August 22, 2017
Get ready to get after Wisconsin fall crappie as they move from deep to shallow water.
By Ted Peck
Trees across Wisconsin still hold the sleepy green hues of late summer. But beneath our lakes and rivers seasonal change is already under way, with crappies leading the soft parade of migration from Madison to Manitowoc to Minocqua.
Unlike May when a legion of fishers across the state await the arrival of silvery slabs on shallow-water spawning beds, the September migration goes unnoticed by most anglers in the Land of Cheese.
Many guides, who take angling to a much higher level than casual anglers do, keep September crappie spots and tactics close to the vest, to be revealed only when another species their clients want to target decides not to show up.
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That happens a great deal in "Slumptember," as some folks call the ninth month. And for a variety of reasons and with a number of game fish species. Keeping crappie gear in the boat at all times is a smart strategy.
If conditions whisper it's time to break out the long poles on a difficult September day, the following words might just save your bacon.
Crappie on the move
I have spent a lifetime of fishing the Upper Mississippi River and have worked full time as a guide on Pool 9 for more than a decade. Most habitat parameters are ideal there in the weeks following Labor Day.
The weather is beautiful, fish metabolism is in overdrive, and there is a good chance any hook you can put in front of a fish's nose will quickly result in a bend in your rod.
But there is a big, green pickle in this piscatorial paradise: weeds.
Floating eelgrass blankets the Mississippi's main channel and myriad backwaters by the ton. Eelgrass mats can be the size of a garage and several inches thick, creating an obvious hazard to navigation.
Normally productive tactics like casting and trolling — especially with treble-hooked lures — is a study in frustration. Going after catfish or panfish can offer the highest chances for getting your string stretched when these conditions prevail.
Water temperatures beneath this somewhat stained water start cooling off by mid-August. Come September, a large percentage of the Upper Mississippi's crappie biomass is leaving deep outside weed edges in the backwaters to suspend in branches of fallen and hidden trees where they will remain until the River is about to lock up with ice.
Flooded timber is always a good place to look for crappies during the open-water period. But from September through October, wood is the best place to find a nice mess of crafty crappies.
Most of the time crappies attack from below, often creating negative pressure on a bobber or the line that runs through it. Eyes positioned near the top of a crappie's head make this the most effective way to feed.
Bait of choice
Minnows are popular crappie bait, year 'round across the state. But crappies are adept at stealing minnows, especially when offered up in heavy timber beneath a bobber.
If fish-a-minute action suddenly comes to a screeching halt, a barren hook is usually the reason.
That is why I use small tube, feather and hair jigs instead of live bait for Mississippi River crappies. Getting snagged up is a fact of life if you're fishing where the fish are. That is why my 10-foot St. Croix crappie rods have 20-pound superbraid line on their reels.
Pulling straight back on the rod with a hand cupped over the spinning reel's spool won't stress your nubile wand when snagged. Getting back to fishing is a simple matter of bending the hook back to a functional position about 90 percent of the time.
Come fall, many active crappies are suspended 3 to 4 feet down close to branches in deadfalls where there is at least 10 feet of water. If crappies are home, you'll know it in less than five minutes with a tactic known in the southern United States as "dabbling' or "doodlesocking." Essentially, this is simply allowing the tiny jig to freefall alongside a tree limb until it reaches 3 to 4 feet.
Importance of presentation
Presenting the lure in a perfectly vertical presentation is essential. Unfortunately, flooded standing timber is a weed magnet. I always carry a child's toy rake clamped to the end of an extendable painter's pole to clear a small opening next to the tree — essentially an ice-fishing presentation with weeds instead of ice requiring a hole.
If a crappie is in the neighborhood it will be watching your hook from the instant it touches the water — in some cases before the jig even gets wet! There is a 25-fish limit on crappies in the Mississippi River. It is not uncommon to fill a limit from a single fork of a single tree once fish are located.
Guide Justin Kohn uses nearly identical tactics when crappies migrate out of Lake Puckaway in southern Wisconsin into the Fox River. Kohn uses his Talon anchor to hold the boat while probing between branches in 2 to 8 feet of water with a minnow impaled on a 1/16-ounce light-wire jig.
When chasing walleyes on Lake Winnebago proves difficult, Kohn said he often tries trolling single-hook, perch-pattern Salmo Hornets behind planer boards on main-lake flats and reef edges. "In September you're just as likely to find a crappie, sheepshead or white bass on the line as a walleye," Kohn said. "If crappies are clearly the most active species, I'll move from mudflats to shoreline shallows looking for any green weeds near rocks and pitch a MiniMite jig set about a foot under a bobber to just pound those slabs."
