November 08, 2022
By Gord Pyzer
I look forward to no other event on the crappie calendar more than when the fish start sliding out to deeper water in the fall. It’s like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine. At first, a few dollars trickle out, followed by a windfall. The transition is tied to turnover, one of the most misunderstood processes that happens from Texas to Minnesota to Ontario—everywhere crappies flourish. The only difference is in the timing and extent.
“Water temperature is the key,” says Dan Dannenmueller, 2011 and 2012 Angler of the Year on the Crappie Masters Tournament Trail. “Water temperature controls both the food and the fish. Crappies love water temperature around 68°F. As we march deeper into the fall, surface temperatures drop quickly, while deeper water is much slower to change. Once turnover in the water column occurs and the temperature becomes more uniform, crappies seek out the depth that is closest to 68°F.”
Thirteen hundred miles to the north of Dannenmueller, who lives in Tallassee, Alabama, Rob Jackson in southeastern Ontario sees the same fall phenomenon unfolding. “As the shallows cool and weeds begin to die, it seems like there is a mass exodus from the shallows by all forms of life, says Jackson, who runs RJnBirdees Outdoor Adventures. “You don’t see any minnows moving around. It almost mimics ice-out. Everything makes that move to the edge.”
And that is the first critical takeaway for catching slab crappies in the fall: the slide toward the basin is an evolutionary process not an event. It also highlights a key fishing principle that we’ve emphasized for years. Stability is paramount. Crappies, and most other fish, transition toward and eventually move into deeper basin water in the fall to minimize the impacts of an ever-changing shallow environment.
And one of the most reliable places to intercept them early on in their journey are deep weedbeds. Jackson has discovered a correlation between spring and fall growth. “I spend a lot of time early in the season looking for the fastest growing weeds,” he says. “These same beds are typically the last ones to hold crappies in the fall. It’s the reverse process. In the spring, crappies are coming out of deep water and staging around the first lush growth of the season. In the fall, you find them in the same places, only now they represent the last luxuriant growth. The best weedbeds typically lie adjacent to the basin and have the steepest breaks sliding down into it.”
While vegetation is scarce in many of the northwestern Ontario lakes that I fish, thanks to the weed-whacking efforts of invasive rusty crayfish, crappies still exhibit this strange, fall love affair with early spring locations, substituting rockpiles and moderately deep boulder shoals for vegetation. So, where you find the fish first in the spring as they move up out of deep water is typically where you find them again in the fall as they slide back down.
Scoping Out the Best Basins
It’s intriguing how you can find two or three seemingly similar basin areas on a lake and yet locate crappies in only one of them. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and I have a favorite fall crappie lake like this that features a trio of south-facing bays shaped like fingers that are similar in size and depth, and yet, the crappies flock only to one of them.
“I see it all the time, too,” Dannenmueller says. “The best basins are the most fertile ones. They also have a combination of ideal spawning grounds, weedgrowth, food sources, well defined ledges, good sources of oxygen, protection from predators, and access to deep and shallow water.
“I had the chance a few years ago to fish Lake of the Woods in your neck of the woods. Other than its immense size, it’s no different than the lakes I fish here in the southern United States. I found the crappies grouped up near rock formations on the bottom in 20 feet of water with baitfish close by. When I looked around the bays, I could see where the fish would spawn in the spring. Everything they needed was right there. We caught scores of 12- to 13-inch crappies and a few bigger ones.”
Now, did you catch Dannenmueller’s critical “good source of oxygen” checklist item? It’s among the essential things I look for these days because most of the lakes I fish—and I bet yours as well—have low levels of oxygen at the soft basin interface come September. It was a eureka moment when I finally pieced together what was happening. Driving around a moderate-size crappie lake scanning with my Helix sonar, I could easily see the 5- to 10-foot-thick remnant of the thermocline hanging immediately above bottom when I crept out into 22 to 24 feet of water. It showed up like a glass pepper grinder that was almost empty and got thicker as I went deeper. But I could never spot or catch crappies within it. Instead, they were always right at the edge, in water that was 2 to 3 feet shallower than where the thermocline began.
Understand what I am saying? As I slowly cruised out toward ever-deeper water, I’d often spot crappies and then, almost immediately, the beginning of the thermocline tight to the bottom. Imagine the thin edge of a wedge and that is what it looked like on the screen. It was uncanny. And then the light bulb turned on and I realized the peppery-looking band wasn’t plankton suspended in the thermocline, but rather, partially anoxic water. The result of bottom decomposition over the summer. And the crappies were relating to it horizontally, with their noses almost touching it. It was obvious they wanted to slide out deeper, but lacking adequate oxygen, were forced to remain shallower until fall turnover was more advanced.
Even more pronounced was how closely they related to the bottom. “Electronics are essential,” Dannenmueller says. “Something I’ve learned from using LiveScope is just how much time big crappies spend sitting on the bottom during high pressure and weather changes. You have to look carefully for abnormalities, bump a jig on the bottom, and watch for movement. You’re not always going to see the fish, but they will rise up or dart off the bottom to take your bait.”
Double rigging is one of Dannenmueller’s favorite ways to fish for fall crappies, allowing him to present two baits at different depths. He fashions his rig around a Thundermist three-way swivel that offers 360-degree rotation to minimize tangles. He ties his mainline to one end of the swivel and a pre-tied #1 Blakemore-snelled hook to one of the other open ends. He always baits this hook with a lively minnow. Then, he attaches a 32-inch length of 8-pound-test clear Gamma monofilament (8-pound if the water is clear) to the third end of the swivel and three-quarters of the way down, loops the line four times through a 1/2-ounce egg sinker to stop it from sliding. He says it’s important to have at least 10 inches of line below the weight. He completes the rig with a Road Runner-style jig tipped with a Bobby Garland Baby Shad.
