June 11, 2015
Crappies typically lay their eggs in shallow protected areas, on harder bottoms where males can dig and defend a nest. Once water temperatures rise into the 70F range, however, the spawn is over, a faster process than for bass or bluegills.
Mitch Looper of Barling, Arkansas, is an astute multispecies angler who understands the seasonal movements of fish and how best to intercept and catch them. He's particularly interested in working patterns that escape most anglers.
One of these involves the positioning of crappie in reservoirs, beginning when they first school offshore to feed on shad, and continuing well into fall. He's been following this tack for 15 years, honing locational and presentation variables with each new season and different body of water.
Timing the Offshore Bite: "In flatland and hill-land reservoirs, I start seeing schools of crappie holding offshore in June, when water temperatures bump 80F," Looper says. "The baitfish seem to relate to the edges of submerged creek channels. In these types of reservoirs, the edge of the drop may be 10 to 20 feet deep, with the channel dropping into 30 feet or more. The crappies tend to hold along channel bends, high spots in the creek bank, creek junctions, and other major structural features.
"In early summer, crappies typically hold from 6 to 15 feet down, with 12 the most common depth. I rely on sonar to locate them, since the precise depth may vary with time of year and resulting water temperature and thermocline conditions, as well as immediate weather considerations, particularly wind or bright sun, and time of day.
"As June gives way to July, you'll start catching largemouths on the spots where crappie had been holding. As bass take over the prime structure locations, crappies shift to deeper flats, 10 to 25 feet deep, but still holding at the magic depth of 6 to 15 feet below the surface. Some days, the bass seem less aggressive and crappies may move back to the channel edges to join them. But when bass start feeding, the crappies move away. Interestingly enough, cloudy days seem to make the offshore bass less active and competitive, but crappie feed actively in those conditions.
"The offshore bite builds as summer progresses, and September offers the most dependable bite here in Arkansas. There's a tendency for crappie to shift to the lower end of the reservoirs as you move into August, when water temperatures may push 90F. But they do not alter their preferred depth.
"In early September, when the first cooling fronts arrive, many large shad schools begin shifting uplake toward feeder creeks. The crappies follow. In this case, too, if bass are using the channel edges, crappies move to the flats. The baitfish and crappies are mobile at this time of year, and you'll rarely catch them where they were a couple days ago. Search carefully with sonar before you start fishing. It's not uncommon for the fish to move half a mile from one day to the next.
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"In September and October, I do well in reservoirs that have more highland features as well as hill-land and flatland impoundments, since the shad and crappies move toward the upper end, where features are more similar to these types of waters. If it's unstable or stormy, the bass become active while the crappies scatter, so I fish for bass. And once the thermocline breaks up, crappies hold at depths from 6 to 30 feet on the same lake, so fishing is not nearly as consistent as it had been.
"The clearer the water, the more pronounced low-light bite you will have," Looper notes. "And the better the bite in cloudy conditions. In stained water, the midday bite is good. If a lake is murky or muddy, offshore patterns don't evolve, in my experience. In those waters, I believe crappies stay shallow nearly all the time, since their vision in deeper murky water is severely limited."
Trolling Tactics: Mitch Looper's tactics for offshore crappie have evolved over many years. "It was trial and error," he notes, "and mostly error for a while. Fifteen years ago, I was on a flatland impoundment in summer trying for bass. But the bite was slow. I saw big schools of shad on the LCD, with larger fish around them. I tried jigging and then trolling a Bomber Model A through them with no success. I tried a #5 Shad Rap and caught a big crappie on the first pass. For the next pass, I put two rods out with Shad Raps, and bang, two crappie.
"Trial and error taught me to troll with the wind, not against it. A couple years after I started trolling cranks for offshore crappies, I took an outdoor writer out and, after catching some big bass, we started trolling for crappie. I showed him the shad schools on the depth finder, with suspended crappies near them.
"To make a point, I trolled into the wind for 3/4 of a mile and never had a bite. He started looking at me with concern. I told him I did that on purpose to make a point and that I knew we wouldn't catch any. We turned around and trolled with the wind and soon were hooked up. It makes all the difference."
Looper has trolled a variety of lures and acknowledges that small jigs may get the most action. But for bigger specimens, he favors crankbaits. "When I first got on this offshore pattern, I relied on Shad Raps, and now I've taken to using the Grappler Shad from Cotton Cordell. Nearly every fish will be 12 inches or better."
For consistent depth control, Looper trolls with 100 feet of line out. To alter running depth, he changes line sizes. For example, he reports that the CD15 Grappler trolls at 11 feet with 10-pound Super Silver Thread, moving at 1 to 1 1/2 miles per hour. Switch to 8-pound and it runs about 13, and down to 15 with 6-pound-test. Conversely, 12-pound-test mono will keep it at 9 to 10 feet.
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"The new Baby Grappler Shad is about the same size as a #5 Shad Rap and it runs 8 feet deep on 10-pound Super Silver Thread, 6 feet on 12-pound-test, and reaches 12 feet on 6-pound fluorocarbon," he reports. "If you're off on the depth by just a foot, crappies will have a harder time catching the lure -- they'll be barely hooked, and often get off. Shift baits a bit deeper and they'll be hooked securely."
Looper uses spinning tackle when lighter lines (10-pound and less) are called for, favoring Pflueger 6 1/2-foot medium and light power models with President spinning reels. With heavier lines, he uses Pflueger Trion Cranking Rods with President baitcasters. His Minn Kota 74-pound Maxxum supplies plenty of power and runs for days at the 30 percent setting he usually selects.
Drop-Shotting: Todd Huckabee, a crappie tournament competitor from Oklahoma City, has another approach to offshore crappies -- drop-shotting. For the last year and a half, Huckabee has been taking advantage of that rigging to score high in tournaments on Lake Eufaula and Fort Gibson Reservoir.
"In many southeastern reservoirs, crappies hold near deep standing timber in late summer and into fall," Huckabee points out. "The most productive spots are along old creek channels, where the biggest trees have grown. This timber is still thick and you can't effectively troll through it.
"I anchor my drop-shot with a 1/2-ounce weight, to hold it straight down in wind or wavy conditions. I use 10-pound Silver Thread AN-40, to resist abrasion against the tree trunks as you pull crappies straight up through the timber.
"I've experimented a lot with baits, and for the bigger crappies that we need in tournaments, I favor the 2-inch YUM Beavertail. The two colors that have been hot are Carolina Pumpkin with a chartreuse tail, and black with a pink tail. I like a 1/0 light-wire wide gap for this bait, which provides a sufficient gap when the lure is nose-hooked.
"I check sonar before setting the distance between the sinker and the bait. In one tournament at Fort Gibson, we found the big fish just a foot off the bottom in 24 feet of water along a tree line. I set the Beaver Tail at that depth and they ate it up.
"Tie the lure slightly above the level of the fish. Fishing vertically is extremely efficient. I rarely spend more than a couple minutes on a spot, then move on to another creek bend or group of trees. If they're in the mood, crappies bite right away. If not, you probably won't be able to trigger them, so you're better off looking for more active fish."
In contrast to bays crowded with crappie fishermen that typify the spring bite, summertime crappie fishing offers an opportunity to move away from the crowd for what can be even more productive fishing. Along the way, you'll learn a lot about the structure of your local lakes, and discern patterns that may well produce slab crappie for years to come.