Surefire tricks for late-season crappies
For anglers across the Ice Belt, November’s arrival spurs thoughts of the hardwater season ahead. But plenty of fine open-water fishing remains for the faithful who see the season through to the end.
Take crappies, for example. One of the year’s best bites is still firing on all cylinders, and promises stellar slabbin’ right through freeze-up. “It’s undoubtedly worth getting your boat out a few more times to enjoy the late-fall crappie bite,” says veteran guide and noted fishing authority Scott Glorvigen. “The fish are ganged up in predictable places, and ready to hit baits with a vengeance.”
Here’s the deal. As autumn wanes and water temperatures fall into the 40s, crappies abandon withering weedbeds and shift away from near-shore structure. “The fish head for their winter haunts, which are typically deep, mid-lake basin holes,” Glorvigen explains.
Here, large schools of hulking, hump-backed slabs roam the abyss in search of sustenance. Much of the feeding focuses on zooplankton and other pint-sized prey, but crappies eagerly snap up larger meals such as minnows and other baitfish.
Glorvigen leans on cutting-edge electronics such as Lowrance’s Elite-5 CHIRP Gold sonar-chartplotter to pinpoint pods of wayward panfish. “The fish are constantly moving around, which makes sonar a must,” he notes. “Lowrance’s new CHIRP units give you incredible target resolution, so you can verify the fish you’re marking are crappies, and even pick out individual fish within a school.”
A plotter primed with detailed mapping is another key component. “This allows you to identify likely areas and then search them effectively,” he says. “Plus, if you lay down a trail of waypoints while following the fish, you can often predict where they’re headed next. For example, if you know a school of slabs is moving in a counter-clockwise rotation around a deep hole, it’s much easier to follow the herd.”
In search mode, Glorvigen scans potential hotspots, which include depths of 50 feet or more. “Don’t assume there are limits on how deep the fish will go,” he cautions. “Many anglers mentally set a boundary of 25 to 30 feet, but crappies often suspend much deeper.”
Once a school is spotted, Glorvigen takes an unusual tack for tricking the fish. “One of the hottest tactics for tapping the late-fall bite is hovering swimming jigs such as Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland Puppet Minnows within the school,” he says.
“Horizontal jigs tipped with flavored softbaits such as Berkley PowerBait and Gulp! bodies also work well. “You can use spoons, too, but vertical baits aren’t nearly as effective this time of year.”
While many anglers wield tiny tackle for crappies, Glorvigen favors swimming lures in the 2- to 2¾-inch class, along with 1/8-ounce jigheads. Colors aren’t as key as the bait’s water displacement when fishing deep water, he notes, though he has seen higher catch rates on UV patterns compared to standard color schemes.
Swimming jigs like the Northland Puppet Minnow and Rapala Jigging Rap are deadly on suspended crappies.
Gearing up, Glorvigen spools a light-action Lew’s multi-species spinning rod with 10-pound Northland Bionic Braid mainline. The rod’s quick tip engenders strike detection and solid hooksets, while the superbraid boosts sensitivity, which is a huge asset when fishing deep water. He ties a small swivel on the end of the line, to limit twist, and adds a 12- to 18-inch leader of low-vis 6-pound fluorocarbon.
Unlike traditional snap-fall tactics used for walleyes and other larger predators, Glorvigen applies a slower hand for suspended cool-water crappies. “It’s not a standard jigging presentation where you’re really working the bait,” he says. “This situation calls for deadsticking. When the crappies see the lure’s profile, they think it’s a minnow mixed in with the zooplankton, and boy, do they smack it.”
Thanks to his CHIRP sonar’s target resolution, Glorvigen can watch his jig even as it descends into a crappie wolfpack. “This is really a breakthrough,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to run across massive schools 15 feet thick. With traditional sonar, there’s no seeing into a tight school. Once the bait gets into the fish, it’s off the radar. But with CHIRP, I can tell where my lure is and how fish react to it.”
He cautions that once you find a school, it’s important to keep moving to stay on top of it. By shadowing a deep-running gang of slabs, it’s possible to pluck multiple fish from a single group. “Keep in mind that when you pull crappies out of extreme depths, the fish are likely unreleasable,” he warns. “Plan on keeping what you catch for a late-fall fish fry. And if you get on a school of fish too small to keep, move along until you find larger ones.”
Depending on the individual lake, your latitude, and what kind of weather Mother Nature dishes out in the weeks ahead, you might have a month or more of crappie action before winter draws the curtain on open water. “Good news is, as soon as safe ice arrives, the same areas are still going to produce fish,” Glorvigen adds. Which is all the more reason to hit the water now to unlock the locational secrets of late-fall crappies on your favorite fisheries.
Check out more of Scott’s tips on catching suspended fall panfish.