Guides, pros share their tactics for catching slabs when the temperature skyrockets and the fish change their haunts and habits.
Summer on a big majority of Mississippi’s lakes is a great time to catch slab crappie.
And while they may have moved away from their spring haunts, it’s not that difficult to dial in on the fish by using a handful of specialized tactics, as well as understanding where and why crappie have moved for the summer.
A handful of well-known crappie pros offered several tips that will help you find and catch more slabs this summer.
By July, any lake that can and will develop a thermocline has done so. This means crappie will most certainly be holding at specific depths in larger reservoirs to take advantage of the cooler water that provides the highest dissolved oxygen and the best supply of food.
Pro Ronnie Capps from Tiptonville, Tenn., has learned to use a thermocline to his advantage using a tight-line, double-hook minnow rig to his advantage.
“About 6 to 7 feet deep is the standard depth to catch crappie this time of year in most of the big Mississippi lakes,” Capps said. “That’s where the fish will hold, because they’re right there in the thermocline. I don’t care how deep the water under them is, whether it’s 17 or 18 feet deep or if it’s 30 feet deep.”
Capps said the best way to judge the thermocline is by the life of the bait he’s using on his double-minnow rigs. If he fishes the minnow too high in the water column, the heat will quickly kill it. If he drops the minnow below the thermocline, the lack of oxygen lower in the water column will also kill it.
“On the murky Mississippi reservoirs, the thermocline tends to be higher than it will be in a clear water lake like Pickwick or Kentucky Lake,” Capps said. “That still leaves a lot of water to fish in, but you can narrow that down if you can find some type of structure that fish can hold around.”
Brad Whitehead, who guides on Pickwick Lake, has seen crappie fishing move from cane poles to multi-rod spider-rigging to trolling high-dollar crankbaits. He believes all of these methods have a time and place, but one thing he has noticed on his home lake is that a lot of anglers simply overlook single-pole jigging in the late summer when crappie begin to move into their fall pattern.
“Here’s what I see all the time,” he said, “an angler has 20 or 30 brush piles marked on his GPS, and he rigs up eight to 10 poles and trolls from one spot to the next. He’ll catch a fair number of fish at the end of the day, but if you go back and look, most all the action came within just a foot or two of the brush top.”
Whitehead said that for anglers who may not enjoy trolling or who don’t have a whole day to devote to fishing — maybe even just a couple of hours — the idea of single-pole jigging in deep water is very appealing.
“Most people think of jigging brush that’s in 4 to 10 feet of water,” he said. “They can see the brush, they hit every side of it and they can really control where that bait goes. Why not do the same thing in water that might be 15 or even 20 feet deep?”
For deep-water jigging, Whitehead uses the same pole he would pick for spider-rigging, but a shorter version. Using an 8- or 10-foot graphite pole, he will go to one of the brush tops he has marked on his graph and do a little scanning to make sure somebody is home.
“I don’t rely solely on the graph,” he said. “I will mark the high spot on a brush top that has fish on it, and I’ll take a buoy and throw it off to the side — never on top of the brush. That gives me a visual reference, and I can jig fish just like I would anywhere else.”
Find some green bushes
Guiding on Grenada Lake, John Harrison spends many summer days looking for shade under green bushes that line deep water tributaries in the upper part of the lake.
“With the weather and the water in the upper 80s, most people would expect we’d be out in the middle of the lake working a deep-water brush pile,” he said. “Don’t let that fool you. There’s a lot of crappie that can be caught around green ironwood bushes, especially during the summer. Crappie come in here because they provide shade, cover and a good place to ambush bait. The overhead shade will make this water just a little bit cooler, and that helps draw the fish in.
Harrison has found single-pole jigging to be the most-productive method, as the tangle of bushes can wreak havoc on multiple rods. He also indicated that any old pole wouldn’t cut it. He wants a long, limber pole that can take some abuse.
“About the only way you can fish these tangles is with a single jig pole,” he said. “Get in there and jig ’em out. A like to use a B’n’M Camouflage Brushcutter jig pole. I wouldn’t come in here unless I had a pole that could take some abuse, because when you get a bite, you have to haul back on that fish and get him out of there or he’ll hang you up in a hurry. This rod is IM6 graphite. It’s super stiff where it needs to be, but you still get a lot of feel out of the tip for soft bites.”
When most anglers are spending time pulling crankbaits all over the lake, Steve Coleman of Tiptonville, Tenn., believes that pushing crankbaits produces better results in the summer. It’s a tactic known as power-trolling.
“It’s a lot easier to control where you fish if you’re pushing crankbaits out the front (of the boat),” he said. “Most people who troll crankbaits troll them way out the back, and when you go into a turn, there’s no way to know exactly where the baits are.
“Ronnie (Capps) and I have made a living fishing break lines over the years. We’ll get on a specific break line and just follow it all over the lake. Ever since we started fishing with GPS units, we started marking every big fish we caught. At the end of the day, we’d go back and map out where we caught our best fish, and just about everyone will be on a break line at a specific depth that day.”
Like most crankbaiters, Coleman targets white crappie with his power-trolling rig and has some advice for anglers who are interested in crappie fishing on Mississippi lakes.
“Anytime I’m fishing crankbaits, I want a lake that has a good population of white crappie in it,” he said. “Crankbaits occasionally work for black crappie, but you really have to downsize the baits, and the fish are so tight to cover that other tactics work better. White crappie suspend more and have bigger mouths, so they don’t have a problem eating a 3-inch crankbait,” he said.
“If I didn’t know anything about the lake other than looking at it on a map, I’d start on a break line, probably in the 20-foot range,” said Coleman. “You can determine where the thermocline is using electronics or by graphing fish. That’s where the biggest majority of the fish will be. Start following that break line, trolling about 1.7 – 2.0 mph. A lot of it is trial-and-error, but once you start putting together a pattern, you can catch some good crappie.”
Planer boards and crankbaits
Summer crappie sometimes prefer shallower, clearer waters, which makes them tend to shy away from a boat, crappie pro Kent Driscoll began searching for a way to troll crankbaits further away from his boat.
“Walleye pros up north have been trolling cranks to catch walleyes for years,” Driscoll said. “I thought there might be something they do that would help down here when I’m targeting spooky crappie.”
Driscoll’s answer came in the use of a planer board, a wedge-shaped, side-planer that runs on the surface and to the side of the boat when attached to the line. By staggering the distance between boards, Driscoll can fish both to the side and further away from the boat than allowed by even the longest rods.
“In depths of 15 feet or less, I have to get my baits out away from the noise, shadow and vibration of the boat,” he said. “It’s also a big deal when we have high-water years and all the grass and vegetation in our lakes filters the water and makes it a lot clearer than normal.”
“I keep the same distances of line out as I would without using the boards,” said Driscoll. “I just count from the board back to the bait rather than from the rod tip.”
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