The secret is out. Catching Mississippi’s slab crappie is not just a springtime event.
With September rolling into October, it’s time to put away summer things like beach chairs and pool toys and break out fall gear — like football-stadium chairs and that big finger that says your team is No. 1.
If you are a crappie fisherman, you might be tempted to back the boat into the garage and get out the archery tackle or deer rifle, but doing so may cost you in terms of some of the best fishing you’ll see all year. The weather is pleasant, without all the continuous winds and cold fronts; the crowds are gone — owing to college football and deer season cranking up — and the fish are hungry.
Fall fishing for crappie is similar to finding and catching crappie in the spring, only in reverse. The biggest difference is that crappie are not interested in spawning but are moving from the deep water where they spent the summer to shallower water to find favorable water temperatures, better oxygen content and most important, food.
Accordingly, in the fall, three patterns really shine, capitalize on finding crappie at transition points as well as moving between areas in the search for baitfish.
Tight-line heavy cover
As a pro angler, Tim Blackley from Hornbeak, Tenn., fishes many lakes across northern Mississippi. He understands what it takes to consistently catch big crappie
“I regularly fish several of the north Mississippi and Alabama lakes, and crappie on all of these lakes are doing just about the same thing,” Blackley said. “They have come off their summer pattern, moved out of the deep water and are feeding up pretty hard getting ready for colder weather. About all of the crappie we’ve caught were keying on baitfish, but to consistently catch fish, we’ve had to be right in some type of cover.”
Blackley said the average depth he finds the majority of crappie is 10 to 14 feet. As water temperatures drop into the upper 60s, he said crappie will move shallower with the cooler nights. That movement will continue for several weeks until the water cools to around 60 degrees. Then, he said, when the water hits the high 50s, fish will turn around and head back to deeper water for the winter.
Blackley and his tournament partner, Jackie Van Cleave, are well known for tight-lining for crappie, and fall is no exception.
“We’ll definitely be tight-lining, using double-hook minnow rigs — the Capps and Coleman rigs,” he said. “However, unlike the spring when we’ll move along some type of channel break and might troll at a faster clip, we’re just jumping from spot to spot. Because crappie are so tight to cover, once we locate structure — brush tops, standing timber, or any type of heavy cover we can find — in that 10- to 14-foot range, we don’t move around much.”
Blackley said crappie are interested in filling their bellies as fast as they can, so using bigger baits is often a key to getting them to bite.
“Bigger baits seem to work better,” he said. “That means we might be using medium minnows on a straight Eagle Claw 214 light-wire hook, but we also thread a Strike King tube skirt straight on the hook and then tip that with the minnow.”
Blackley and Van Cleave will use a ½-ounce weight on the double rigs for fishing deeper water, and they prefer a slightly stiffer rod for this type of fishing: 14-foot B’n’M Pro Staff Trolling rods.
“This is a pretty stiff rod that will help get you out of trouble when fishing tight to heavy cover,” he said. “You’re going to get hung up a lot.”
A bit of final advice. The double rigs are tied to 10-pound monofilament; that way, when they get a hang up, the light-wire hook will pull out, and they don’t have to re-tie as often.
Usually by the first of October, most crappie anglers will be getting ready those crankbait rods that filled the livewell so often during the summer and digging that hot-pink crankbait out of the carpet. Tournament pro Brad Taylor agrees that it may be a little cold to hang out at the pool or on the beach, but who said it’s too cold to catch crappie on crankbaits?
“They work just as good during the fall and winter, too,” said Taylor, past president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. “I love to fish them in October and November in the oxbow lakes near my home in Greenville.
“It’s a suspended-fish tactic, not just a summertime tactic.”
He said that Mississippi Delta crappie spend much of the fall suspended, chasing migrating shad and moving between specific structure locations. It’s the same pattern that works in the summer, except summer crappie are suspending in the thermocline to avoid the heat and bottom predators.
Minn Kota electric trolling motor
“I know a lot of guys still troll with their big outboard or a small, gas kicker motor,” Taylor said, “but for me, the most important piece of crankbaiting gear is a Minn Kota electric trolling motor.
“I have an 80-pound thrust auto-pilot that has the i-Pilot control system. (Auto pilot) is the greatest thing ever invented for pulling crankbaits. It handles all the steering and boat control. You just set it and forget it,” he said.
Even in cooler water, Taylor said that the target trolling speed is between 1.4 and 1.9 mph on the GPS. Taylor will stagger the lines on his rods at 70 feet on the shortest rod and go 70, 80, and 90 feet on one side and 80, 90, 110 feet on the other.
He also likes to make a lot of turns while trolling when he first starts looking for fish. That helps him find the right depth.
Brad Whitehead, a guide on Pickwick Lake, has seen the world of 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 for crappie when they move into their fall pattern.
“Most people think of jigging brush that’s in 4 to 10 feet of water,” he said. “They can see the brush, and 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?”
A shorter pole
For this type of 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 jig 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.”
Whitehead believes he can get away with a shorter pole, even in Pickwick’s clear water, because the fish are deeper and don’t spook as easily. He also generates the feel he gets from using a lighter bait in 4 to 6 feet of water by using a bigger and heavier bait in the deeper water.
“I’ve been using this bait called a Crappie Magnet. It’s a little bigger profile bait. It’s 2¾ inches long, and I rig it on a ¼-ounce jighead,” he said. “That gives me good feel with an 8-foot pole. Sometimes, the fish will just get heavy on the line, and other times they’ll try to take the rod out of your hand.”
Deciphering water color
Fall fishing for crappie can be a time of feast or famine, as water temperatures begin to drop and other factors — lake levels, water flows and baitfish migrations — come into focus.
One thing that many crappie anglers may overlook is the color of the water, or more specifically, the clarity of the water.
Kent Driscoll, a Mississippi-based crappie pro, said water color often dictates how active crappie will be, how tight they’ll hold to cover, and what bait colors they’re most likely to hit.
“It’s kind of the reverse of the spring, when crappie are anxious for warmer water to flow in” said Driscoll, a pro staffer for B’n’M Poles. “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.”
Driscoll said crappie view water color as a form of cover. Fish tend to venture further out, and more importantly, further up, away from brush piles and tree tops, and they will actually suspend pretty shallow. That makes them easier pickings for crappie anglers.
The old adage of bright colors for bright days and dark colors for dark days isn’t always the best in conditions where water color varies throughout a body of water. Driscoll does like pink, red and chartreuse, and there are days when a jighead with a built in spinner blade is worth it’s weight in gold.
To find what the fish prefer, Driscoll says you have to show it to them. He also has to consider that the muddy water he’s seeking will have a definite effect on what jig colors crappie are going to hit.
“I’ll fish all different bright colors and jighead/body combinations until I catch a fish,” he said. “Then, I might run two of that color or combination. Before long, I’ve got the day’s color combination down to just one, two or maybe three, and the catch rates are getting better as I hone in on what they want.”
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