During the dog days of summer, catching crappie may require thinking outside the box and trying unconventional fishing tactics, like fishing with a soft-plastic Yum Dinger. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)
A barn swallow skimmed the water nearby as I tied my johnboat to a tall mid-lake snag. I was hungry for some crappie, and although it was a fiery-hot outside—a typical dog days afternoon—I decided to try catching a mess on a lake near home.
Below my boat was a big cedar. I saw two men sink it there just a month earlier. I tied a Heddon Sonar to my ultralight spin combo and free-lined the lure to the tree.
The next 60 minutes were unforgettable. Not for the incredible tangerine sunset that capped the day. Not even for the river otter I saw playing across the lake. On the first drop, I hooked a 1-1/2-pound crappie, and there were 20 thrashing on my stringer within the hour. Several were big slabs.
That fishing trip, and others like it, convinced me to pursue crappie more often during summer. Granted, hot-weather fishing can be tough. When the water temperature soars, our favorite panfish often sound, heading for deep-water realms few anglers are much good at fishing. I’ve learned you can hook dog-days slabs, however, even during daylight hours. The key is a willingness to think “outside the box” and try advanced crappie-fishing strategies such as these.
Think “New Places”
Could there be a better place than a deep-water brushpile to find summer crappie? Most anglers think not. But Oklahoma crappie guide and tournament professional Todd Huckabee says there are times in summer when shallow-water haunts harbor crappie as well.
“I’ve learned to look for big crappie up on shallow [1 to 3 feet deep] flats in creeks this time of year,” he says. “Shad spawn over and over again in these areas, as long as conditions are right. And the big crappie follow them. The crappie are always next to some piece of cover such as a laydown, log jam or stump. And flats where cover is sparse are best because, on these, any little stick will hold fish. The water needs to be stained.”
Huckabee discovered trophy crappie in these locales while bass fishing, and decided to experiment with different fishing techniques until he found one that worked best.
“The best lure in this situation seems to be a 2-inch, black/pink Yum Wooly Beavertail on a 3/16-ounce Crappie Pro jig head,” he says. “And I found that the crappie tend to hold near one particular kind of cover each day. One day they may be on laydowns, and I catch more if I work that cover. The next day they may be on log jams or stumps, and working the Beavertail around that cover is more productive.”
Huckabee also targets big summer crappie in flooded willows. Here again, the rig he uses is somewhat different from the norm.
“I catch a ton of post-spawn crappie by wacky-rigging a 3-inch Yum Dinger and fishing it around water willows and shallow brush close to docks. They can’t resist the slow fall and wiggle of a Dinger rigged this way with the hook run through the center of the lure. Four-inch Dingers work, too, but I get a better hooking ratio with the smaller lure. This is a fun way to fish because of the numbers of crappie you catch.”
Think “New Baits”
Huckabee isn’t the only crappie angler who uses out-of-the-ordinary crappie baits.
“Most crappie anglers use jigs or minnows and nothing else,” says Lewis Peeler, an ardent crappie fisherman from Vanndale, Arkansas. “I’ve seen times, though, when other baits worked best. On some lakes in Louisiana, I catch more crappie on freshwater shrimp. Crappie in ponds near my home seem to hit small spinners better than jigs or minnows. On certain lakes, I catch most crappie using small shad-imitation crankbaits.
“The key is versatility,” he continues. If one bait or lure doesn’t work, try something different.”
One unconventional summer crappie-catcher is a 4-1/2-inch Smithwick Rattling Rogue. Rig the lure Carolina style, with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce tungsten weight above a barrel swivel on your line, and a 3- to 4-foot leader from swivel to lure. Crawl the rig across the bottom. Crappie unwilling to dart out after smaller prey find it hard to resist this sizeable entrée.
When crappie are deep, bladebaits such as the Heddon Sonar and Reef Runner Cicada also can be hot, although few anglers ever try them. Snapped upward, a bladebait creates a pulsating vibration like an injured or escaping baitfish. You can vertically jig a bladebait to create a subtle fluttering motion that attracts skittish, light-biting crappie; or retrieve it with occasional rips and runs to produce an erratic action that might interest a slab in need of a wake-up call.
Think “New Presentations”
A new presentation sometimes provides the best means for hooking persnickety summer crappie. When fishing with minnows, for example, you may need to employ a specialized rig to detect light-biters. One way is using a sensitive antenna-style float such as Thill’s Supreme Super Shy Bite Float on 2- to 4-pound-test line. Rig the float on your line for slip-float application as instructed on the package, then tie a No. 2 Aberdeen hook at the line’s end. Start adding small split-shot between the hook and float, and after adding each one, drop the rig in the water to see how much of the float tip protrudes above the surface. Use just enough weight so only 1/2- to 1/4-inch of the bobber (the upper fluorescent-colored portion) is visible. Now when a crappie inhales the minnow, it will remove some weight off the line, and the super-sensitive float will rise a little to clearly indicate a taker. Watch the float constantly, and set the hook at the first sign of this action.
Sometimes the best way to catch finicky summer crappie is with only an unweighted minnow on a hook. Use an Aberdeen hook on a 6-1/2-foot spinning rod matched with a reel spooled with 4-pound mono. With this rig, you can easily cast an unweighted minnow 30 to 50 feet. Hook the minnow through the back and cast toward likely hiding spots. The minnow should struggle near the surface for a short time, attracting nearby crappie. Then as the baitfish tires, it begins sinking, still wiggling enticingly. Crappie can’t resist.
To locate warm-water crappie schools, it may be helpful to fish around underwater creek and river channels, humps, submerged points, inundated road beds and other favored summer structure with a weedless casting spoon such as a 1/8-ounce Johnson Silver Minnow or a 1/4-ounce Cabela’s Weedless Lunker Spoon. To prevent line twist, add an 18-inch, 6-pound-mono leader to the spoon, which is tied to a ball-bearing swivel on the main line. Cast the lure and let it sink, then reel up slack and retrieve so the spoon rocks slowly back and forth. Be alert, and set the hook at any unnatural bump or weightless feeling.
Remember, the successful summer crappie angler must be flexible and innovative—ready to try something new or different when “regular” fishing tactics won’t produce. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Think outside the box occasionally. Innovation often leads to success.
Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of “The Crappie Fishing Handbook.” To order an autographed copy, visit his website, www.catfishsutton.com.