Finding Slabs in the Summer
Story & photos by John N. Felsher
Many people consider crappie “cold weather species” and only target them during late winter or the spring spawning season, but fish must eat all year long. If they eat, anglers can catch them.
“A lot of people think crappie fishing is seasonal, but I fish 52 weeks of the year and catch fish each time,” said Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler and guide.
When weather turns warm, anglers just need to look for crappie in different areas. When the sun climbs high, crappie often go low. In summer heat, crappie frequently move from the backwater creeks to deeper water in the main lake. They generally like to stay about 15 to 30 feet deep. Not as subject to weather changes, deep water remains relatively stable all year and can provide cooling comfort on blistering days. In addition, wakes or other turbulences produced by sun-loving recreational boaters do not affect deep water as much.
When targeting summer crappie, Baker likes to use a spider rig to fish vertically multiple baits at various depths simultaneously. Also called “tight-lining,” spider rigging involves dangling several rods off the bow to form a fan-shaped pattern that resembles a spider web.
On each line, hang a 1/2- to 1-ounce sinker about 10 to 18 inches beneath a three-way swivel. On the swivel, tie two 6- to 12-inch leaders. On each leader, attach a tube jig or other bait. Below the sinker, drop another 10- to 18-inch leader with a third bait. Push baits forward gently with just enough electric power to give the lures a bit of action.
With a spider rig, anglers generally target suspended fish in 12 to 16 feet of water. For fish hanging closer to the bottom in deeper water, try what some pros call “bottom bouncing.”
“For bottom bouncing, we use a 1-ounce sinker at the bottom of the line and come up 18 inches with a Number 2 Aberdeen hook or jig on a loop coming about two inches off the main line,” advised Joe Carter, a crappie pro. “We add a second hook or jig 18 inches above that. We drop the line all the way to the bottom and reel it up two turns to keep it just barely off the bottom. When we have some wave action, the sinker hits bottom, stirs up the mud a bit and creates noise. That gets their attention.”
Anglers use the bottom bouncing method with multiple rods off rod holders attached to the bow like a spider rig. These rigs work well around deep brush piles, rocks, stump fields or humps. Bottom bouncing also works around deep standing timber or bridge pilings. Even in deep water, summer crappie typically prefer the shady side of cover, but fish all around any brush piles, rocks or bottom contours to find where they want to go that day.
For really deep fish, few methods work better than vertically jigging 1/8- to 1/2-ounce chrome spoons. Small, heavy and compact, a jigging spoon quickly sinks to the bottom. As it flutters down, it resembles a dying shad. Let a spoon flutter all the way to the bottom. Frequently, fish hit on the fall. After the spoon hits bottom, bounce it up and down a foot or two to keep it in the strike zone.
“Vertical jigging with a small spoon is a great way to catch deep crappie,” said Jerry Blake, a crappie guide. “I’ve caught fish down to 40 feet. It takes a little bit of time to get bait down to that level and live bait becomes more difficult to use in really deep water.”
When not prowling next to deep structure, crappie frequently follow baitfish schools. In the summer, slabs often suspend beneath shad schools to pick off stragglers. Crappie almost always look up to feed. They can better spot prey silhouetted against surface glare and might rise several feet to hit a temptation, but not even see a jig wiggling just below them.
To locate roving fish, slow troll parallel to drop-offs, weed lines, banks or around humps with small crankbaits, spinners or jigs. Place several rods in holders on the boat stern. Tip each line with different colored jigs to determine the best combination that day.
Move the boat slowly forward with the electric motor. After tallying a couple strikes in one area, mark the spot and return to that hole with a spider rig to work over the hot spot slowly and thoroughly.
“I like to pull double rigs with two jigheads tipped with paddletail, tassel-tail or curly-tailed jigs per pole,” Baker explained. “One weighs 1/48-ounce and the other weighs 1/32-ounce. The heavier jig runs a little deeper than the lighter one. As the boat turns, baits on the outside rise slightly while ones on the inside turn dive a bit deeper.”
In some lakes, especially shallow ones or oxbows with little bottom variation, crappie look for shady cover to escape the broiling sun. Docks often offer the best shade. While docks provide crappie with incredible shade, many fish lurk way back in the darkest shadows. Many anglers troll or cast baits around the outside pilings, but can’t imagine penetrating far under the docks where fish seldom see lures. To catch slabs that few others dare to tempt, try “shoot the docks.”
Shooting docks means using a bending spinning rod to fling small baits far under cover like shooting a bow. Pick an opening between the dock and the water or a crack between pilings, open the reel bail and grab the jig by the leadhead. Bend the rod back and let the lure fly. When done correctly, a skill dock shooter can hurl a small bait way under overhanging cover with remarkable accuracy.
“It’s a pretty simple concept, but harder to master,” advised Randy Pope, a two-time national champion crappie angler. “Sometimes, the jig skips. Sometimes it just goes straight in. I use a 5-foot, 4-inch or 5.5-foot medium-light rod with 2- or 4-pound test line tipped with a 1/32-ounce jig.”
After putting the jig in the desired spot, anglers can work it several ways. Sometimes, fish hit the jig on the fall. Sometimes, crappie lurk deep and prefer to hit baits hopped along the bottom. Sometimes, the biggest slabs hover at the surface just under dock canopies. Shoot assorted baits from different angles and experiment with various retrieves to determine the best patterns for that day.
Docks can hold crappie all year long, but generally offer the best action from late spring through early fall. Docks close to deep water, like those near a creek channel or tributary ditch, normally offer the best summer action. Fish can easily drop into the depths or hunt in the shallows.
Also, look for secondary cover, such as brush piles. Many dock owners build brush piles within casting range. Docks with rod holders attached to the rails and lights positioned to shine over the water almost always face a good brush pile or two.
Fishing under dock lights can provide outstanding action on sweltering summer nights, especially in heavily pressured lakes or reservoirs with exceptionally clear water. Lights attract plankton and other small creatures. Minnows, shad and other baitfish gather to feast upon the plankton. Crappie and other predators arrive to devour baitfish.
Although many anglers fish around dock lights, others equip pontoon boats with generator-powered floodlights to target nocturnal slabs. Anglers can also hang battery-powered floating lights off their boats. Anchor over a good honey hole, flick the switches and wait for crappie to find the lights. Temp them with live bait or glow-colored jigs.
Sometimes, chasing crappie in the summer more resembles hunting than fishing. However, once anglers locate a good school, they can usually fill a boat quickly, often with little competition from anglers who rather wait for cold weather to return.