Having had the opportunity to fish for most fish that inhabit the waters across the Pacific Coast states, crappie are one of my favorites to target — and to eat.
Crappie can be caught in most any weather or season. But during their transition time, after spawning and setting up shop on structure and near forage in deep water, some of the best crappie fishing takes places after the sun goes down.
GETTING READY FOR DARK
Like any fishing experience, planning your night-fishing for crappies helps pay big dividends when you put your tactics to work.
As you plan your outing, make the beginning of your night-fishing easy. Start at home by checking your basic equipment. Night-fishing from a boat requires the running lights on your boat work properly. Ensure all boat batteries and accessories are in good working order. Keep a flashlight or a spotlight handy for lighting the inside of your boat or gathering the attention of another boat. Check your PFDs. Rid your boat of equipment you do not need to lessen the chances of tripping over clutter in the dark. Carry plenty of insect repellent. Organize your marker buoys for ready access and organize your fishing gear before leaving home.
Rig your rods. Crappie fishing at night doesn’t require high-dollar tackle. Match a light-action rod to the reel of your choice. Four- to 6-pound-test monofilament line is perfect for crappie fishing at night. Light, sensitive lines allow baits and lures to work more effectively (naturally, perhaps) and transmit the lightest bites. Use light, wire hooks, sizes 6-8, that are capable of hooking a crappie firmly but don’t kill minnows as easily as large, heavy-gauge hooks. A strong, stiff-shanked hook caught up on snags will also disturb fish and often breaks off while trying to free it from a snag.
Squeeze a 1/4-ounce split shot onto the line about 18 inches above the hook. Use spray paint to change your white bobbers to bright yellow bobbers (or buy them that way), which are much easier to see at night. And a small splotch of the same paint sprayed onto the tip of your rod can help detect finicky bites on rods in holders.
Planning your trip also means deciding where the dark “after hours” will land you. Some of the best lakes I have found for crappie fishing at night are deep and large: from 500 acres (such as large municipal lakes) to magnum-sized impoundments operated by state and federal authorities. It is also important these lakes hold good supplies of baitfish, structure and cover. Small, shallow waters often do not produce good crappie fishing because the water for much of the year is not cool enough to hold good levels of dissolved oxygen, a key year-round factor for strong crappie populations. Talk with local bait shop owners and other fisherman to gain more information on the best lakes.
After the lake is chosen, plan to scout it during the day. It can be hard enough locating crappie hotspots in daylight; doing so in darkness on unfamiliar water can be frustrating and dangerous. Use a GPS unit to track your navigation. Mark your best sites as waypoints — in fact, mark several sites for alternative fishing holes — and use the unit to return safely and efficiently to your fishing spots at night.
LIGHT IT UP
Lights aren’t just for the docks at night. Nighttime anglers often employ lights, such as propane or electric lanterns and lights. Some fishermen use both, hanging the lanterns above the water to attract insects … which attract baitfish … which attract crappie. Many use two lanterns/lights, one on each end of the boat, suspended close to the water to prevent bugs flying around their heads. Floating lights attract baitfish and game fish but not bugs. Position both lighting options where you can fish in and around the beam. No matter how you choose to use lights for night-fishing, be patient. It can take some time to pull in bugs, bait fish and game fish.
Use as many rods as the law allows when fishing for crappie. More rods deliver results more quickly. Using rod holders (or otherwise securing the rods in place), locate one setup near the light(s); space the others along the length of the boat. Oftentimes, bites come to the rod(s) near the light(s). Other times, your bites come just on the edge of the light.
Set your baits at different depths until you find fish. Consider the clarity of the water to determine how deep to start fishing. If the water is clear, crappie could be 20 to 30 feet deep; in stained water, 10 to 20 feet deep; and if the water is muddy, 5 to 10 feet deep. Keep in mind lights will draw the fish closer to the surface.
The trick is to get your bait as close as possible to the depth where the fish are feeding. Crappie are notorious for refusing to rise or sink for a bait outside the strike zone. A fishfinder — revealing schooled crappie or bait fish — helps determine the depth where the fish are feeding. Use care not to drop into brush piles and other woody cover.
Minnows are the preferred bait by a lot of crappie anglers but small jigs armed with soft-plastic grubs can catch just as many crappie as a minnow. Some anglers believe minnows are needed on cold days — more specifically, the smell and feel of a live minnow is needed — when the fish are not biting aggressively.
But with so many jigs and bodies on the market today, it is hard to pick a favorite pattern. Marabou jigs work well and a quality jig stays together all night long. Soft-plastic grubs on small jig heads are good, too, especially when crappie refuse to take the marabou jig. The key to catching a mess of crappie on jigs is changing the presentation until the right color and size produces a limit of fish.
TAKE A STROLL
Nighttime crappie anglers sometimes choose to slow troll — or “stroll” — their baits and lures through the water column, sometimes logging very impressive catches. Many do so from kayaks specifically designed with fishermen in mind.
Strolling for crappie is simple.
Vertically present the same baited lines or small jigs where crappie have been detected by transducers. If the wind is light, drift across the site where the crappie are located or use an electric trolling motor to slowly push a boat, as needed, in different directions. Kayak anglers can pedal (if so equipped) or paddle their crafts in the needed directions. Keep as many rods working as possible (and legal), securely set in rod holders; watch the rod tips for bites and keep the mosquito repellent handy.
CHANGE IS GOOD
Transitional crappie will bite wherever you find them. Discover their spawning sites early in spring and wear ’em out while the fishing is easy. Learn where they go when the spawning ends and work those deep-water travel lanes and schooling sites at night with light tackle and some simple tactics.
NIGHTTIME CAN BE THE RIGHT TIME
Many anglers become overwhelmed at the idea of fishing at night. Night-fishing is enjoyable and, when done right, can result in a good mess of fish.
Prepare with several rods rigged up and ready to go. Frustration with tackle trouble mounts easily in the dark. A rod or two at the ready is simple to pick up and keeps your action steady.
Stealth is important. Noise from plunking the electric motor into position, constantly running the motor, moving things around, chucking an anchor overboard … whatever makes noise is going to work against you. Drift whenever possible with the motor off.
Keep your movements inside the boat to a minimum. Keep your boat and fishing equipment in order to prevent tripping on the deck. Always wear a PFD.
Stay safe when releasing a fish. What might be a simple task in the daytime can be a little more difficult at night. Always sit down when releasing a fish. You’re more likely to stay in the boat while sitting if your boat bumps into an object you can’t see in the darkness.
Tell a friend or family member where — both the destination and the site — you’re night-fishing in case of emergencies on the water or at home.