This may come as a surprise – open-water crappie season lasts far longer than April and May.
Sure, boats crowd the shallows when crappies are spawning and the morel mushrooms are popping up in the timber. But, this good tasting fish can be caught from lakes or reservoirs right through summer if you know where to look. We’ve caught crappies when the temperatures topped 100 degrees. Friends were jumping off the back of the boat to keep cool while we set the hook on a keeper slab at the front.
A lake map and a good sonar unit, like a Humminbird with side-imaging technology, will make the task easier.
Make sure the targeted water has crappies worth catching. Good walleye lakes with deep water often have good crappies. But crappies are notorious for boom and bust cycles from year to year. Check in with the Department of Natural Resources biologists that survey the panfish populations. In the Northwoods, target lakes others might overlook. The harder a lake is to reach, the better the panfishing may be.
Vegetation is the key in natural lakes and in reservoirs that have weeds. Summer crappies often suspend off the outside weed lines, especially cabbage weed, between 5 and 20 feet down. As always, look for the irregular bends along the edges where fish stop on their migration routes.
Cast a small jig, like a Lindy Quiver Jig and a minnow. But minnows can be hard to keep healthy in hot weather. Try small plastic baits like tubes or twisters or a YUM Beavertail. Simply cast along the weed line and let it fall. Crappies will take it on the drop. Or, try casting small lures like a 3/16-ounce Cordell Super Spot.
Lindy rigs are good search tools worked along the edge. A NO SNAGG sinker and a small hook or a number 6 or 8 Aberdeen hook works best. Use a light-action 7- or 8-foot St. Croix rod. The rod should flex so you don’t pull hooks out of their paper-thin mouths. Use light line like 4-pound-test monofilament. Once fish are found, draw away from the weed line, anchor and use slip-bobber rigs.
Wood is often the right cover in reservoirs. Look for standing timber on points in deeper water. Crappies will hold tight to the trunks and in the limbs. The key is finding the right depth. Tight-line small jigs and plastic or minnows on longer rods. Let the bait down to the bottom and reel up a turn or two. Nothing? Reel up another foot. Repeat until an aggressive fish takes the bait and tips off the location of others. Rather than reeling in that first one, lift your rod and swing the fish to you. Use the rod to measure the active depth. That makes it easy to return the jig to the right spot time after time. Slip-bobbers can do the same task.
Though harder to find, deeper brush piles and fish cribs are deadly during the hot months. Lake maps often feature the cribs. Brush piles can be tricky to spot. A side-imaging Humminbird can scan the dropoffs on points fast. In a reservoir, the brush farther from shore can be prime. It’s overlooked and often untouched. Finding the brush is a matter of checking the lake map for turns in the old river channel where brush might collect. Use your sonar to pinpoint the spot, drop a buoy or use an electronic “marker” on a GPS to stay unnoticed by other boats. Tight-line a small jig. Braided line often lets you pull a jig free if you get snagged.
Crappies are color-sensitive. Mix it up until they show a preference.
Mark active spots on the GPS. Leave when the action stops and move to find other places holding fish. You’ll have a milk run of places to return later that day or on other days. One good thing about deeper spots – they tend to hold fish more consistently than the shallows.
Crappies can get harder to find as the summer wears on. They move over mud bottoms where they form tight, silo-shaped schools that may be 10 feet in diameter and 25 feet from top to bottom. Or they move to deeper water and suspend around schools of small baitfish. Search for them with your electronics, then drop a marker buoy. One way to target them is to cast Lindy’s Little Guppy jig. An easier way is simply to troll or drift open water. If state law allows, use a three-way swivel and a double three-way rig with a small ?-oz. Fuzz-E-Grub jig as the dropper and a small 1/32-oz. Little Nipper on the trailer. Move slowly with your trolling motor.
Where trolling isn’t allowed, drift with baits set at different depths until the active depth is determined. Split shot of different sizes can help keep the baits in the zones. Best depth may depend on the thermocline (where deeper water, with less oxygen, meets water on top, which has more oxygen). Fish generally try to find their comfort zone temperature-wise, but oxygen is the deciding factor. If there’s no oxygen at the temperature they like, they’ll have to settle for warmer water. The thermocline will appear on a good sonar as a line across the screen at a certain depth.
Crappies may also seek cover under docks at certain times of day. Use a short 4-1/2 foot ultralight rod, 2- or 4-pound line, and a tiny 1/64- or 1/32-ounce Little Nipper. Open the bail on the spinning reel, hold the line tight, take the jig in the other hand and pull the line back until the rod bows. Point the rod tip at the target under the dock and let it fly.
Lastly, night fishing can be very effective and a fun way to spend a summer’s night under the stars. Check the same wood piles and weed edges that produced crappies earlier. They’re most likely still there. Anchor quietly and use Thill Splash Brite floats, which light up upon contact with the water, rigged as slip bobbers. That’s the makings of a midsummer night’s dream.