Crappies When It Sizzles

by John Weiss

When the temperature soars, these two techniques pay off in fast action and good eating.

Legions of anglers call crappies Public Panfish No. 1, but this certainly isn't the only moniker attached to the species. Other colorful nicknames abound. Throughout the south, the name is pronounced just as it is spelled. But north of the Mason-Dixon line, the name is pronounced "croppie." In various locales, they also are referred to as specks, papermouths, silversides, bachelor perch, speckled perch, chinquapin, and lamplighters. Still other regional names include strawberry bass, calico bass, white perch, banlicks, tinmouths, and sac-a-lait (Cajun-French for "bag of milk," in reference to their succulent white flesh).

Crappies have many colorful names, except during the sweltering summer when they're difficult to find.

However, at still other times crappies are called names that cannot be printed here, which is usually the case during the torrid days of summer when the fish are exasperatingly difficult to find.

After their spring spawning ritual has been completed, crappies move out of the shallows and begin their well-planned journey back to deeper water, entirely abandoning all but the deepest coves and creek arms in favor of main lake areas. By mid-summer, they usually can be found associating with stump fields and standing timber on steep shoreline drop-offs or along the edges of the old river bed winding across the lake floor.

When the sun beats down like a fireball, the fish vacate the shallows for midlake regions.

Look for them now at depth levels of 12 to 30 feet. Moreover, since weeds generally do not grow at these depths, the fish predictably like to associate with standing timber, deep stump fields, fallen logs and tree crowns on the bottom.

Now is when astute crappie anglers switch gears by putting away the panfish poles they used for live-bait fishing during the spring spawning weeks, in favor of lightweight spinning tackle. And the technique which has been popularized in the last several decades is known as stump-jumping; in other words, briefly fishing jigs in the vicinity of such bottom cover described above and then, if no strikes are received, quickly moving on to the next likely looking place, and then the next. Many anglers make so-called "milk runs" in which the entire day is devoted exclusively to motoring their boats along the shoreline and stopping to fish at each stump or loggerhead protruding above the surface. 

In deciding which jigs are most likely to be productive, keep in mind that crappies are very size-conscious when it comes to taking one food item over another. Jigs that weigh 1/8 to 1/4 ounce and are dressed with plastic, curly grub tails account for the largest crappies because, at this time of year, minnows have grown considerably larger and crappies seem to recognize the difference. As for colors, experiment with a variety of hues to determine what the fish want on a given day.

If the water depth does not exceed 12 feet or so, and is relatively clear, you'll not want to approach cover too closely as this may spook fish. This situation calls for casting, and I'm convinced the slowest possible retrieve is what crappies like best. Do not attempt to "reel" the lure in. Fish it just like you'd work a plastic worm for bass by casting, allowing the jig to sink, then retrieving it by very slowly raising the rod tip to the vertical position. When the rod tip is pointing straight up, quickly lower it, reel in the slack line this has generated, then repeat the slow upward raising of the rod tip. Be sure to work several different depths because if the stumps, loggerheads or other cover juts up from the bottom the fish may be holding at a specific level, and crappies usually are not inclined to swim upward or downward more than two feet to capture their prey.

If the water depth exceeds 12 or 15 feet, casting jigs becomes less and less effective because one loses control over the level at which the lure can be retrieved. Now is when expert crappie anglers like to position their boat directly over the woody cover and vertically jig for the fish. Simply lower the jig down into the cover, or around its edges, barely flick your wrist to make the jig dance around a bit, then hold it motionless in place. Again, test-fish a variety of depths to determine the particular level at which the crappies are holding on that particular day. 

Beginning sometime in late summer, usually when the water temperature exceeds 65 degrees, crappies descend to very deep levels, often to depths of 25 to 35 feet. They commonly gather in large schools suspended at arbitrary mid-depths, generally in the vicinity of the old riverbed or over deep sand and gravel bars. Also, it's characteristic of them to hover on a horizontal plane within a very narrow depth range, almost like a waterlogged blanket floating in the water. In other words, the actual water depth may be 50 feet, with literally hundreds upon hundreds of crappies suspended between 32 and 34 feet.

Locating such schools of crappies is usually happenstance. It generally occurs when using a depth sounder and bottom contour map with the intention of finding midlake loggerheads that are not visibly sticking above the surface and suddenly seeing the screen light up with untold numbers of suspended fish. Once such a joyous find is made, catching the crappies is relatively easy, but only if lures or bait are presented at the very level at which the crappies are suspended.

First try lowering a minnow-tipped jig to that depth level, just to make sure they really are crappies and not big gizzard shad or some such thing. Then, if fish begin coming aboard faster than you can re-bait your hooks, consider switching to jigs dressed with plastic twister tails to save time. You can also troll small slim-minnow plugs such as the Rapala or Rebel, or straight-line spinners such as those made by Mepps, although you may have to experiment with weights attached to your line to reach the proper depth level.

John Weiss has graciously offered to autograph copies of his book, The Panfisherman's Bible.