NORTHERN TACTICS FOR FALL CRAPPIE
By Vic Attardo
Crappie fishing is always about where you’re at and where they’re at. They, being the fish.
The factum is just as appropriate when it comes to fishing for fall crappie in northern latitudes. Considerations break down, first, according to the size and depth of the water; next, the conditions — water temperature, weather, clarity, etc. etc, etc.
If you’re only accustomed to fishing below the Mason Dixon line, then you’re in for a bit of a shock when coming north. Not only is “crop-ee” pronounced “crap-ee” but when November rolls around, the fish are rarely on wide flats, unless of course, that is all the fish have available to them. The tactic of trolling a spider rig across an expansive stretch is just not the number one way of going after fall crappie in the North. Instead it’s all about spot structure: the crappie spot it and hang there, you fish it and catch fish.
Of the myriad types of structure available to the Northern angler one that is often overlooked is that of temporary cover. Not easy to classify, temporary cover is nonetheless something that is there today, was not there yesterday or a few yesterdays before that, and may not be there tomorrow. Nonetheless if temporary cover teams up with a place that fish normally gravitate to in the fall then you might have a true hot spot full of eager crappie.
Probably the most common type of temporary cover is a log that has been swept in during high water. The log has replanted itself in a soft bottom or wedged against hard structure and is now a crappie magnet.
Perhaps the funniest temporary cover I ever fished — yes I said funniest — was a log that had floated into a wide bay in Lake Champlain on the Vermont side. The bay was known to have a river channel and bottom structure that held good numbers of crappie in the fall. But when the log set up shop, the fecundity of the spot grew exponentially. Thing is it wasn’t an ordinary log that was situated out there in Lake Champlain.
The area’s Chambers of Commerce like to promote a sort of Loch Ness knock-off they call “Champy.” Like the Lock Ness Monster, Champy is rumored to be some sort of pre-historic creature that lives deep in the gargantuan lake. Actually this story might hold some validity because 10,000 years ago Lake Champlain was a salt water bay connected to the burgeoning Atlantic by the St. Lawrence River. A skeleton of a Beluga whale found in Lake Champlain is on display at a Vermont college.
For a potential boost to their economy Vermonters have not stopped hoping that Champy really appears. So when one particular log with a long reptile like appearance floated into the bay, the locals were quick to decorate it with spines, tail and a head on an elongated neck. They even went so far as to place a solar-power red light where the eye should be thus presenting a dreamlike facsimile somewhat anchored in the bay’s soft bottom. There’s not a lot do in Vermont on many nights.
The thing is the log turned Champy quickly became a crappie magnet.
When a buddy and I fished around the semi-floating log, we found crappie at both ends and along the middle.
As with most temporary covers, it takes a bit of stealth to effectively fish these spots. You should come upon t.c.’s with little or no waves from your boat and your presentation should be light and unobtrusive. It’s also a good idea to make your initial presentations from a decent distance — that unfixed span depending on water depth and clarity.
I like a toss a light bladed jig and soft plastic, such as a Road Runner, or a wobbling minnow lure in strategic spots around temporary cover. I begin by working the outer edges then work my way back into the cover if possible. Also with something like an embedded log I want to work the sides with efficiency, bring the bait close to and alongside the length of cover. You never know where a big crappie might be hanging out but always work shaded areas with particular care.
How long this particular Champy’s sculpture stayed viable I can’t say but that is the case with many a piece of debris, either a collection of logs, branches, and uprooted tree roots that temporary wedges themselves into an otherwise good holding area.
All of these temporary covers, whether out in open water or along a shoreline, are good places to fish for crappie that may be moving in some migrational transition.
Of course not all October-November locations are temporary. Some such as ledges and channel walls are downright permanent, or as permanent as Mother Nature allows. Also the permanents are found in both large and mid-size lakes.
As the crow flies Lake St. Catherine is little more than a thirty-minute bird flight from Champlain. But at a little over 900 acres with two wide ends and a narrow middle St. Catherine is a world of difference from the former sea. A standout feature on this lake is the tight mapped isobars representing step drop-offs on both the east and west side of the lake (which primarily runs north to south). The isobars cover the transition from 10 to 50 foot depths.
I consider L.S.C. a microcosm of so many northern lakes that I think if you’re successful here in mid- to late-fall you have the basic knowledge to be successful elsewhere.
L.S.C.’s crappie will be somewhere among the tight contours. Off paper there are just enough gaps between the lines that good structure is found on both the rock ledges and soft bottoms.
I’ve learned that the best way to work these wide areas is by slow trolling minnow lures, crankbaits and worm harnesses. All of this is done behind the boat at distances that get the baits low.
Since a worm harness is probably the least known of this lure set, I’ll concentrate the discussion there. A worm harness is basically a long-leader spinner. The models I use are 18 inches in total length and feature a single hook. The crappie prefer a simple Colorado or Indiana blade as opposed to a blade style or numbers of blades with even more thump and vibration.
To bait up simply place a three- or four-inch section of night crawler on the hook and troll at a speed that turns the blades. Crappie, and other panfish, will race up and take the bait as it passes by. Without a doubt you can cover a lot of territory with a worm harness.
Another tactic I like on these long contours is a bottom-bouncing sinker trailing a floating minnow lure or crankbait. The bottom bouncer is stiff wire with a near 90-degree bend. The top arm has an eye to attach the line and a swivel at the end of the upper arm to attach a two-foot leader and the lure. The lower arm has molded weight that keeps the rig upright and bouncing or scratching the bottom as you troll. The lure trails behind, staying down in the deep strike zone.
Of course with temporary covers and permanent structures, northern latitude crappies also fall for plain ball-head jigs and jigs with revolving blades, but you know all about them. It’s the where and when you employ these offerings that separate their use from southern climes.