By Joel Nelson
Crappies are the ultimate early season fish. They congregate in numbers and provide us with great action prior to what so much of the rest of the Midwest considers “gamefish season.” Even for hardcore walleye anglers in states that have continuous seasons for those predator fish, a spring crappie bite captivates all. Young and old, serious angler and worm dunker alike, it’s hard to not enjoy that time of year.
That said, there are plenty of panfish anglers that move on from crappies after that spring boom. Fish can scatter, become harder to locate, and aren’t always as interested in eating come the midsummer months. As prey becomes more abundant, you can have crappies that eat a variety of foods in any one system. For example, I fish a body of water last year that had a shallow weed invertebrate bite, deep weed-edge, mud-bottom bloodworm bite, and a suspended open water minnow bite – all going on at the same time. Crappies that are everywhere, and seemingly nowhere at the same time can pose a challenge then for anglers looking to efficiently target them.
In most places I fish, early morning and evening low-light periods are definitely where most of the action happens, so be ready to fish when fish are active. Mid-day bites are certainly out there to be had, though their frequency and consistency fades as pages peel off the calendar into August. June is one of those months where mid-day bites are typically still good provided you’ve got stable weather to work with. Yet, there’s something magical about that last hour of light where crappies feel a bit safer roaming in the presence of predators.
Also, be sure to target lakes where crappies are abundant in the first place. Too many folks challenge fish to be where they’re not, and start by forcing the issue in lakes where they’re simply not abundant. The same could be said for many species, so start with a good lake report, local information, or a fisheries biologist call to confirm their abundance and size class. You can’t help but learn valuable information that’ll likely assist you later in targeting the right depths and patterns.
Typically, I focus on one of a few patterns for mid-summer crappies depending on the lake.
Pattern #1 – Slow rolling a jig and paddle-tail or twister-tail of any variety is a great way to catch weedbed fish. Especially cabbage or lily pad bound fish that hide in the depths, or smack in the shallows during the day, you’ll have good luck staying off of inside turns and/or points in the cabbage and casting up to them. Morning and evening gives you a solid hour each where your average fish is far more willing to eat than the rest of the day. That effect is far more pronounced as you continue throughout the summer. 1/16 oz jigs are about the right size, but pair the weight to where and how you’re fishing.
Pattern #2 – Increasingly, I’m falling in love with trolling Northland Tuff Tubes under the power of a trolling motor in the wide-open. This may be a flat, or out over 50FOW, but use your electronics to side-image new paths, and your down-imaging or 2D sonar to find fish under you. Various jig weights and plastic sizes get the job done, and this will be the subject of upcoming articles because of how well it works.
Earlier in the season, I’ll troll parallel to the weedlines and just off of them. Crappies exist early in good numbers here, and you’ll often catch some big bonus gills along the way. Fish relating to weeds are more likely to target a straight swimming bait earlier in the season, but those same fish push towards open water throughout the summer, creating some great open-water opportunities for them then. Few people harass these fish, and you can find some of the biggest fish in the system out in no-man’s land during the heat of August dog-days.
Pattern #3 – Don’t forget vertical jigging over open water schools, or even weedline fishing for crappies that choose to feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates like bloodworms. The best weedlines are deep, dense, and form some sort of point or inside turn. Soft bottom adjacent or butting up against these weedbeds are what crappies need to find food.
You’d be surprised how many crappies eat off of bottom in certain systems with rich invertebrate life. I’ve been on a number of bites where keeping your bait within 6”es of bottom was just as critical for natural lake crappies as it would be for river walleyes. Tuff tubes and other jig/plastic combinations are great for this, but during a tough bite it’s hard to beat live bait. Minnows can be the ticket during a cold front in more open water or weed edge scenarios, and worms are king when fish are near bottom.
Overall, fish some new areas, and use your electronics to dial in new spots during the day, so you’ll be ready to take them on at dawn or evening hours. Having a good working knowledge of areas that fit the bill for each of these three presentations makes going in and catching fish later a breeze. Some lakes, especially the clearest of clear water bodies, only give up their fish during these early and late bite windows. That makes it all the more imperative to make hay when those hours and minutes are upon you.
All summer you should be able to catch fish with one or more of these techniques, and it’s up to you to figure out for your body of water, which ones are the best of the best for any given day.