August 23, 2021
The sporadic deep weedline stretched along a quarter-mile section of shoreline, connecting two main-lake points. The reservoir’s clear water allowed submerged weed growth out to a depth exceeding 15 feet.
It's a fishy spot where I never know what I might catch. It could be a largemouth, smallmouth, walleye, perhaps a musky, and during the summer months, crappies.
I held the boat in about 17 feet of water and crawled along the outside edge of the weeds at a pace of a half-mile an hour. My partner Sid trailed a light bucktail jig behind the boat; I opted for a lightweight Rapala Jigging Rap. Both of us imparted a snap-jig motion to our baits that popped the bucktail and Rap sharply off the bottom before they glided erratically back down on a semi-slack line.
Undoubtedly, springtime sees most of the crappie fishing action. Movements of fish into the shallows—first to feed and then to spawn—often makes for easy pickings. The fish often relate to visible objects like laydowns, flooded shoreline willows and dead lily pad stems.
As spring gives way to summer, the fish vanish from such spots and angler attention wanes. But there is still crappie action to be had even during the late summer and early fall, provided you know where to look for them and how to catch them.
The biggest obstacle to consistently catching crappies now is finding them. For the most part they have vacated their shallow springtime haunts, particularly the quality-sized fish. Locating them means searching deeper water to find fish relating to various forms of cover as well as food. In dingy-water reservoirs that lack much in the way of submergent vegetation, the draw is often a combination of structure and cover.
Veteran crappie angler Kenny Smith, who regularly plies the flatland and hill-land reservoirs of northwestern Pennsylvania, finds summer crappies relating to drop-offs that feature wood. Smith says the ledge doesn’t need to be dramatic—a drop of just 2 to 3 feet can be attractive—but crappies will likely be present if there’s wood. This can be in the form of brush piles, embedded tree branches or stumps. The reservoirs that Smith fishes lack much in the way of submergent vegetation, particularly at the depths crappies prefer during this time frame.
"I still find crappies bunched up, but not as much as they are during the springtime," Smith says. "I can take around 15 crappies off each spot."
In clear-water reservoirs and natural lakes, it's common to find late-summer crappies relating to the deep edge of the weeds. Bluff banks where shoreline erosion has allowed trees to tumble into the depths can be crappie magnets. Sunken bridges and abutments can hold fish, as can old roadbeds and deeper stump fields.
Sonar plays a big part in identifying late-summer crappie locations. Side-scanning sonar excels at locating the deeper structure and cover mentioned above. Crappies, which often suspend well off the bottom, often mark on sideview. Traditional (2D) and down-imaging sonar shines when searching and fishing directly under the boat. Expect fish to display as close schools that extend vertically.
Real-time sonar like Garmin's LiveScope and Lowrance's ActiveTarget Live, which display live images rather than scrolling history, are becoming increasingly popular with crappie anglers willing to invest in the pricey technology.
Appropriate late-summer crappie tactics address the fact that the fish can be both concentrated and scattered, depending on the type of habitat available.
For fishing deeper (12 to 15 feet) brush piles, Smith employs a tactic he calls "hang-gliding." He rigs a 10- to 12-foot crappie rod with what’s essentially a Carolina Rig. A 1/2-ounce egg sinker is secured approximately two feet from the terminal end by passing the line through the sinker three times. He finishes the rig off with a 1/16-ounce jig dressed with a plastic like a Bobby Garland Baby Shad. With the rod in a rod holder, he "glides" back and forth over deep wood with the trolling motor. Smith will also fish a slip-bobber rig over wood cover, holding the boat in place with his trolling motor's GPS anchor.
Specific spots such as submerged trees below bluffs and sunken bridges can be worked with a variety of lure types, including blade baits, gliding jigs and jig-and-plastic combos. These are situations where it’s most often possible to hover the boat above (or just off to the side of) the cover, within the cone angle on 2D and/or down-imaging sonar. Even without live-imaging sonar, crappies suspended within such cover will be visible as solid lines; broken lines if the fish are moving. In this situation I have much confidence in being able to pluck crappies from the cover with a blade bait.
Hang-Glide Rig Basics
I simply drop the blade over the side of the boat, counting down its descent to maintain depth control. The objective is to keep the lure above either the cover or the upper depth at which the fish are holding. It often takes a bit of experimentation to find the sweet spot depth-wise, but once it's established this approach can be quite efficient.
While blade baits can be used to dig fish out of deep wood cover, fish suspended off of it often respond to swimming baits like lightweight jigs with plastic bodies and underspin jigs, which provide added flash. Again, since these fish are rarely tight to the bottom, experiment with various depths by counting the lure down and swimming it back to the boat.
As described in the anecdote at the outset, crappies can be taken with snap-jigging tactics when targeting deep weed edges—places where the fish tend to mill back and forth. In this scenario, since the fish aren't relating to a specific spot, it's best to cover the water with the boat. As mentioned, gliding jigs and bucktail jigs excel. I've also done well trailing a blade bait or jig-and-plastic combo, again fishing them with a snap-jig motion that fires the presentation well up off the bottom.
Three-way rigging isn't often thought of as a crappie tactic, but it provides another viable option for covering lengthy expanses such as outside weed edges. Tie the rig with a 3-foot lead going to a 1-ounce sinker and a 1-foot lead going to a downsized shad or minnow-shaped crankbait. Slowly troll the rig at around 1 to 1.5 mph, pumping the rod tip occasionally to impart additional action to the lure.
Over the years I've often found summertime crappies relating to stump fields in the 15- to 20-foot depths. At first, they were an incidental catch when targeting walleyes with small crankbaits trolled behind leadcore line. Now it's just one of several tactics I employ with targeting late-summer crappies loosely scattered over deeper cover.
Load up on these baits for late-summer slabs.
An appropriate selection of lures and rigs geared toward late-summer and early-fall crappies should address the fact that the fish can be wandering or stationary depending on both their mood and the available habitat.
BLADE BAITS AND GLIDING JIGS: Blade baits such as the Silver Buddy and gliding jigs like the Rapala Jigging Rap excel as both search lures and for working specific spots such as deeper brush piles or cribs. I prefer 1/2-ounce blade baits and No. 3 and 5 Jigging Raps.
MINIATURE CRANKBAITS: Rapala's classic Shad Rap in size 4 and 5 (1 1/2 and 2 inches, respectively) is an ideal choice for crappies. It can be cast along cover, pulled along a weedline with a three-way rig, and trolled over basins to find crappies relating to deep wood and stumps.
SLIP-BOBBER RIGS: Nothing tops the precision of baits hovered under a slip bobber, such as Thill's Wobble Bobber, when working over specific crappie-holding cover like brush piles and weed clumps. Match the bobber size to the weight of the jig and bait so the bobber barely floats. That way, the bobber will rise should a crappie strike from below, which is a common occurrence.
SOFT PLASTICS: Crappie-sized soft plastics come in a wide variety of profiles and colors, such as Strike King's Scizzor Shad, which features a pair of miniature boot tails. Other profile options include split tails, single boot tails and sickle tails. Such plastics in the 1- to 2-inch range couple well with 1/16 to 1/8-ounce jigheads for casting presentations, vertically jigging over cover and suspending under a slip bobber.
UNDERSPIN JIGS: Downsized underspin jigs like Northland Tackle's Thumper Crappie King perform well as search baits. Underspins combine the elements of flash with the enticement of a soft-plastic swimmer. More active fish may respond to an underspin, clueing you in to the presence of cover that might hold additional fish.