Crappie: We’ll Leave the Light on for You
by Brent Frazee
Lights create a food chain that attract crappies
In the summer when the days grow 15 hours long and at high noon you can fry an egg on the boat ramp parking lot, avid crappie angler and guide Joe Bragg gives up fishing – EXCEPT beneath the light of the moon. When days become too hot to handle Bragg goes nocturnal.
About the time other fishermen are loading their boat at the ramp, Bragg is motoring out to some of his favorite crappie spots under a setting sun. And one thing is certain – he does not have to fight the crowds.
Does he get lonely? Nope, he is often too busy reeling in crappies to even notice.
“I don’t know why, but there aren’t a lot of other fishermen who go out at night in Kansas,” said Bragg, who runs the Thump Thirty Guide Service out of Topeka. “I’m not going to sit out in the sun all day and fry. I’m going to be out here at night when it cools off, catching fish.”
On this evening, as stars were just beginning to twinkle overhead, Bragg guided his boat to one of his favorite brush piles on Perry Lake in northeast Kansas. He dropped anchor within a short cast of the cover.
He lit several propane lanterns and hung them from rod holders. He also tossed out a floating halogen light hooked to a battery. Then the wait began.
“It takes a while for the food chain to set up,” he said as he sipped a cup of coffee. “You have to be patient. It can take a half-hour, sometimes more.”
On this night, however, it was less. First, the plankton began clouding the illuminated water under the lights, then the small minnows began circling and soon larger shad moved in. Bragg knew what he calls “The Late Show” was about to begin.
“Once you attract a good school of shad, it usually doesn’t take long for the crappies to move in,” he said.
Bragg set the perfect crappie trap once they arrived. He had a semi-circle of slip bobbers arranged around the cone of the light. Minnows hung from hooks on several poles resting in rod holders.
On his sonar unit at the bow of the boat, Bragg watched as the display screen became more cluttered with marks by the minute.
The bobbers were illuminated by small light sticks Bragg taped to each one. Bouncing in a light chop on the lake’s surface, one of them slowly cut through the water and then plunged. Bragg set the hook and felt the tug of a big crappie.
“This one has shoulders,” he said.
Seconds later, the 12-inch fish was in the boat and Bragg was on the board.
The Late Show got better as the night progressed. By midnight, there was an active school of fish under the lights and the fishing was frenetic. He and I had numerous doubles, some of them the big slabs crappie fishermen dream of. Others were barely bigger than the minnows we used for bait.
We pulled anchor and hit two more brush piles over the next few hours. By 3 a.m. when we finally headed to the ramp, we had caught and released dozens of crappies in a variety of sizes.
“Wild night,” Bragg said. “But nights like this aren’t that unusual. When the weather is stable and these fish get in a pattern, you can come back night after night and catch them.”
Night Life at Lake of the Ozarks
Terry Blankenship doesn’t have to put out the night lights when he fishes at Lake of the Ozarks, a popular destination in central Missouri.
The big shoreline condominium docks are often well-lit for security and navigation purposes. The light they shine on the water can create ideal night fishing for crappies.
“A lot of the condo lights are yellow to keep them from drawing as many bugs,” said Blankenship, a guide and a pro staff member for Bobby Garland Lures. “If you can find a white light, a lot of times that’s where you’ll find the most fish because they will attract more bugs. Once the bugs fall into the water, the baitfish will move in to feed on them.”
Blankenship has been fishing the night lights since the 1970’s. His dad discovered the technique almost by accident. After a long day of fishing during the day, he stayed after the sun went down and heard fish swirling under the lights. He dropped a jig into the activity and started catching crappies.
He went home with a nice stringer of fish that night and it wasn’t long before Terry followed his example.
Terry and his brother-in-law, a realtor with good connections to lakeshore condo owners, started fishing from docks underneath the lights and the duo found great success.
“I like fishing the condo docks because they’re usually in deeper water,” he said. “There might be up to 60 feet of water, but the crappies will only be 10 feet down.”
Blankenship uses his sponsors’ products to catch fish. He fishes with Mo’ Glow jigs by Bobby Garland Lures, which actually glow in the dark. He also uses Lew’s rods and reels and 6-pound Vicious monofilament line.
Green Lights at Stockton Lake
Bennett sets up over brush piles and drops a green submersible LED light four to five feet down to attract the fish. He says having a light beneath the surface instead of floating on top has several advantages.
He says anglers don’t have to fight the flying insects that are attracted to the floating lights. Secondly, he says the green lights seem to be more efficient at attracting the zooplankton that starts building the food chain beneath the boat.
“A lot of times, it takes under 30 minutes for the bait and fish to show up,” Bennett said. “It works best over brush piles you know are there and along bridge pillars. We’ve had nights we’ll catch up to 75 crappies fishing under the lights. Not all of them are keepers. There are a lot of small ones. But we’ll catch our limit (15 crappies per person, 10 inches or longer at Stockton) a lot of nights.”
He says the lights work best on the dark phase of the moon, when the illumination stands out. Even then patience is often the key. The schools of crappies will move in and out, producing periods of frenzied fishing, followed by lulls.
“I used to catch fish at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Bennett said. “I don’t stay out that long now, but I know it can still be done.”
For those fishing from a boat in the dark all three men stress safety.
Proper, legal lighting on your boat is essential. Bragg stresses wearing a PFD (personal floatation device) when under power and knowing where the navigation channels are. He routinely clears the old tracks on his GPS unit so he can easily follow the dotted line back to the boat ramp the same way he went out. He also makes a point to let someone on shore know when and where he is going to be.
“There aren’t a lot of people who fish at night under lights,” Bennett said. “But as long as you’re safe, it can be a great way to catch crappies in the summer.”
And you won’t get sunburns or heat strokes while you’re doing it.