Learn what factors influence the movement of crappie once summer is a memory. It will help you put more slabs in the cooler when you head out of the deer stand or duck blind and into the boat.
Now that the hottest part of the year is behind us, it’s time to consider options for outdoors pursuits. Many sportsmen will be opting to spend the fall glassing the woods and fields in search of a trophy whitetail buck, while others may be making plans for the fall waterfowl migration.
On Mississippi’s lakes and waterways, the crowd is decidedly thin, and that’s a good thing, no, a great thing for crappie anglers. It’s hard to put fall crappie in a particular pattern like we tend to do in the spring, when all things point toward the spawn. In fall, it’s a variety of both biological and environmental factors that determine where and how crappie will behave.
These factors include available cover and structure, water currents, clarity and levels, and finally, what tactics are best suited to target crappie in the fall.
Let’s take a look at some more in-depth discussions of the factors that will help you catch more slabs this fall.
Head for cover
During much of the year, anglers can rest assured that crappie — in many cases, both black and white crappie — will be oriented to man-made brush piles and planted cover in mid-water depths, especially in a clear-water impoundment. Joel Harris, a Tenn-Tom area crappie guide, said it’s the most reliable place to find crappie.
“Here on Bay Springs and on a lot of clear-water lakes around the country, crappie are going to be oriented to brush piles all-year long,” Harris said. “On cloudy days, they may range 10 to 15 feet out on either side of the cover, and on sunny days, they may be buried down in it, but they’ll always be somewhere close.”
When Harris said the brush piles he’s referring to are stands of sunken trees or tree tops and limbs he has strategically planted in areas that will be suitable to crappie.
When fishing these locations, Harris employs a variation of the side-pulling technique made famous on nearby Pickwick Lake.
“I fish from a War Eagle boat designed for side-pulling,” he said. “I instruct my clients to lay their rods flat on the side deck of the boat, not in a rod holder. Then, it’s just watching that tip for any movement. If it moves at all, set the hook.”
Fishing vertically in clear water necessitates some stealth in terms of fishing line. Harris picks 4-pound Gamma fluorocarbon, which is matched with a tiny, 1/64-ounce Trout Magnet jighead and a Trout Magnet body. To hold the bait deep, he crimps a No. 5 split-shot about 18 inches above the bait.
“The boat is not moving,” said Harris. “I hold it in place using the Spot Lock feature on my trolling motor. The baits are just down there hanging.”
The combination of light line, tiny baits and placement right in their living room is typically too much for crappie to pass up. It’s a pattern that Harris said will last through the summer and fall, even through the winter as fish take up residence on these sites.
Find the current
In many lakes, fall means lakes that have stratified and will start turning over. The turnover can last several weeks, depending on the location, and the water that’s turning often scatters crappie or puts them in an ill mood. Angler Brad Taylor of Greenville suggests finding some current, either water coming into the lake or areas where water is moving because of natural or man-made forces.
“Current can be a good thing, because it congregates crappie around structure; they will often use planted brush piles or other woody debris as a current break,” he said. “You can get too much current at times when the water is moving too fast, which happens a lot in oxbow lakes tied to the Mississippi or flood-control lakes letting water out. The current really pushes and often washes brush piles away or moves them for you.”
In areas of modest or temporary current, crappie will often use available structure to break the flow of the current and provide them with both rest and ambush points. One noticeable advantage in areas that provide current compared to more-stagnant areas is the level of dissolved oxygen. Moving water may tend to fall on the cooler side, and cooler or “fresher” water — as in runoff — may hold more oxygen. Both baitfish and gamefish are drawn to areas holding more dissolved oxygen.
Try some fast-trolling
Probably the three most-popular tactics for catching crappie are trolling crankbaits, power-trolling and long-line trolling. All three put the boat speed up around a mile or more per hour and cover a lot more water than slow-trolling or fishing spot to spot.
“Just put the poles out and hit the gas,” said Kent Driscoll, a Mississippi-based B’n’M pro staffer. “I could tell you four or five likely places that crappie might be holding in the fall — breaklines, brush piles and current breaks — but chances are when you’re on the water, the fish are either heading to those locations or coming from them, because they stay on the move chasing baitfish and looking for good water.”
Driscoll’s best advice is to keep an eye on your sonar screen when fast-trolling and pay attention to what the graph is telling you.
“Fish might be high in the water column, or they might be hugging the bottom,” he said. “They might be mixed in with baitfish or following behind them. Find the right depth and adjust your speed and pull what you’ve got through there. This time of year they’ll hit crankbaits, big curlytails or anything that looks like a good meal.”
Fish a single pole
Brad Whitehead, who guides on Pickwick Lake, said whereas crappie move to shallow structure in the spring to spawn, they move to mid-depth structure in the fall to eat and find comfortable water. Part of that equation, at least on river and flood-control lakes, is falling water. He said crappie won’t go too shallow because lakes are being drawing down for the winter. He also said that drawdown affects the baitfish on which they feed.
“I would suggest locating some brush tops or cane beds in 18 to 24 feet of water,” he said. “If that’s back in a creek or near the main lake, that’s fine, but those fish will pull out there and hold in the top of that structure and hammer baitfish as they pass by.”
His preferred tactic for catching fall crappie is jigging with a single pole. His choice is a 7½-foot pole with the right blend of strength and sensitivity for hauling slab crappie away from structure and into the boat. He uses a 1/16-ounce jig on 6-pound mono to tempt fish that are typically suspended near the top of the structure. He also confided that crappie frequently stray from the tops of the structure but suspend at about that same depth.
“A lot of anglers will motor up to a brush pile or cane bed and then plop the jig down right on top of the structure,” he said. “That’s a mistake. I shut my motor off well away from the spot I’m going to fish, and I have my jig in the water at least 20 yards from the structure. I lot of times, I’ll catch four or five crappie before I’ve even gotten close enough to the structure to feel it.”
Watch the water
Fall fishing for crappie can be a time of feast or famine as water temperatures begin to descend, as well as additional climatic factors such as lake levels, water flows and baitfish migration. One factor that many crappie anglers may overlook is the color of the water, or more specifically, the clarity of the water.
Water clarity can and does vary from lake to lake, based on geographic factors. Grenada, a water-control lake, comes to mind; it may remain murky, turbid or even muddy the majority of the year, while a lake with a sandy or rocky bottom, like Pickwick, may remain clear most of the year.
Pro angler Rod Wall spends much of his time long-line trolling jigs behind the boat. His success depends greatly upon where crappie are holding in the water column.
“In the fall, after the lake turnover, fishing can be tough, especially if we get dry spells with little freshwater coming through the system,” Wall said. “In clear water, crappie will tend to hold tight to cover, and that’s not a best-case scenario for me to catch them long-lining. I’d much prefer to see them up in the water column chasing baitfish.”
Like deer hunters begging for rain to water food plots, Wall does rain dances in October and November, hoping that a late-season tropical depression brings several days of soaking rains to an area he wants to fish.
“It’s kind of the reverse of the spring,” said Wall, “when crappie are anxious for warmer water to flow in. In the fall, the main body water is practically dead; it’s hot, there’s no oxygen, and water washing in from a creek is like a fresh breeze on a hot day.”
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