Winter Crappie Moves
July 12, 2014
North to South, a handful of crappie patterns occurs in fall. All of them have to do with winter crappies seeking their seasonal habitat. As a rule, they move deeper at some point during fall. In reservoirs, crappies take flight from shallow creek arms and main-lake bays to concentrate in and around the intersection of the creek channel and the main river channel. In shallow reservoirs and flowages, crappies move to the deepest holes, which tend to be in the lower third of the lake, if not right above the dam -- which is similar to what takes place in smaller natural lakes, with a maximum depth of 25 feet or less, where crappies move right out to the center of the deepest basin. In larger natural lakes, crappies often find smaller basins, holes on flats or main-lake flats in the 20- to 30-foot range. The farther north you go, the deeper you find crappies wintering in big natural lakes -- some down to 50 feet or so.
Crappies concentrate this time of year, as the needs of winter draw forage species closer together in predictable spots. In natural lakes and hill-land reservoirs down South, and in the flatland reservoirs of the Midwest, shad represent the primary forage. As water temperatures cool in September, gizzard shad move shallow, often feeding right on top. Crappies follow, often reversing the same migrational pathways they used to leave spawning areas earlier in the year. Routes leading crappies from deep to shallow can be weedlines, cuts, troughs, channels or simply depressions in the bottom. Large shallow flats (the best often encompass several thousand square yards) are good. Large shallow flats about 2/3 of the way back into a creek arm tend to be better. If that flat has stump fields, it's crappie paradise. Shad group in tight pods.
But this foraging binge of 4 to 8 weeks, depending upon conditions, is followed by another migration. By late November or early December, crappies may move out and suspend in deeper creek arms, or they may move down to the confluence of the creek channel and the main river channel. Steep-dropping banks anywhere in this general area might hold fish, especially those near primary points and channel bends. Submerged or fallen trees and brush piles on these banks can concentrate crappies. In deeper hill-land reservoirs, most crappies seem to seek out depths of 25 to 45 feet.
Up North, a general transition among crappies takes place. Suspended crappies become bottom-oriented after the fall turnover, which takes place sometime between mid-September and mid-October, depending on latitude. In fall, crappies can be found along the base of main-lake structures, patrolling the edge, usually within a few feet of bottom in the 20- to 40-foot range, depending upon how far north you go, with 25 to 35 feet being most common. When fall and winter crappies suspend up North, it generally takes place within 10 feet of bottom.
At first, crappies can be found scattered over a large area at the base of main-lake breaklines. These pods of fish may eventually coalesce into one huge school. Prime methods for catching crappies during early fall tend to be less efficient for catching crappies later on.
From place to place and from time to time, the prime method for catching fall crappies can differ. We review two techniques right for crappies anywhere, sometime between September and December.
Spider-rigging -- When the boat has so many poles in holders sticking out in all directions that it looks like an arachnid skimming over the water -- that's spider-rigging. Spider-rigging basically means slow trolling or controlled drifting with multiple rods set in holders, each covering a different depth until patterns develop. Long poles and rods (up to 12 feet long or so) work best with this system, because they spread the baits more and cover more water. During early fall and a month or more afterward, spider-rigging with tubes on jigs is the premier method for taking suspended crappies in most reservoirs and many natural lakes in the Midwest and in the South. (In Minnesota, each angler is allowed only one rod, and in many northern states and provinces, each angler is allowed just two, so spider-rigging is out of the question.)
One angler using 8 poles would be considered a sparse spread down South. And many successful pros now believe that sparse is better, creating fewer tangles and requiring less tackle in the water while permitting optimum coverage. Spider-rigging is designed to pattern fish fast, by placing each jig at a different depth. Being systematic with fewer rods still allows you to cover those depths, but with fewer hassles.
