From late spring through the summer months, on lakes throughout the South, a sort of changing of the guard occurs most evenings. As bass anglers pack up for the day and head back to the launch, they motor past the graveyard shift of crappie fishermen just heading out on the water.
These nighttime anglers arrive at their destinations as the sun slips below the western horizon. By dusk, they’re rigged with powerful, submersible, bright green or white LED lights, and are ready to enjoy fast-paced action on crappie during the hottest time of the year.
Veteran night fisherman Pete Jordan, of Wake Forest, N.C., has used lights to catch nocturnal crappies for most of his 61 years. It became such an important part of his fishing life, he now produces his own brand of crappie lights.
"The process of night fishing for crappies with lights is fairly straight-forward," Jordan says. "The powerful green spectrum of lights I use attracts amoebas and other small aquatic organisms. This congregation of aquatic organisms attracts forage fish, such as shad and herring, that feed on them. As the forage species gather in big numbers, predator fish like crappies move in to feast."
The sophisticated, purpose-built lights Jordan uses now are a far cry from the ones he employed in his youth.
"Hanging lanterns off bridges and boats when I was a youngster was my favorite way to catch lots of crappies," he says. "We were serious because what we ate for dinner the next evening depended on what we caught the night before."
While the technique is not difficult, Jordan says that night fishing for crappies is anything but random. Anglers must key on specific spots.
"By July and August, the fish are locked into their deep-water patterns," he says. "Most will be found in the mainstream part of the lake or in the lower end of major tributary creeks."
That’ll get you in the right area, but Jordan says he further refines his fish-finding process.
"I fine-tune my search to humps, points and ledges along the river or large creek channels," he says. "They’re all potentially productive because of the deep-to-shallow-water access, but I also use my graph to search for schools of baitfish and crappies located in the vicinity."
THE NIGHT STALKER
Another longtime nocturnal angler is Robert "Rango" Plemmons of Rock Hill, S.C. Plemmons, whose home water is Lake Wylie, which straddles the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, refers to this style of fishing as "night stalking."
"Crappies travel along underwater highways looking for food, moving along travel routes like creek and river channels, ledges, points and humps," he says. "I set up on these areas, and the lights lure crappies from considerable distances. They congregate when they find an abundance of food at the light source, and I’m there waiting on them with multiple rods rigged and ready."
Plemmons says a fair amount of preparation is required before fish-catching time because boat positioning and the depth and presentation of the bait are important to success. He prefers to fish over deep water; a mid-lake intersection of a major feeder creek with the main channel is one prime destination. He anchors the boat so he can fish the bottom of the drop in the deepest water, as well as part of the slope. He says getting a good anchor set is crucial.
"I anchor well before dark with anchors that dig into the bottom for maximum holding ability. I don’t want passing boats or a shift in the wind to affect the boat’s position," Plemmons says.
The best depths to anchor may vary from one lake to another, but fish are usually caught well off the bottom.
"Crappies often move shallow around the light, often up to 10 feet or less," he says. "That’s why anchoring over deep water works. The fish adjust to their preferred feeding depth in the water column, and by fishing multiple depths I’m able to pattern them for that night."
Plemmons drops his lights about a foot or so under the water. He often takes multiple friends, and he’ll have a light at each fishing station with four rod holders per angler.
"If fishing action is hot, that’s plenty of rods," he says. "But I adjust the number of rigs based on the people fishing and the fish-biting action."
Plemmons says he’s experimented with many types of rigs and terminal tackle through the years and has come to the conclusion that the best rigs are relatively simple.
"I’ll use 8-pound-test line with a number-2 gold Eagle Claw wire hook and a number-2 split shot about 10 inches above the hook," he says. "The lengths of the rods vary from 4 ½ to 9 feet, which enables me to fish different areas of the lighted water. Sometimes crappies will get directly under the light, but usually they hold close to the edge of the light field or even several feet out."
Plemmons paints his rod tips with a flat white paint for better visibility.
"Of all the tinkering I’ve done over the years, painting the tips flat white is one of the best tweaks," he says. "Ultralight rods with the tips painted white allow me to see subtle bites that add fish to the cooler. I also use an LED light positioned high and in the back of the boat to subtly light up the entire fishing area."
According to both Plemmons and Jordan, minnows are the primary bait for nocturnal crappie fishing.
"Minnows are ideal because that’s what a crappie sees when it’s attracted to the lights," Jordan says. "For night fishing during summer I want a medium-sized minnow, though large minnows will work."
Plemmons says minnow management is crucial during summer when the water and weather is warm. "Keeping minnows frisky directly impacts success, so I use a large aeration system to keep the bait fresh."
GO FOR THE GLOW
Not all nocturnal fishing lights are created equal, with variations in style, color and brightness. Pete Jordan and Rango Plemmons both began their nighttime crappie fishing careers a half century ago by the light of Coleman lanterns. In the decades since, they’ve learned a thing or two about attracting crappies at night—and they each prefer a different color light for the job.
"My belief is that green LEDs cast a longer light signature and are more effective at pulling organisms that attract forage fish, which in turn attract crappies," Jordan says. "That’s why I make and sell the green lights."
Pete Jordan’s 12-volt Bait Stik LED lights, available at ultimategiglights.com, come in three sizes. The 40-watt lights ($129) produce 4,400 lumens; 30-watt lights ($109) put out 3,300 lumens; and 20-watt lights ($59) produce 2,200 lumens. All have a one-year warranty.
Plemmons maintains that most any submersible light works just fine, though he prefers white.
"In general, all LED lights are terrific—they’re very bright and drain very little battery power," he says. "I’ve tried both white and green, and I prefer white simply because they allow me to catch all the fish I can handle."
Plemmons’ light of choice is the Goture 12-volt, 10.8-watt LED (right), which he gets from Amazon.com for $29.99 apiece.
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TOP SOUTHERN CRAPPIE LAKES
Jordan and Plemmons agree that any lake with a good crappie population has the potential to be an excellent night-fishing lake, though it might take a couple trips to any one lake to find the best specific locations for after-dark angling. Here are a handful of crappie reservoirs around the South where the crappie fishing shines particularly bright at night.
- Jordan Lake, North Carolina: Located south of Chapel Hill, Jordan Lake offers more than 13,000 surface acres of water. It is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- Lake Sidney Lanier, Georgia: Lake Lanier, northeast of Atlanta, is also a Corps of Engineers lake. It’s an impoundment of the Chattahoochee River with 38,000 surface acres of water.
- Santee Cooper Lakes, South Carolina: Santee Cooper consists of Lake Marion, with 110,000 surface acres of water, and Lake Moultrie, with 60,000 surface acres.
- Weiss Lake, Alabama: Weiss Lake, in northeastern Alabama, is fed by three rivers: the Coosa, Little and Chattooga. Weiss has approximately 30,000 surface acres of water.
- Norris Lake, Tennessee: Norris Lake, north of Knoxville, is a Tennessee Valley Authority lake with more than 33,000 surface acres of water and is fed by the Clinch River.