Even biologists struggle to agree on an answer: Do fish sleep?

Some say yes, others say no, and both make a case to prove their answer is correct. The evidence points to fish taking periods of rest, but without eyelids, or that portion of the brain mammals use to produce sleep, how do we know if and when they sleep?

Joe Dickerson of Madison County is a dyed-in-the-wool crappie fisherman who got his start fishing at Bee Lake and later moved to Ross Barnett Reservoir. He points to the frugality of our research, realizing crappie can be quite fickle hour by hour.

“We pulled up to an old tree one day and as soon as the bait reached the bottom we reeled it back up just a turn or two and got bit,” Dickerson said. “They were deep and the bite was hard. We caught fish, good fish, until we had a limit and were tired. Next day we went back to that same spot, me bragging to my buddies about how we were on them the day before. We fished that same tree from top to bottom and used every color jig we had.”

Nothing!

“The crappie had moved, or had developed a severe case of the lockjaw,” he said. “We started moving around and found fish in another spot. I was redeemed in the eyes of my now-skeptical partners.”

In other words, crappie behave differently day to day, much less day to night.

Shallower after sunset

There are fishermen who catch a lot of crappie at night during the summer, which is a relief considering how torturous the daytime sun can be. Being hot is one thing; getting cooked is another.

In the heat of the summer, crappie prefer being deep where the water is coolest and the sun not its brightest. They aren’t much different from us; they often come out to play at night and seek shelter during the day. 

“Crappie tend to suspend in the summer out in open water, especially white crappie,” said biologist Jerry Brown of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP). “They may remain in the same area of the lake, but move deeper as the sun moves overhead. I’d expect them to move up in the water column at night and not be as deep as they would in the middle of the day.”

That behavior has been witnessed by avid night fisherman Joe Williams, who prefers shooting rough fish with a bow to catching fish on hook and line. He reports seeing game species such as bass and crappie — as well as the rough fish he seeks like carp, gar and other so-called trash fish — in the bright lights that illuminate the archer’s targets.

Williams has seen a lot of gamefish in his lights. 

“I’m no biologist, but I know what I see,” Williams said. “With a new angler I try to verify every target to prevent them from sticking a game fish. A common carp and a crappie can be difficult to distinguish in stained water. But that goes to prove just how shallow some crappie will get to feed at night.”

If crappie go shallow at night in the summer to feed, then it makes sense that fishermen would be wise to be there when they are most likely to eat. And, since it is cooler at night than it is in the blazing summer sun, then it also makes sense to fish more in the evenings out of self-preservation.

Don’t turn out the lights!

The key to catching crappie at night is the setup, and that requires a light. As stated, during the heat of a July day, crappie hold in deeper water where the thermocline is more comfortable and there is a good amount of dissolved oxygen. This could be in a cut or old river channel, a submerged creek, or a river bend. 

At night, they will move shallow to feed. Just how shallow depends on the depth of the baitfish concentration. That’s where the light comes into play.

A light, either above or below the surface, is necessary to nighttime success. It is used to attract and concentrate baitfish, which, in turn, attract crappie. It may take 30 minutes to an hour for this process to complete. The more a spot is fished at night, the more conditioned the fish become to finding food at that location. They will be more naturally attracted to the light.

“We started back in the ’70s hanging a Coleman lantern above the water,” said Dan Golden from Smith County. “That was when there was lots of standing timber in (Ross Barnett Reservoir). We nailed a cross arm to the tree and hung the lantern. We figured that all the bugs gathering at the light — and they were considerable — were attracting the fish.

“Now we are using submerged green LED lights. I still like to use a jig tipped with a minnow, but now I clip the tail fan off and remove a few of the scales on one side. This makes the minnow have a more injured appearance that crappie cannot resist.”

No boat needed

Derek Mollie, with Underwater Fish Light company in Florida, has found a niche market in night fishing lights. His company has placed many dock lights in Mississippi where anglers have reported the best fishing of the summer is off their own docks. It is a popular fishing method for crappie and striped bass at Eagle Lake near Vicksburg, and speckled trout on piers on coastal rivers and bays.

“Our dock lights operate on shore power and can be placed on a timer or operated by switch,” Mollie said. “Clients who used them saw baitfish swarming in the light followed by predator fish, and were soon asking for a sportsman model that would operate on batteries and be handier for portable use. It has become a steady market among both saltwater and freshwater anglers.”

These green led lights are available for several over the counter sources. Visit underwater www.fishlight.com to see Derek’s lights in action. The angler series is a serious 400-led light that carries a 3-year warranty.

Baits and other equipment

“Chartreuse and black tube baits with an 1/8-ounce chartreuse jig head has been the best producer for me,” Golden said. “Over the long haul it has been the best color I’ve found for consistent catches. Some nights, just like some days, the fish prefer a different color. Some night we have to switch to artificial baits completely to thwart the catfish bite. If the cats move in they’ll take every minnow you have.”

For fishing points and cuts, Golden uses a Blakemore Road Runner with a light spinning rig. Lipless crankbaits, such as the quarter-ounce Berkley Warpig or the Sebile 3/8-ounce Flat Shad, are a part of Golden’s arsenal. Both baits are a shad pattern that crappie will bite.

Golden uses a Humminbird 598ciHD Side Imaging sonar unit. He claims it is good for locating structure and seeing fish, but also has an incorporated GPS that allows him to better follow the channel when on waters where hazards abound.

“Knowing what the structure looks like means you do more catching and less searching,” Golden said. “When exploring new water we look for submerged logs and tops. Having an accurate depth allows us to get on the fish without too many hang-ups. Everybody has a different method, but we have found starting shallow and working deeper is key to catching fish. If a log is at an angle, try to work that log from the shallowest to the deepest end.”

Golden prefers a B’n’M Crappie Pole with a 10-pound fluorocarbon line. He claims the reel isn’t important, but the action of the rod tip, even if one is trying to keep it still, is going to make the jig dance, adding life to the bait.

Where to go

The big four crappie lakes, Enid, Grenada, Sardis and Ross Barnett, offer great night fishing. Lake Washington and Eagle Lake should also be on any crappie angler’s night-fishing list. 

Smaller lakes, like the MDWFP’s state lake system, get some crappie pressure during the spring spawn but are largely ignored during mid-summer.

“We allow night fishing on all of our state lakes, except Bill Waller,” Jerry Brown said. “Most state park lakes allow fishing at night, but anglers should check each park’s regulations to know which ones do.”

Many state lakes have fishing piers constructed with fish attractors placed nearby, and these piers are good locations to try for crappie. 

“Crappie like cover such as that provided by discarded Christmas trees, cedar trees, and hardwood brush tops,” Brown said. “All these make fine fish attractors with just a small investment. If green, most hardwood tops will sink on their own; however Christmas trees and cedars need to be weighted down.” 

Brown said that before placing structure in a lake or reservoir, such as Barnett Reservoir near Jackson, it is important to be sure what regulations allow as far as location and legal material. Barnett requires a permit. Be aware that wind and current could cause structure to move. Several cinder blocks on a wooden pallet with brush or trees wired to the pallet are recommended. Fish attractors should never be placed in a navigation channel.

“For summer fishing, I’d place some in deep water and along major contour changes such as drop-offs, creek ledges, etc., in depths of 8 to 12 feet,” Brown said. “Our fisheries biologists add fish attractors to state lakes and state park lakes and they are shown on our lake depth maps and fishing report pages at www.mdwfp.com.”