Most In-Fisherman readers concluded long ago that a crappie angler’s favorite Christmas tree isn’t the one erected in the living room in December. It’s the one on the sonar screen in October, after crappies have migrated to basin areas on the main lake.
The classic Christmas tree shape of the school describes the general mood of crappies just about any time of year. The thin tip of the tree is made up of the most aggressive, hungry fish. The shape of the school then tapers down through declining levels of aggression to the broad base, representing the least aggressive. Almost any day on the water, aggressive fish are outnumbered by neutral fish, which in turn are outnumbered by inactive fish—except during those temporary frenzies when it seems like all the crappies turn on at once but, just as suddenly, turn off after a short time.
But Christmas trees also describe a kind of micro season on natural lakes in the North and Midwest. In early fall, before we see those classic formations on sonar, crappies tend to be scattered. Talented Minnesota guide Garrett Svir starts searching for basin crappies in mid-September. “Before a lake turns over, you find crappies at the same depth as the deep weedlines out over the basin,” Svir says. “They’re out at that depth, suspended. Not hugging weediness anymore, they can be 12 to 17 feet down over any depth from 20 to 50 feet. Wind blows plankton around and if you fish wind-blown structures, that’s where crappies are. You’re better off fighting the wind during that transition period.
“Right after turnover—after surface temperatures dip to 60°F or less—crappies scatter and are hard to find for about a week. But from that point on, fish in the main basin of the lake. The best spots are flats adjacent to structure. Inside turns are better than points. The first severe cold snap busts up those schools and crappies go everywhere. It’s a tricky time, with fish here and there. As things stabilize again, you can find them schooled on basin spots through November and early ice. That’s when crappies group and you find those classic Christmas trees.”
After turnover, the best spots are off primary main-lake structures. “Look for the biggest points extending into the basin,” he says. “Then find the biggest inside turns adjacent to those points and search from the first break down to where the structure meets the basin. You don’t catch them out in the middle of nowhere at this point. Early, they’re up about 15 feet off bottom. As the water cools, crappies go deeper, but I rarely find them pinned to the bottom. Even in 40-foot depths, they’re usually 10 feet off bottom. You can tell they’re crappies with electronics because they stack vertically, like stove pipes. You know exactly what it is. Bluegills, walleyes, and other fish spread out more. That’s the key—having faith in your electronics. Confidence in what you’re seeing is the name of the game.”
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer chases basin crappies every October in Northwest Ontario. “October is my favorite month to fish for crappies,” he says. “The mistake many anglers make is arriving at the lake so excited at the prospects of fishing that they drop baits down before they find anything to catch. Resist that urge and spend more time early in the day searching for fish.”
Finding crappies requires a good chart and adequate sonar. With those two tools, crappies can run, but they can’t hide, he says. The early fall season is different than it is later on, in terms of location, which, again, suggests that what we call autumn is actually divided into two or three micro seasons for crappies. “Filtering out and trickling in is the best way to describe early fall crappie movement,” he says. “It’s not a mass migration. Early in the fall, you find fish closer to their summer haunts, while late in the season, they’re concentrated in deeper pockets. That’s why you need a sonar unit. It doesn’t matter how expensive it is or how big the screen is—what matters is learning to interpret what’s on the screen.”
To search a new lake, Pyzer first identifies spots on the map where crappies were a few weeks ago. “Crappies likely spent the summer in and along deep weedlines, pencil reed beds, concentrations of deep docks, and marinas,” he says. “Next, I highlight sections of the lake where the fish are going to spend the winter. The best spots are moderately deep—25 to 35 feet—pockets and basins with flat, soft, muddy bottoms. If the lake is shallower, I look for the deepest basins. The best pockets are well-defined and comparatively small. It’s not that the bigger basins don’t hold fish in the fall, because they do—it’s just easier to find fish in the distinct, moderately sized holes.”
During early to mid-autumn, he often finds crappies spread out along the bottom, hanging a foot or two above it, loosely bunched up. “The tips of structures like underwater points and sunken islands, especially where the feature merges with the basin bottom, are high-percentage areas,” he says. “Or find isolated cover on bottom, like a sunken tree, half a dozen boulders, patch of grass—even an old wooden boat or duck blind. Chances are good crappies are swimming nearby.
“After a couple weeks, crappies drop down closer to the basin and congregate in schools that are more dense and concentrated. But early on, they remain strung out in loose pods. Parking a boat directly above and fishing vertically is less productive than trolling at that point. Late-fall crappies typically congregate in ever-larger groups, resembling a Christmas tree on sonar. These schools can number in the hundreds by Thanksgiving and vertical fishing becomes more productive.”
But because crappies become so densely concentrated in late fall, Pyzer sometimes searches for hours to find them before wetting a line. “No sense fishing where fish don’t exist,” he says. “One Thanksgiving my fishing buddy Tom Van Leeuwen and I visited a lake reputed to hold giant crappies. We searched for six hours without turning off the outboard or wetting a line, our eyes glued to Tom’s three sonar units until we found fish, threw out a marker, and caught-and-released one plate-sized behemoth after another. We return to that same spot every autumn and always find crappies, so that initial six-hour search was time well spent.”
Svir says the same thing about late-fall crappies: Time spent searching on new water is rewarded by great fishing for years afterward. “Late fall is a great time of year to scout for crappies,” he says. “In most cases, crappie location at first ice—sometimes all winter—is the same as it is during late fall. Even if it takes hours, scouting for basin crappies is time well spent. Location is predictable, and if you find them, they will be there at first ice. It’s easier to scout during fall rather than hunt them with an auger. Fall is my favorite time use electronics to find crappies in new lakes. I’m an information junkie, too. I research DNR creel-census reports to see where bigger panfish are being caught and that has paid off in terms of knowing which new lakes to spend time on.”
