December 01, 2020
By Justin Brouillard
For anglers in the South, fall and winter is a time to enjoy a day on the lake without humid, hot, and miserable temperatures. In the North, fall marks the end of the open water season and preparation begins for months of ice-covered water. Fish instinctively know the seasons are changing and they begin to pack on weight before winter. There are few hardcore crappie fishermen that will follow these delicious fish all year, but most people give up after a hot spring bite. When the temperatures drop and the cold begins to set in, the following tactics will help you get on some slab crappie right up until the ice forms.
Fall Weed Edges
Panfish can the feel the weather changing as water temperatures begin to cool and cold nights set in. Some fish will remain shallow in their later summer patterns, while some will begin to move. The place to be at this time is on weed edges adjacent to deep water. The water doesn’t have to be too deep on the edge of the vegetation, but it should be close to deeper water. Of course, the term “deep” will vary depending on which body of water you are fishing. Some lakes the deepest water may be 10 to 20 feet, and the weed edges may be 8 to 10 feet. On the other hand, a lot of northern bodies of water get much deeper and it's not unusual to see weed edges out to 18 feet or more. Keep an eye on your electronics and look where the weeds stop.
Anytime you can find a solid edge of vegetation, chances are good that there are fish somewhere close by. There are keys to breaking down a weedline and it can be done while you are fishing. Look for any visible structure such as a tree, the end of a dock or some rocks. If you can't see it above the surface, keep an eye on the sonar. The odds of catching crappies are even better if you can locate something that is holding baitfish. Weedlines specifically attract and hold baitfish, but if you mix in some other type of cover/structure, the bait and the fish will certainly be close by. The fish will usually be suspended off the edge of the weeds and will follow the food.
Once fall gives way to steady winter-like weather, and right up until ice forms on the lake, the fish will move again. In deeper lakes/ponds, the basin is where the fish move to. Once again, food is the main drive for the location change. Look for soft-bottom areas near points, drop offs, or any underwater structure. The fish may not be right on these areas, but they will be chasing food close by. Forage could be minnows or bugs and plankton that are living on the muddy bottoms. It is important to utilize your electronics this time of the year to eliminate water. Crappies will either suspend near structure or they will be right near the bottom. In either scenario, if you can find them, they will bite.
Idle around the deeper basin and keep your sonar active. Look for areas with a soft bottom on your electronics by utilizing 2D sonar. On standard color schemes, soft bottom will produce reddish-blue returns and will look more translucent. In contrast, hard bottoms will be thick yellow. Locate the soft bottom and keep an eye out for fish. Look for rocks or wood mixed in with soft bottom and you're sure to find fish. Place a waypoint near any attractive structure you may find and return to it when the lake freezes over.
Baits and Presentation
Regardless of where the fish are located, most times the same type of presentation will catch fish. The difference is in how and where the bait is fished. Starting shallow and working deeper, weed edges are fun to fish and present different opportunities to catch all sorts of fish. Casting a 1/16-ounce jig with any type of grub- or minnow-shaped soft plastic is always a safe bet. Start with brighter colors as needed and make a long cast parallel to the grassline with a slow steady retrieve or short pitches to the weed edge. Another lure that will produce reaction bites is a small crappie-size crankbait. Cast the crankbait parallel to the grass with a stead retrieve. If there is any cover present such as a laydown or a dock, using a slip bobber set to a few feet above the cover will also work. The bait will rest right above the productive area and allow the fish to feed upward towards your bait.
As the fish get deeper into the basins, electronics become even more important. Utilizing sonar to locate and stay on top of schools of fish is key. As for the baits, there is little change. Brighter-colored plastics rigged on a 1/16-ounce jighead will do the trick. With windy conditions, look to upsize the weight of the jig to help maintain constant contact in deep water. I like to use tungsten jigs because you can up size the weight of the jig without drastically increasing the overall size of the jig. Next time you find yourself struggling to catch bass or walleyes, pick up some crappie gear and give the tasty white and gold fish a try—your stomach will be glad you did.