Deep fall crappie
Kohn's crappie attack on Big Green Lake — Wisconsin's deepest inland lake — is quite different. Crappies in this clear, cold water tend to hold along the deep outside weed edge, about 18 feet down, all summer long.
With cooling water temperatures in September, Kohn said he still targets weed edges, but in much shallower water.
Guide Jesse Quale spends most of September fishing just a little farther north on the Wisconsin River, including sprawling Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages. "When September rolls around, there is substantial crappie migration from the flowages into more riverine habitat," Quale said. "Fishing just off bottom in quiet waters below dam tailwaters can be amazing for crappies this time of year. But about 90 percent of my fall crappie fishing is dabbling a 1/16-ounce B-Fish-N Tackle Draggin' Jig tipped with a brightly colored plastic between branches in the heaviest cover in quieter riverine stretches of the Wisconsin River."
Ron Barefield works on the Wisconsin River a little farther downstream on Lake Wisconsin where he uses his Humminbird Helix sonar to locate pods of crappies hovering above stumps near the old river channel in 14 to 18 feet of water.
Once a school of fish is located, Barefield likes to pitch a small plastic fluke on a light jighead to determine what species is lurking under the boat. "If the fish are crappies I'll set out several lines with minnows under slip-bobbers and keep pitching those flukes," Barefield said. "On a good day you just leave the livewell lid open until the clients have caught enough fish."
Crappies swimming in 917-acre Lake Nagawicka in Waukesha County won't see fishing gypsy Lynn Niklasch's "Fishin' Pal" boat this September because this legendary guide plans on spending the entire month chasing muskies on the south end of Green Bay.
If there was more work in southeast Wisconsin and crappies were the target of choice, Niklasch said, he would head for a small structural facet at this lake's north end known locally as "the kettle."
"Clouds of panfish that look like baitfish are suspended about 15 feet down over 30 feet of water here this time of year," Niklasch said. "If the fish are crappies, you'll know it in a few minutes if you drop a minnow, hook and split shot in front of them. If that doesn't work, try a Bimbo Skunk tipped with a wax worm. The fish seen on the sonar might be huge bluegills."
Josh Teigen also likes to go after muskies in September in Wisconsin's northernmost counties, with crappies sometimes a welcome diversion. Teigen does a lot of his work in Bayfield County where what may be the state's most stained lake and possibly the clearest lake are just a few short miles apart.
Crappies are a major component of the muskie forage base on Lake Namekagon, with these alpha predators lurking over the mid-lake basin waiting for crappies to stray from schools holding 12 to 15 feet down over 20 to 30 feet of water, especially out from shoreline weed edges, which drop quickly into deeper water.
"One of the best ways to hook a muskie on Namekagon is to fish a pink or red/white tube on a tungsten jig under a slip-bobber," Teigen said "Muskies come up and eat crappies before anglers can get them in the boat there almost every day."
There are no muskies in nearby Lake Owen to dog crappie movement. Owen is far beyond ultra-clear, making light fluorocarbon line an essential part of the presentation.
The lake's bottom is strewn with trees in 20 to 40 feet of water that are clearly visible below a boat. September crappies on Owen suspend over that wood. The best way to catch them is vertical jigging a small Kastmaster spoon, a minnow under a slip-bobber, or a natural-colored panfish tube that is clear, white or gray.
Teigen said the same tactics also work in lakes of the nearby Pike Chain, where crappie size can push an honest 16 inches.
Change of pace
Guide Dean Elmer specializes in walleyes on the seemingly endless Chippewa Flowage. But on days when 'eye chasing can be politely described as "tough," Elmer knows he can depend on The Chip's bountiful crappie population to keep smiles on his clients' faces.
Water adjacent to floating bogs is a traditional place to look for fall crappies on this water. Elmer said he has better luck targeting areas off of the natural points where the shoreline drops quickly away into about 20 feet of water, especially that kind of habitat adjacent to the old river channel.
The Chip is one waterbody where fall crappies tend to hover close to the bottom rather than suspending in the mid-depths. Elmer likes to get after 'em spreading slip-bobbers with a split shot about a foot above a minnow-baited 1/32-ounce Sunrise Tackle jig.
In just over a month crappies all over the state will migrate again, moving from September haunts to water where they will spend the winter. If you're having one of those days when September feels more like "Slumptember," then heed the advice of Rosland Capital spokesman William DeVane: Try silver!
Read more from Ted Peck