Late fall is basin time for Svir, but he doesn’t stray far from structure. “Big flats adjacent to structure are key,” he says. “Typically, the best flats are 30 to 40 feet deep, and if the fish are close to bottom it’s irresponsible to catch too many because fish may die of barotrauma and it can damage the fishery. By November, when most crappies are deep, we take five apiece and leave. Catch-and-release can become catch-and-kill.”
Daybreak during the early fall season often finds Pyzer trolling crankbaits. “Crappies sometimes spread out and stay glued to the bottom, instead of suspending,” he says. “I suspect it’s because they’re gorging on mayfly nymphs and caddisfly larvae. When this happens, the most exciting way to catch them is by slowly trolling small crankbaits. A couple of my favorite crappie cranks are the Rapala Scatter Rap Shad and Scatter Rap Crank. The key is picking a crankbait that wobbles seductively at the slowest trolling speed—usually between .5 and .75 mph. Most crankbaits don’t wobble appreciably at such slow speed, and if you have to troll faster to make them shimmy properly, crappies won’t bite them.”
Pyzer uses a 7-foot light- or medium-light-power spinning rod and reel, spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test Sufix 832 braid. “Attach a small three-way swivel to the end of the braid and an 8- to 12-inch length of 6-pound mono to hold a cylindrical tungsten drop-shot sinker,” he says. “Or just use a bottom bouncer. I use 1-ounce, single-arm Tait Sticks made by my friend Cameron Tait. He fashions his bouncers for walleyes, but they function just as well for crappies. I slide a Tait Stick onto the braid, and then tie a small barrel swivel to the end of the line to stop it from sliding down to the bait. Then I attach a 4- to 7-foot Maxima Ultragreen leader to the other end of the swivel before attaching a crankbait.
“I prefer the longer leader when I spot crappies on sonar hovering 2 or 3 feet off bottom. When they’re tight to bottom, I opt for a shorter leader. The light braid serves multiple purposes. It’s thin, so a 1-ounce bottom bouncer plunges to bottom quick and you’re not trailing long lengths of line behind the boat. And thin braid is sensitive, telegraphing even the most subtle, lightest bites from crappies.”
Later on, as one micro season bleeds into the next, Pyzer switches tactics. “I call it sweeping the basin,” he says. “I put my 20-hp Mercury outboard into reverse and backtroll a jig at the slowest possible speed. As soon as my speed reaches .8 mph, I pop the motor into neutral and let the boat come to a stop. As I slowly backtroll into the wind, my jig pulls up off the bottom, well above the fish. Then I pop the motor into neutral with the lure at its apex and it floats like back down toward bottom. That’s when almost every strike occurs. While crappies want the bait swimming, they don’t want it moving quickly.”
Pyzer’s jig of choice for “sweeping the basin” is a short-shanked 1/16-ounce ReelBait Flasher Jig with a tiny willowleaf blade beneath the head and a 3-inch soft plastic minnow pinned to the hook. He uses a light-power spinning rod and reel spooled with 4-pound braid, such as Berkley FireLine or NanoFil, PowerPro, or Sufix Fuse. “Those lines are unbeatable for sweeping up crappies,” he says. “I also like to tie in a short length of 4-pound Maxima fluorocarbon to the end of the line, for stealth.”
As the water cools, he often casts with the same tackle, counts the jig down, and swims it slowly on a horizontal plane, right through the angel atop one of those famous Christmas trees. “I like casting a 1⁄16- to 1⁄8-ounce ReelBait Flasher jig tipped with a 2- to 3-inch live minnow or scented soft-plastic minnow. Cast the jig and let it fall to the bottom, or count it down to the same depth as the fish, then slowly swim it through the school.
By late fall, Svir is vertically jigging. “We started using Rapala Jigging Raps last year and they were effective,” he says. “I don’t snap Jigging Raps hard. If you snap it like the walleye guys do, crappies disappear off your screen. You have to ease it around with a subtle swimming action, dropping it and swimming it up slowly. I let the nose drop and then swim it back up—not a big sweep, but small little swimming motions. You feel them hit that better than a light jig because of the weight. I use a 7-foot JT Panhandler rod. A sensitive rod is critical. Depth can mute the feel and crappies can hit very light in fall. You have to be tuned in to the rod tip. You won’t feel it most of the time. I use 4-pound Trilene XL, or sometimes 4-pound FireLine with a short fluorocarbon leader.
“We try to fish within the cone under the transducers to keep baits just above the fish, but with several people on board that can be difficult so I use bobber stops on everybody’s line. When we find a school, I can adjust the bobber stops as necessary. And with a longer rod, you can let out increments of rod length and get the bait where you want it. But the bobber stop is a good visual indicator for keeping baits at the key depth.”
Svir’s confidence baits for years have been 1/32-ounce Northland Fire-Fly Jigs tipped with a Northland Impulse Mini Smelt. “I like the Bobby Garland Baby Shad on a 1/32-ounce jig, too,” he says. “I always use plastics or hardbaits. You don’t need to waste time in the minnow bucket, freezing your hands off in fall. I crimp on a big split shot about 16 inches above the jig so I can get away with these smaller baits. Small movements. Anything too aggressive, in my experience, is counterproductive. Swim it by moving the rod tip laterally. Pause, try to swim it again and she’s hooked. Crappies hit as it drops. I try to hover right over the top of the school and work them until they disperse, then we move on to find another stove pipe.”
Or Christmas tree. The kind with the presents on top. The kind that celebrates Thanksgiving, and every day for two months prior.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an exceptional angler and decades-long writer for