The crappie is among the most adaptable fishes in North America. The two closely related species, black crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus and white crappie Pomoxis annularis, are universal favorites among anglers. While most folks fish for these panfish in spring and summer, fall is an equally fine time to catch crappies. Moreover, fall is prime time for outsize slabs.
Capable of living in less than a foot of water, the two crappie species are known to favor dense cover in spring. In summer, they follow several patterns. Schools may suspend away from cover edges, feeding on pelagic minnows or shad. Other fish remain in shallow cover, both wood and weed.
Come fall, some crappies move deeper, where they remain in the 30- to 50-foot depth range throughout winter. In natural lakes of the northern states, crappies begin shifting from summer locations in September, as water temperatures fall into the low 60°F range. They vacate weedy flats, fallen trees, and boat docks that held them during summer. After fall turnover, their movement into the depths occurs in earnest. Some crappies linger outside clumps of remaining green weeds after turnover, however.
The fall shift occurs gradually in reservoirs farther south, with crappies first leaving small creeks and shallow main-lake pockets. They set up on points, which become transitional holding areas as well as prime feeding stations, as schools of shad pass regularly at various depths. The final crappie move is from points to deep ledges lying along creek channels.
But this story is less about finding crappies in fall than about how to catch them from this deep zone. Anglers accustomed to spring crappie flings with floats and mini jigs and tubes and minnows, and Beetle Spins and Road Runners, and the many other top techniques must learn a new style of crappie fishing. In some cases, heavier rods must replace long poles, short ultralight combos, and light-action spinning sticks.
Kevin Dallmier, Menlo, Georgia, has become familiar with a deadly crappie trick that’s popular in some regions while remaining an oddity in places where it would work well. “Seems that anglers fishing on Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama first started the bottom bumping craze,” Dallmier says. “I can’t say it was invented at Weiss, but it rose to great popularity on this wonderful crappie lake on the Coosa River. Brochures call Weiss the ‘Crappie Capitol of the World,’ and more guides specialize in crappie fishing there than target bass, catfish, or anything else.
“Bottom bumping excels for taking crappies in deep water, where they form large aggregations in fall. But groups of fish don’t wander much as they do in summer, and they’re slow to take a bait.
“Bottom bumping, an adaptation of the old dropper rig, used for decades in some places, vertically presents minnows as effectively at 50 feet as at 20. This simple rig consists of a 1/2- to 1-ounce bell sinker tied to the end of the main line.
“About 18 inches above the sinker, a 6-inch dropper with a gold #1 Aberdeen hook is tied to the main line. Eagle Claw’s presnelled rigs work fine. Otherwise, use a 6- to 10-inch section of monofilament attached to the main line with a dropper loop knot or surgeon’s knot.
“A standard crappie minnow completes the rig. In lakes like Weiss, Kentucky Lake, Lake Seminole, or other trophy waters, a 3- to 4-inch shiner takes bigger crappies. Smaller crappies often are more aggressive and will attack a smaller minnow. But with a big bait, strikes from slab crappies and catfish provide fun and good eating.
“On a bottom-bumper rig, hooking the minnow through the eyes keeps the bait livelier and puts more fish in the boat. I favor this method over lip or back hooking. In deep water, crappies can suck a lip-hooked minnow off the hook without your feeling it. Time is spent wondering why you don’t get bit, while you’re fishing a bare hook.
“Choice of a main line depends on water clarity, amount of wood cover, and how the crappies are taking the bait. If you’re fishing a ledge with stumps and brush, ideal conditions for holding crappies, a heavier sinker provides more control. The straighter the line to the bottom, the fewer the snags.
“A 1-ounce sinker and 14-pound line work well, for example, at 40 to 45 feet where bottom cover is thick and crappies run large. If the rig snags, as it frequently does, a steady pull on the heavy mono bends out the wire hook. Bend it back with a needlenose pliers, and it still has plenty of temper to pull a crappie to the surface. Choose lighter bell sinkers in shallower water; in ultraclear water, where cover is sparse; and when fish seem unusually finicky.
“J. R. Tucker, a guide and owner of J. R.’s Marina on Lake Weiss, is a dedicated bottom bumper. He fishes that presentation when conditions put crappies deep and in an inactive mood, from early fall through the beginning of spring. In Tucker’s years of guiding, he’s averaged about 50 to 60 keeper crappies per outing for two anglers using the bottom bumping technique. And at Lake Weiss, a keeper crappie must measure 10 inches. His all-time best limit included 22 fish over 2 pounds, and his personal best is a 4-pound 2-ounce crappie caught on a bottom bumper rig.
“For late fall and winter bottom bumping, finding productive ledges is the first step,” Dallmier says. “Study a contour map, looking for areas along creek channels where the topography changes quickly. Closely spaced contour lines indicate a fast drop that often coincides with productive ledges. Often outside bends of a submerged creek reveal steep breaks or stairstep ledges that attract crappies.
“Then graph potential spots to see whether wood cover remains. A high-resolution sonar with the transducer mounted on the trolling motor is essential. Set sensitivity and grayline to show the clearest definition of cover and bottom type.
Crappie anglers more accustomed to fishing from multispecies or walleye boats find that slowly backtrolling a break or ledge provides the pinpoint viewing angle and slow boat movement needed to find and catch deep crappies in fall.