Tony Edgar, a crappie pro from Missouri, uses eight 12-foot crappie poles, all on Tite-Lok rod holders in the front of the boat. Each pole is pointing out at a different angle, but all extend forward, creating a "snow plow" effect as Edgar slowly pushes forward with the trolling motor. Each line has a swivel, two leaders leading to lures or Aberdeen hooks, and a 1/2-ounce sinker. He sits in the bow, watches the depthfinder, and tries to keep his deepest rigs just ticking the tops of brushpiles while the other rigs probe middle segments of the water column. Many other anglers employ rods along the sides of the boat or at the stern, especially with two or more anglers along.
In states that allow only two rods, two anglers can deploy four rods, or they can jig vertically into brushpiles with two rods, while leaving two in holders deploying plastics for suspended crappies on the opposite side of the boat. A variety of plastic baits work, especially early in fall. While tubes are the most popular, small plastic worms with thin, tapering tails, 2-inch shad bodies and little soft-plastic jerk baits imitate minnows better on the right jigheads. The key is keeping the bait horizontal at rest.
Longtime crappie pros like Ronnie Capps of Tennessee begin switching from tubes and plastics to minnows during late fall, but present them with the same basic method used for suspending crappies in spring and summer -- spider-rigging.
Big crappies are carnivores, and in fall they want the real deal. "I like golden shiners about 2 1/2-inches long," Capps says. "Any bigger and crappies get finicky." Capps uses multiple rods, all outfitted with his "double rig," which incorporates a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce egg sinker placed on the main line between two leaders. Each leader terminates with a bronze size #2 214 EL Eagle Claw hook.
Longline Rigging -- Drifting flats with longlines is a great way to cover territory and find fish in fall, especially in the North where real spider-rigging is illegal. As the autumn winds build into the "gales of November," using the wind to good benefit becomes logical and highly effective. Have a wind sock or two along to slow the boat and control drift speed.
The best areas for drifting are flats. Crappies will persist on shallow flats 15 feet deep or less right through September up North, and into November or even December in the deep South. Crappies are still spread out, and not as concentrated as they become in late fall. Later, as crappies move to deeper flats, drifting appeals to suspended fish best, because it takes the lines away from the boat when fish are up high in the water column. When crappies are pinned to bottom, drifting covers lots of territory.
Each scenario demands different rigging. It's possible to drift shallow flats with light jig-and-plastic combinations. In open water, a small-bladed spinner harness dressed with one or two crappie minnows tends to work best. Weight one or two rigs with a split shot or two and leave one rig unweighted, to cover different depths. On bottom, a Lindy Rig, or similar bottom-dragging setup, can present minnows on floating jigheads or longline finesse rigs. When sonar indicates that crappies appear to be scattered through the water column, these methods can be combined.
I drift flats with 7- to 9-foot light-action rods and 4- to 6-pound line. When drifting a bait rig on bottom, a long rod allows you to feed the bait to the fish longer while dropping the rod tip back. When drifting with jigs or harnesses, a long rod provides quicker, easier depth control and spreads the lines farther out. A simple lift will set the hook, and crappies can't straighten a 9-foot bend, so fewer fish come free on the way to the boat.
Turn the boat sideways to the wind and, if the wind is strong, put out a drift sock amidships, so the boat stays perpendicular to the wind. The classic crappie drift rig in open water is somewhat similar to a walleye rig -- clevis, spinnerblade, beads, and a single 2-hook harness. But a crappie harness employs Aberdeen hooks and a size #00 to size #1 blade. Bait each hook with a 2-inch minnow and drop it in beside the boat. Control boat speed until the blade barely turns, then drop each harness back there 30 to 100 feet, depending on the clarity of the water. Weight each line differently so it swims through a different zone in the water column. Without wind it becomes necessary to use the trolling motor or backtroll into the breeze.
If it's flat calm, get small suspending baits like the Excalibur Ghost Minnow way back there and slowly "snap troll." Twitch the bait forward then create long pauses by slowly dropping the rod tip back as the boat moves forward, keeping the line tight. If crappies are deeper, troll them with small floating minnowbaits, but weight the line with split shot or create a three-way rig with a small bell sinker for deeper water.