Sep 10, 2016

Following Fall Crappies

By: Larry Smith

            I love the changing of the seasons. It’s truly one of best and most unique aspects of living in Wisconsin, or the Midwest for that matter. Each season has its own unique character; allowing me to experience different adventures spanning the calendar year. I’m the type of person who despises repetition, and seasonal changes offer the opportunity for the outdoor variety I crave to keep myself from getting bored; which in turn leads to over-eating and one too many Sun Drops (if that’s even possible…). That being said, fall is definitely one of the best outdoor seasons of the year.

            Aside from the fact that I can finally take a break from the knockout punch of the summer sun, fall has countless opportunities available to the avid outdoorsman. It’s a time of harvest and preparation for the looming winter months for both humans and animals alike. Duck hunting, bow hunts for whitetails, and of course the fishing. So many adventures and so little time. I do make time, however, during this smorgasbord of a sportsman season, to pursue one of my most favorite fish: The crappie.

            Crappies can be quite elusive during the heat of summer. Pinpointing an exact pattern and technique for numbers of fish can definitely be a challenge. Unlike the predictable patterns of spring, many fish suspend off weedlines and continuously roam open water areas foraging, not linked to any kind of specific structure. Of course, the trolling angler occasionally catches them, but numbers of fish are rare indeed. Fall brings predictability back into the crappie equation, and on systems with major river influences (such as the Winnebago system), the fish have a tendency to migrate upriver and congregate in specific locations. The reason why is simple: Food.

            If you’re an avid crappie chaser, you know the propensity the fish have for shiners. More crappies are taken on a bobber-jig-shiner rig in spring than any other presentation. It’s true that all species of fish change their diet throughout the course of the year depending on availability, but they will always be in search of their preferred forage. Starting around September, shiners migrate up out of the main lake into both the Fox and Wolf rivers to escape summer water temperatures. You can be sure that crappies will be right behind them.

            Aside from forage location, current is the most important factor when locating upriver crappies. I know I always say that current is like a magnetic force that draws fish up out of the main lake. Although this is true, not all fish have the same tolerance for strength of flow. Crappies and shiners tend to shy away from stronger currents, which in turn affects their location on the river. Normal year cycles progressing into September and October will have river currents slightly above, if not near, summer levels depending on rainfall amounts. Usually, early fall rains will elevate river levels slightly above the stagnant “dog day” flows of summer, providing a refuge of cooler temperatures the shiners prefer.   Tending to shy away from stronger currents, the shiners will position themselves behind any current breaks that offer their ideal conditions of temperature and flow. Normal years this could be cover adjacent to the main river, or if the water is higher than normal, the fish might be back in the sloughs. Shiner location equals crappie location.

            Fallen trees, pilings, rocks or anything that breaks the current flow can be a good location for fall river crappies. The depths of these locations can range from a couple of feet to more than 10 feet deep. I usually prefer fallen trees with a good average depth (5-10 ft.) just off of the main river channel. These areas seem to attract good numbers of fish during their migration upriver; offering a refuge of slack water adjacent to the cooling current. Since the presentation is usually of a vertical nature and the fish are stacked throughout the fallen wood, I will use a sneaky approach and tie up to the woodpile I’m looking to fish. Now, what to use?

            I like to use a variety of rod lengths to efficiently present my baits in the cover. Rods in the 5 foot range let me effectively fish through branches, close to the boat, while 10 footers allow me to reach snaggy cover further away, while still maintaining a vertical presentation. Longer rods also allow me to pull fish up and out of the cover with ease, just like the cane poles of old. 6 lb. monofilament is my line of choice while fishing small jigs and plastics, but I opt for 10 lb. super braid with a swivel to a 6 lb. mono leader on a slip bobber rig. If I happen to break off on a snag, the rig will usually break at the leader end; keeping the bobber on the line so there is no need to disturb the spot and risk spooking the fish while retrieving tackle.

            Minnows catch a lot of fish, but plastics have definitely been hot baits for crappies. Kalin’s Crappie Scrubs have been very effective, and I have demonstrated this on a few episodes of Larry Smith Outdoors. (If you’re curious to see this in action, check out “Fall Crappies on the Wolf River” on my YouTube channel!) They have a very unique action in the water and the crappies just can’t seem to resist them. There are numerous ways to present these plastics, but in the situation I’ve outlined here, I prefer 1/32-1/8 oz. jigs depending on current. If it’s real snaggy, I like to use jigs with a bristled weed guard and trim all but a few of them off. Crappies have such paper-thin mouths that it’s very important to be able to set the hook without pounding into them like a bass fisherman. No need to be out there ripping lips and not catching fish.

            It’s super important to know that crappies stack up vertically on a piece of cover, so working the water column from the top down is key to catching as many crappies as possible from a particular spot. Start in the first couple feet of the column, holding your bait vertically in the cover and twitching it slightly to make it dance in the water. If you are using a slip bobber rig, set your baits shallow to start. It’s important to note that crappies are notorious for the “up-bite,” so if you see your line come up slack, or see a bobber suddenly tip on its side, a crappie has probably been watching the bait from below and swam up to eat it.

            When the catching starts (and if you’ve picked the right spot, it will), remember that when you release fish, do it away from the cover. A crappie that’s released right back into the cover it came out of will swim around and shake up the rest of the school; making it more difficult to catch them if they decide to hang around after all of the commotion.   Think of a crappie fisherman kind of like being a ninja: Stealth is everything.

            Following fall crappies as they move upriver in early fall is one of my most favorite fishing scenarios. Lots of anglers have retired boats for bows and shotguns (not that I don’t like to be on the hunt as well), the weather is fine, and the scenery, with its vibrant fall colors, in all their golden glory is beautiful to behold. Its even more beautiful when the silvery-green slabs start coming into the boat. Who wouldn’t think, “It’s a great day to be alive!” 

Larry Smith is a full-time, multispecies guide in Wisconsin with 30 years of experience. He is also host of Larry Smith Outdoors television; fresh, weekly outdoor programming airing on Fox Sports North, Fox Wisconsin, CW18 Milwaukee, and Time Warner Cable Sports Channel. Check local listings for broadcast times or visit larrysmithoutdoors.com. Like Larry Smith Outdoors on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and please subscribe to our YouTube channel.