“Sometimes I see crappies holding around cover,” Dallmier continues. “But if I don’t spot fish, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. With sonar, it’s nearly impossible to separate fish from a brushpile or stump they may be holding in. Check various depths, because crappies prefer different depths on various lakes and reservoirs.
“Moreover, crappies tend to shift deeper as the water temperature cools toward its winter low. But a few days of Indian Summer or a warming trend in early winter can bring them toward the surface, though they tend to remain along submerged creek channels. When crappies move upward, trolling with jigs may work better than bottom bumping.
“Bottom bumping tends to work best in clearer sections of a reservoir, and better in clearer impoundments than in murky waters. During fall, the clearest water usually is in the lower end of impoundments, down toward the dam. And that’s where crappies congregate as water cools. This type of structure and cover is ideal for bottom bumping.
“Another curve in predicting the best depth is the typical fall drawdown that occurs on flood-control impoundments and many power generating reservoirs as well. A ledge that produced a bonanza one week may be devoid of fish. Sometimes a water level drop of just a few feet can make a spot unappealing to crappies.
“I keep a logbook of fishing conditions, including reservoir level, fishing success, location, and depth of crappie concentrations. Then by calling the reservoir office and learning the water level, I have a series of spots to check. This helps me avoid fishing last week’s pattern.
“When you find crappies, it’s necessary to almost bump them in the nose to arouse a bite, particularly when they’re inactive. That’s why the bottom-bumping rig with a bell sinker works so well. But fishing the rig properly depends on boat control. Dropping the rig a foot or two from a key spot on a ledge may result in just a few stragglers. I use my trolling motor to hover over the target, slowly moving the bait along the ledge.
“Trolling moves too fast to catch crappies in these conditions; a true hover is essential. When I’m fishing productive ledges, covering 100 yards takes at least an hour. Of course, a concentration of fish can be worked for an hour or more.
“Wind hinders precise presentation. Point the bow into the wind to maintain control. But if the wind is over about 10 or 12 miles an hour, results suffer.
“With no wind, I move the boat downstream along a ledge. Current is present even in broad lakelike impoundments, and crappies position facing into it. In some waters, anglers double up on crappies by tying two dropper lines 12 to 18 inches apart. Sometimes most fish bite on the upper hook and sometimes the bottom. In dense cover, however, two hooks tend to snag more than twice as often as a single hook.”
Options For Natural Lakes
In natural lakes that support good weedgrowth, some groups of crappies can always be found along the outer weededge. Where deep vegetation remains green and productive, many fish species congregate, including crappies, bluegills, rock bass, northern pike, largemouth bass, walleyes, yellow perch, and muskies. Along these edges that run from 10 to 15 feet deep, a slipfloat with a baited hook or jig set to hold the bait several feet off bottom catches crappies and other bonus fish.
Tube jigs, twisters, and feather styles work, sometimes fished alone and sometimes tipped with a small crappie minnow. Add lead shot several inches above the jig so it quickly drops through the slipfloat to the prescribed depth.
While a larger and heavier jig functions much the same, crappies in fall sometimes spurn larger offerings. During ice fishing, we’ve found that minute jigs weighing no more than 1/100 of an ounce tipped with the tiniest maggot work well for inactive crappies. Going to that extreme in fall isn’t necessary, but keep that reference in mind when choosing leadheads. Match float size and weight so a slight tug pulls the float almost below the surface.
To fish crappies holding off a weedline in fall, keep the boat in deeper water and lob the rig toward an inside edge or to a deep underwater point, letting the offering drift down. If crappies seem scattered, use your trolling motor to ease along the weedline, testing each spot. If you find a concentration of fish, anchor and stay awhile.
In wind-blown lakes or those without substantial submergent vegetation, crappies move into deep basins in early fall, closely imitating the shifts described for reservoir fish. In some lakes, shallower sections contain weedbeds, while other parts of the lake have few. In this case, crappies in these varying habitats behave differently, producing two or more simultaneous successful fishing patterns.
Bottom bumping also can work in natural lakes, and few anglers in northern states are familiar with the technique. As crappies move into open basin areas, they relate to rises or dips in the bottom, or to rockpiles, submerged bars, and other depth changes.
Fish these structures as if they were creek channels in manmade impoundments, using Dallmier’s techniques. In lakes, sonar clearly shows groups of crappies typically suspended above bottom changes. These fish may, however, be mixed with bluegills during fall and early winter.
While minnows skewered on a single Aberdeen hook are the universal standard for fishing deep in fall and winter, leadhead jigs with plastic tails, marabou, feathers, or tinsel also work alone or with bait. A bell sinker can function as a bottom finder, with a jig or two tied up the line on a dropper. One option is a small but heavy jig (3/8- to 5/8-ounce) to anchor the line, and a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce leadhead adorned with a tube or feather up the line a foot or two.
Along the smoother bottom of most natural lakes, this compact jig won’t snag much and may pick up bonus crappies that hug the bottom, or possibly some big yellow perch. Some days, dressed jigs catch as many crappies as a plain hook and minnow, or a jig dressed with a minnow.
If you’ve spent your fishing career as a fair-weather crappie chaser, consider pursuing good old Pomoxis this fall. It will give you a new perspective on this interesting fish and possibly produce your best catch of the year.