October 25, 2023
The water temperature was in the low 50s when my neighbor Don joined me for a fall outing on a local lake last year. Don likes to eat crappies, and I was cautiously optimistic we’d put enough slabs in the live well to satisfy the needs of him and his family.
Stopping the boat shy of an offshore submerged tree, I instructed Don to cast a 1/16-ounce jig dressed with an action-tail grub toward the spot. The sunken tree sat in 25 feet of water with branches that extended 10 feet off bottom. As our lightweight jigs slowly swung toward the cover, they were intercepted by foot-long slabs, the start of a great morning. By fishing this brush pile and ones like it, the outing provided exactly what my friend needed.
I wish I could say those same spots continued to produce right until ice up, but that was not the case. I still had fine fishing throughout the fall, but the locations and presentations required constant adjustment. Such is the nature of consistently taking crappies during the autumn months.
FALL LOCATION TRANSITION
Throughout the year, crappies seem to be constantly on the move, making finding them a challenge. On the plus side, they show up well on common sonar imagery such as traditional 2D, down imaging and side imaging. During the fall, that movement tends to be to deeper water. In reservoirs the movement is often from mid-depth submerged wood to deeper wood. In natural lakes, remaining green weeds will often hold fish until crappies eventually move to offshore drop-offs and hard-bottom ledges.
Don’t overlook suspended fish, particularly in lakes with open-water forage—shad, alewives, emerald shiners and rainbow smelt. A segment of the crappie population will likely roam basins in concert with forage fish movements. As such, a versatile approach is needed to consistently catch fall crappies.
MID-FALL CASTING PATTERNS
With water temperatures in the mid to low 50s, crappies will still likely be in depths where a casting approach (as opposed to vertically jigging) is appropriate. Crappies can be spooky, especially in clear-water lakes, so it’s best to stay off the fish if you can. This includes the judicious use of your trolling motor to remain stealthy.
I prefer to use a 6 1/2- to 7-foot, light-power, moderate-fast-action rod when casting to mid-fall crappies. This is coupled to a 1000- or 2000-size spinning reel loaded with ultra-thin braided line like Sufix Nanobraid in 8-pound test. A 3- to 4-foot leader of 6-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon, joined with an Albright knot, completes the setup.
One of the keys to fishing submerged cover is a slow drop that allows the bait to pendulum over or near the cover at a slow pace. For this I like a 1/16-ounce jig but will use a 1/8-ounce jig if it’s breezy. Action-tail plastics like Bobby Garland’s Stroll’R and Swim’R excel. Target the top of the cover first, as the more active fish tend to hold higher. Then, allowing the lure to sink farther, work deeper into the cover during subsequent casts. It can be snaggy, but light-wire hooks often bend out and you can salvage the jig. Jigs with hook guards are also an option.
Hits often come simply as a tightening on the line as you retrieve the jig, which should be done with a somewhat steady retrieve with occasional pauses to allow the presentation to momentarily drop.
LATE-FALL JIGGING PATTERNS
As water temperatures continue to drop, crappies often move to deeper haunts. Whereas mid-fall locations might have been in the 20- to 25-foot zone, by now the fish may be relating to 35- to 40-foot depths. A prime location, I’ve found, is a submerged tree that plunges into a creek or river channel. While the treetop might lay in depths of 50 feet of water or more, fish will often hold in branches that extend upward into 25 to 35 feet of water.
Typically, it’s more challenging to present a cast bait in such deep water, particularly when you’re trying to keep things lightweight. For this reason, a more vertical approach and finesse presentation is called for. Tone things down by switching to a more subtle profile such as a Bobby Garland Slab Slay’R or Baby Shad.
When working deep water, I prefer to hold the boat directly over the targeted area. For tree tops I make what I call a vertical cast. This is nothing more than allowing the jig to fall to the desired depth, then working it back up through the water column, stopping every few feet to allow fish to examine the bait and have the opportunity to eat it. Yes, it can be snaggy, but again, light-wire hooks will often bend out, releasing the jig. As you get a feel for the depth the fish are holding in (hopefully toward the upper portions of the cover), you can reduce how far you allow the jig to sink. Once this is determined, it’s often most productive to simply allow the jig to hover at this depth.
Crappies can be maddingly selective when it comes to lure color, so be willing to experiment. In general, brighter colors such as pink and chartreuse are productive in darker water. In clearer water, shad-hued baits or ones with a hint of blue often excel. Also, tipping the jig with a Berkley Crappie Nibble can dramatically up your bites. And it never hurts to slather your jig with an attractant like Smelly Jelly.
When deep crappies ignore finesse plastics, they will often hit a 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! minnow, which is not much bigger than a matchstick. Dress the minnow on a light-wire hook and add a Nibble for enhanced enticement. Another option is a quarter-ounce blade bait hovered with an occasional upward snap. I’ve had cold-water crappies eat a blade bait that’s hung motionless for a full minute or more.
It’s worth noting here that crappies taken from deeper water, say from 25 feet and beyond, will often be un-releasable due to the pressure change. So plan to keep the ones you catch, and limit your take to reasonable numbers.
As noted previously, in certain circumstances crappies will wander over deep-water basins. This is often evident by the presence of schools of suspended fish (and baitfish) marking on sonar. Since these fish aren’t stationary, trolling is often the best way to target them.
I use the same light spinning rods mentioned earlier for trolling. In my home state of Pennsylvania, three rods per angler are allowed. So, I present action-tail jigs with three different weights—commonly 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 ounce—to sift the water column. I run them about a cast length behind the boat, which is pulled at .7 to .8 mph with a Minn Kota Terrova bow-mount trolling motor.
Trolling paths are aimed at basin areas where fish and baitfish are showing up. When a particular depth proves to be productive—meaning consistent hits on one specific setup—others are adjusted to match. The same goes with color patterns. Let the fish tell you if they have a preference.
At times, I’ve found trolling stickbaits off lead-core line to be quite effective on late-fall, open-water crappies. In fact, this has happened when targeting open-water walleyes. But in certain lakes it has become the rule rather than the exception—enough to make it a directed tactic. And, as you would expect, the crappies you catch trolling 4- to 5-inch minnowbaits at 1.5 to 2 mph tend to be big ones.