound test.”
Lure style is increasingly important as fall progresses. That’s because crappie economize their energy as the water cools, and they prefer a less aggressive look.
“When it gets cold, I want to use something with a straight tail or something that doesn’t have as much movement in the tail because crappie are not expending as much energy,” Hedrick said. “A bait that has a lot of action doesn’t look right in cold water, and they’ll let that pass.”
Hedrick recommends a Crappie Magnet or a Bobby Garland fluke with a straight tail, or a Zoom fluke.
“I’ll throw it out there and reel it back as slow as I can,” Hedrick said. “Every now and then I’ll open the bail and let it drop about 5 feet.”
Typically, crappie are in structure where the base is about 18 to 20 feet deep, but the fish often suspend near the top at about 10 feet. Cast the jig beyond the structure, count it down to about 10 and reel it only as fast as necessary to keep it moving. You want to feel the jig nick the top of the brush. It’s even better if you can bring it through the top of the brush. You’ll hang up more often, but you’ll also get more bites.
What results can you expect? During one September trip with Hedrick and his son Matt, we caught crappie up to about 2 pounds.
While the size of our fish was excellent, the catch rates were unsatisfactory. Matt Hedrick suggested we switch to black and gold, and our catch rates increased almost immediately.
Mark wasn’t surprised.
“When the water temperature starts falling and the light angle slants the way it does in the fall, a lot of times they respond to a darker color like this,” Mark explained.
These same tactics work on any highland reservoir, such as lakes Ouachita, Hamilton, DeGray, Greeson, Beaver, Bull Shoals and Norfork.
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For example, during the same week I fished with Hedrick, John Stringfellow of Norfork and Robert McNair of Bruno caught 17 crappie, including one that measured 14 1/2 inches over cedar tops at Lake Norfork at depths of about 30 feet using a 1/16-ounce Bobby Garland jig and live minnows on 6-pound-test P-Line. Stringfellow said the fishing is best when the entire fall pattern is in place. For optimum results, the water should be 55 to 65 degrees.
Lake Dardanelle is the best bass lake in Arkansas, but it’s also a fabulous crappie fishery. An impoundment of the Arkansas River, it’s much shallower than our other highland lakes. Its average depth is 14 feet, and its maximum depth is only 61 feet, and so you seldom have to go as deep to catch crappie as you do on other reservoirs.
Even so, the fall pattern is similar. In September, crappie begin migrating away from main-lake points into the main tributaries like Illinois Bayou, Big Piney Creek and Mud Creek. You’ll find them in brush, wood cover or aquatic grass in depths of less than 10 feet.
Some of my favorite brushpiles are in the middle sections of Big Piney Creek. When he can pull himself away from September’s early teal season and dove hunting along the Arkansas River, Alan Thomas of Russellville often joins me.
We have a special rig for this occasion. It consists of a single line with a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce bell sinker on the terminal end. Starting about 6 inches above the sinker, three dropper lines are attached to the main line about 4 to 6 inches apart. With live minnows on the droppers, we suspend the rig over the top of the brush or along the sides down to the bottom. If one dropper consistently gets more bites than the others, we switch to a single hook under a slip-cork set to the effective depth.
Curiously, the brushtops that produce crappie in September are the same ones that produce in March, when crappie are migrating out of the creeks.
The vertical tri-line rig is basically a one-rod, stationary adaptation of the spider rigs that have taken Arkansas crappie fishing by storm. Spider rigging consists of multiple rods set to multiple depths. Live minnows are the preferred baits.
With the rods resting in holders, slowly troll the spider rig back and forth across brush. Again, when you notice you’re getting bit at a particular depth, set the rest of your lines to that depth and continue the process. It is the quickest way to catch a limit, and right now is an excellent time to try it!
CRAPPIE/TEAL CAST & BLAST
Double your fun this month by adding a teal hunt to your crappie fishing trips on Natural State lakes and rivers
The early teal season generally runs 16 days in September, starting on the second Saturday and ending on the third Sunday. The daily limit is six teal, usually bluewings because they are the earliest to arrive in our state.
Huge flocks concentrate on our major waterways, especially at Lake Dardanelle, but also on the other impoundments of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System because the Arkansas River is a major flyway.
Waterfowling is also allowed on lakes Ouachita, DeGray, Bull Shoals, Conway, Millwood and others.
Launch well before dawn and set up a small decoy spread on a wide mud flat near tules or cattails. If yo’re lucky, bluewings will light among the decoys right at legal shooting light. Truthfully, the first bunch usually lights 10-15 minutes before legal shooting light and leaves about 2 minutes before. Their timing is uncanny.
Teal hunting usually is very good for an hour or two after sunrise and an hour or two before sunset. That’s why you should stow a crappie rod or two among your hunting gear.
When the shooting is over, you can spend the day catching crappie.
— Marshall Ford