By: Blake Tollefson
The heat and humidity of summer have started to subside – cooler days are on the horizon. As we approach another season change, another change in fish patterns follows closely behind. Water temperatures are starting to drop, leaves are falling, and fish start to put on the feedbag again. It’s time to look for panfish, and crappies in particular, in thicker water. During the Fall, many outdoorsmen transition their efforts towards hunting, however, overlooking the Fall crappie bite is a mistake made by far too many anglers. Pinning down crappies in the Fall can lead to fast and furious action, not to mention it gives an angler a head start on early ice locations.
Things Are Changing
The Fall season can typically be characterized by two major changes in fish location.
In relatively small, natural lakes, crappies will hold tight to thick weedy cover for the majority of the summer months. Depending on the lake, crappies can be found as shallow as just a few feet of water. As water temperatures drop and shallow vegetation starts to die, crappies will transition to deeper water. At this point in the season, a safe location to start searching will occur in depths of 15 to 25 feet. Early Fall crappies will position themselves near deeper vegetation or suspend along structure in mid-depth ranges. Focus on areas adjacent to their summer haunts.
As the season progresses, crappies will typically make another move towards deeper water, and are often located in some of the deepest water in a lake. This can be a great opportunity to get a jump on early winter crappie locations. Late Fall searches typically involve depths of 20 to 40 feet of water. Start your search in the depths and focus primarily on areas with some sort of definitive difference. For example, a steep break, point, or transition area. At this point in the Fall, crappies are likely suspended and will presumably be found in big schools.
Think back to where crappies were at first ice in previous years – they are likely nearby. If you know where crappies live during the summer and winter months, start searching the areas in between.
An overlooked option for Fall crappies involves submerged wood. Personal experience has proven that cribs and wood piles are an excellent place to find schools of concentrated fish. Crappies will often school up in open areas adjacent to or right on top of the wood. The only downfall – be prepared to lose a few lures.
Don’t shy away from weed structure either, especially if it’s the right kind. Healthy weeds will always hold fish of some kind – crappies are no exception.
Spot Lock and Drop It
As discussed previously, the late Fall time period forces crappies to school up in great numbers. Now is an important time to rely heavily on electronics to find schools of fish. Sonar, Down Imaging, and Side Imaging all play an important role in locating fish. If fish are not marked in a specific area, don’t wet a line. Stay vigilant in pursuit.
Once fish are located, anchoring or spot locking is often an effective way to stay on a school, especially if they are related to specific structure. In these types of situations, it’s a perfect opportunity to break out the winter electronics. There’s something unique about vertical jigging under your Marcum out of a boat – not to mention its extremely effective.
What’s on the menu?
There are numerous methods for pursing Fall crappies, however, vertical jigging tends to be king when targeting deeper fish. Since fish are putting on the feedbag, it’s smart to opt for slightly larger baits than one would choose in the spring and summer.
Top choices include larger jig and plastic combinations, as well as mid-sized hard baits. Baits in the 2 to 2.5 inch category are ideal for sorting out some of the larger fish. Hard baits, like Eurotackle’s 1/8 oz Z-Viber, allow an individual to fish quickly and pick off the most aggressive fish in the school. Alternating actions between aggressive lifts, short jigging strokes, and occasional pauses is an efficient way to gauge the fish’s mood and put more fish in the boat.
When it comes to jig & plastic combinations, a straight tail or forked tail option is a great choice. I always have a Fat Assassin tied on during the Fall – pairing with a 1/8 jig makes it a pretty irresistible combination. Opt for tungsten jigs, like the Soft Lock, which aid in fall rate, as well as increased sensitivity. Similar to the winter months, it can be important to get down to fish quick. That sensitivity factor can make a big difference in knowing where the jig is landing in relation to structure like a crib or rocks.
Dropshotting for crappies can also be very effective during this time frame. This type of rig allows the user to fish suspended fish, while maintaining bottom contact. Light wire hooks in the size 4-6 class are perfect for crappies and can be tipped with small plastics, like the Fat Assassin. Remember to maintain bottom contact when dropshotting – shake the tip of the rod and let the plastic do the work.
For fish that don’t want to commit to larger baits, try downsizing to micro sized baits. If they’ll eat them at first ice, they’ll eat them in the late Fall. Tungsten ice jigs tipped with small ice plastics are amongst the most effective. Look to Eurotackle’s Micro Finesse lineup for some great choices – my personal favorites include the Eurogrub, Y-Fry, and Bloodworm. Other ice fishing baits, like the T-Flasher, can be super effective for Fall slabs.
Vertical techniques, such as jigging and dropshotting, are ideal when the bait placement is horizontal. Use methods to keep the set up horizontal while fishing – rotate the knot to the top of the jig, use a snell knot or loop knot, etc. Having the right presentation can make all the difference between fishing and actually catching.
For fish that aren’t related to structure, some movement may be required to stay on schools. Trolling small crankbaits/stickbaits and jig spinner/plastic combinations is an efficient method for locating fish and staying on top of them.
Tools of the Trade
Rod choice is important throughout this time of year. I personally rely on a combination of open water and ice fishing rods for Fall crappies. Light to Medium Light powered rods are effective for swinging heavier panfish baits. Fast to Extra Fast actions are preferred for vertical jigging applications because the rod transitions into the backbone much quicker. Rod length is somewhat driven by user preference, however, shorter rods typically perform better for vertical jigging applications – not to mention it’s easier to keep a shorter rod in the “cone” of the transducer.
For the micro stuff, it may be a good idea to rely on ice rods – they excel at handling small baits. Plus there’s an added element of excitement when adding ice rods to the open water mix.
My panfish weapons of choice include the following:
- Croix Rods 6’3” Medium Light, Extra Fast (Eyecon Series or Legend Elite depending on the budget)
- Croix Rods 6’4” Light, Fast (Panfish Series or Legend Elite Panfish depending on the budget)
- Croix Rods CCI Perch Seeker
Don’t overlook the opportunity to get in on some fast & furious fishing action. This is also a great chance to get a jump on those first ice crappie locations. If you knew where they were, you’re more likely to know where they’ll be. Remember to fish fast, ditch the live bait, and don’t wet a line until you mark fish.