Focus on Food
As the season advances and there is a distinct chill in the air, even on the brightest days, you will find crappies sliding into deeper basin waters and focusing on food. “After the first cold fronts of autumn, the water begins to cool and crappies start roving with schools of baitfish,” Dannenmueller says. “They’re gorging now, continuing the development of their egg sacks and putting on the fat they need to survive the winter. The fish are aggressive during this period and I catch them pulling Road Runners dressed with Bobby Garland Hypergrubs and similar baitfish look-alikes.
“I find the fish first using my electronics and then pull baits through them. If they’re spooky, because the water is clear, I stay off to the sides of the schools and cast to them with the same baits. But I always match my plastics to the size of the minnows they’re feeding on. I also use a lot of 1/32- to 1/16-ounce hair jigs. The Bobby Garland Itty Bit and Road Runner Slab Daddy are good. As for equipment, I cast with a BnM Leland TCB rod and matching Pro 50 spinning reel. I spool it with either 4- or 6-pound-test Gamma line. Slip-corking the fish is also effective with the same jigs, same line, and Thill slipbobbers. Weedlines that are adjacent to deep water are productive early in the fall, but they lose their glamor as the season advances.”
Jackson agrees, noting that while he relies on slipfloats in the spring, he typically removes them in the fall. “I prefer to throw baits that I can work, drift, or deadstick,” he says. “If the fish have moved off the weeds and are positioned at the edge of the basin, it’s easier to present your bait without a float. Two-inch tube jigs, hair jigs, and small swimbaits rule. I use a G. Loomis Trout Series rod for its extreme sensitivity and 4-pound-test monofilament line. Then I fish the tick.”
As multiple fronts pass through and the water continues cooling, Dannenmueller says he follows the fish in northern lakes as they steadily progress toward ever-deeper depths, arriving eventually at their pre ice-up basin haunts. When he finds them there, he slows down and fishes vertically. “Smaller spoons, hair jigs, and small bladebaits in black and gold work best,” says Dannenmueller, whose CrappieNOW YouTube channel is a big hit with the Internet crowd. “I switch to a BnM 12-foot Sam Heaton Super Sensitive Bottom Seat & Touch System jigging pole matched with a Buck’s Best Ultra Lite Crappie Reel spooled with 4- to 6-pound-test Gamma panfish line. You can use the TCB Leland rod that I mentioned earlier to vertically jig, but it is only 6-foot 6-inches long so you can’t reach out as far.”
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about fishing for fall crappies is that the best bite tends to coincide with ideal sunny, warm, calm weather conditions. Stange and I filmed a memorable mid-October In-Fisherman TV segment one year in shirt sleeves and sunglasses and enjoyed great success catching husky slabs. It was so good that I went back the next day for a repeat performance after Doug headed home. But a front had pushed through overnight and it was cloudy, windy, and the drizzle as frigid as the bite.
“I always try to get out during the warm-up period in front of an approaching cold front,” Dannenmueller says. “The falling barometer peaks their activity. Crappies are extremely sensitive to environmental change. Even a slight wind change stops them from biting for an hour or two. They’re also sight feeders and picky eaters. Bad weather accentuates these characteristics, so don’t move your bait too much. Subtle movements produce more and bigger crappies.”
If there’s one issue that unfortunately plagues fall fishing for basin-related crappies, it’s that they often slide into water deep enough—typically 28 feet and deeper—that barotrauma becomes an issue. Many anglers think they can counter “the bends” by reeling the fish up slowly, or livewelling them at the surface, so they can adjust to the pressure change. But it results in the opposite effect, giving the swim bladder even more time to distend under less pressure. Far better to reel in and release a crappie quickly if you’re not going to keep it.
I try to find schools in water shallower than 28 feet deep and rely on a RokLees Ecoleeser for any fish that shows signs of stress. It is an ingenious weighted release device that was designed originally for west coast saltwater species like rockfish, that are often caught in extremely deep water. But it works just as well with crappies, bass, and walleyes. After you lock the clip on a crappie’s lower jaw and lower it to the bottom, you feel it tugging as it tries to swim away. A simple jerk on the line like you’re setting the hook sets it free.
Another good idea, if you must fish in deep water, is keeping the first crappies you catch. It is what Texas has mandated for two of the state’s most popular fisheries. “Texas has two reservoirs, Lake O’ the Pines and Lake Fork, with a special wintertime regulation in which anglers are required to keep every crappie they catch, regardless of size, with a daily bag limit of 25 fish,” says Tim Bister, district fishery biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The regulation has been in place since 1991 and was implemented in response to angler concerns that crappies, released below the statewide 10-inch minimum length limit, struggled at the surface and died after being caught from deeper water.”
According to Bister, Lake Fork and Lake O’ the Pines have excellent crappie populations and are popular with anglers during the winter months when more than 100 boats often congregate on the most popular spots. “This amount of angling effort during the time of year when crappies are located in deep water would result in a visible number of dead fish floating among the boats if it were not for the special regulation,” he says. “The success of the regulation at these two reservoirs allows anglers to utilize these fish that would most likely die. The regulation is well accepted by anglers, and both fisheries have remained popular.”
Gord Pyzer of Kenora, Ontario, longtime In-Fisherman field editor and former Ontario natural resource manager, has a knack for incorporating fishery science and conservation into his insightful angling articles.