If you know where to look and how to make the right presentations, summertime crappie fishing can be some of the year's best
Crappie fishing is a springtime sport for most anglers, and it's hard to argue the logic behind this association. Spring brings big numbers of hungry fish to the shallows, making for quick contact and easy pickings. Following the spawn, a lot of crappie fishermen hang up their gear, assuming warm weather fishing is a waste of time.
But that's a mistake. With a little knowledge of crappie habits in the summer, anglers can continue to score in the heat. And the pay-off at the deep fryer is still as good. Let's investigate methods for summertime slabs by first considering your water body, and where to start looking for fish.
Follow the Bait
In a nutshell, crappies go exactly where the shad go, explains Realtree Fishing pro Mark Rose. Better known as a premier professional bass fisherman, Rose admits his obsession for white and black crappies runs just as deep. And Step 1 for finding them in the summer is finding baitfish.
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Rose points out that waters around his home in Arkansas feature a plethora of deep-water cover. Manmade and natural brush piles are readily available, as is standing timber and stumps. All attract shad as summertime water temperatures climb.
The shad use the cover for shade and to feed on plankton in the area, Rose says. Not surprisingly, crappies follow closely behind.
Here, it's important to shed more light on the shad / crappie relationship. As a rule, crappies will always associate with threadfin shad when they're available. The general range of these baitfish is from the Ohio River Valley southward, and as far west as Oklahoma. Referred to simply as threadfins, they're smaller shad than the gizzard shad found up north, and they are consumed by every predator fish around.
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An open-water species, threadfin shad spawn in late spring around the shoreline, then make their way offshore to spend the summer. They often group in massive schools, so finding them on sonar is usually pretty easy. Think deep, and consider the overall layout of your home water. On reservoir systems, threadfins will nearly always be drawn to the largest creek and river channels in the summer. Natural lakes find most baitfish in the deepest basin areas, out on the main lake. Fish a river for crappies? Look for shad on the steep, outside bends.
Once you find the bait, it's best to search the area for cover. Not surprisingly, anglers often place brush piles in areas that attract summertime shad, drawing in crappies that pursue them. Telltale marks on your sonar will be small arches holding next to and above the deep brush.
For years, my most productive method for targeting deep-water crappies has been to hold the boat directly over the fish with the trolling motor, and drop a jig straight down into them. It's hard to beat a small twister-tail for this method, with jighead sizes dependent on current and water depth. Most times, a 1/16-ounce or 1/8-ounce works well. It's important not to overwork the bait. Once around the brush, try to hold the lure still, and allow scrutinizing slabs the opportunity to come up and suck it in.
Rose takes his open-water game a step further. Utilizing the latest forward-facing sonar, he spots fish swimming in and around cover out in front of his boat, then he watches his lure on the screen as he retrieves it through the hotspot. If you haven't seen this new sonar in action, it's literally like watching a video game. All the action underwater — fish approaching, hitting or ignoring the lure — unfolds on the screen.
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Understandably, larger lures show up best on the sonar. Rose adapts his crappie methods to match. I use a Strike King Rage Swimmer in the 2.75-inch size a bunch; it's perfect for what I'm doing, he says. Intended as a small, finesse swimbait to target bass, the Rage Swimmer is deadly on big crappies. The size of the lure is not an issue, as Rose insists that most crappies eat shad far larger than we think.
Crappies kind of get put in the panfish mold, he says but they eat 3- and 4-inch shad all year. Close inspection of a crappie's big, bucket-like mouth, not far in size from that of a keeper-sized bass, confirms Rose's statement.
Using 4-pound line, a light spinning rod and a 1/8-ounce jighead, Rose slow-swims his Rage offering around brush piles, scoring big crappies all summer long. Elsewhere on the same Arkansas waterbodies, locals troll small crankbaits and spider-rig plastics to take numbers of fish as well. The key to all is the presence of threadfin shad.
But what if your lake is shad-free? Admittedly, not all the good crappie fishing occurs in the South.
To sum up, stay deep. Most of the time.
Find the Weeds
Natural lakes in the North often feature heavy weed growth in summer. Crappies find the outer edges and set up shop. Here again, the cover attracts baitfish, be they shiners or juvenile panfish.
To find the best weediness, go to your springtime crappie spots and move out. The mouths of coves can be great, as can submerged humps and reefs on the main lake. Anywhere dense grassbeds abruptly stop growing due to a depth change can hold fish. In most clear lakes, this ranges from 10 to 16 feet deep or so.
Leadhead baits — twisters and tubes — can again be crappie killers, but don't overlook crankbaits. While trolling plugs is popular in reservoirs, casting them can be effective on the deep edges of weedy lakes. Try small bass cranks — little Rebels or Rapalas — and stick to a slow, steady retrieve. Here, your best friend is light braided line with a 6-pound mono leader, as the braid allows you to easily rip the bait free of a clinging weed stalk. This method is also productive around main-lake cabbage beds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, where the tall stalks grow nearly to the surface.
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Check the Docks
If you're determined to stay shallow this summer and still slay some slabs, I've got good news: Boat docks are often the best fishing spots on the lake. In terms of sheer habitat, a sizable dock offers fish a bit of everything: shallow and deep water, shade, cover, and seclusion from predators, anglers and birds alike.
And when a good crappie lake has docks in deep water, there are reasons to believe most of the fish will stay around those docks all year. Fixed structures, complete with pilings and cross posts, offer the same attraction as a good, deep brush pile. Floating docks can be even better.
Thanks to their abundance of shade and algae coverage, large floating boat docks often hold baitfish — shad or otherwise — nearly year around. Big crappies know this, and they hang around too. Add the fact that many large, floating dock structures are found near the mouths of major coves (think lakeside resorts here), and we've got a recipe for slab success.
Big floating docks are often found over very deep water. The crappies that relate to these structures will suspend, usually around the structure's shade line, and at a comfortable water temperature. It's important to first determine at what level the fish are holding. I often pull my boat directly against the dock and scan with traditional sonar. Others, like Rose, scan from afar. In any case, a line of activity will become evident, and that holds most of the fish. When possible, I stay against the dock and fish straight down. Live minnows on a slip bobber set at the magic depth are often too much for picky fish to pass up.
This summer, get your crappie gear back out. These great-tasting gamefish are in big schools, giving you a shot at some of the best fishing of the year.
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Sidebar: Are Summer Crappie Fillets Always Mushy?
Crappies are often coined a soft fish at the cleaning table. True, some feature mushy flesh. But this is a factor more of the diet of the fish, than the often-blamed water temperature. In fact, I've found crappies in many northern states to have a softer flesh than my hometown specks here in Florida.
In any case, the absolute best thing you can do to firm up your fish is to ice them overnight, prior to cleaning. Keep the drain plug out of your cooler (outdoors, please), allowing water to seep. The following day, pull out the crappies and clean in small batches of a few fish at a time, holding the others on the ice.
Immediately ice cleaned filets, and keep iced even as you rinse. By chilling the fish down, and insisting the filets stay cold all through the cleaning process, you'll be amazed at how firm and palatable your summer crappies will be.