Late Fall Panfish: Crappie In The Cold - The Fisherman

Late Fall Panfish: Crappie In The Cold

The spring gets all the press for red hot crappie fishing, but the late-fall can be just as good.

Late-fall crappie fishing can be hot enough to make your forget about the cold!

Crappie are a very popular springtime fish, but the fall can be just as good. With the cooler days and nights of autumn, water temps also begin to dip. Gradually, our lakes and ponds ‘turn over’, a process where air-cooled surface water sinks through the warmer water beneath it, eventually the two layer change places, bringing the warmer water to the surface. Once that layer is cooled the process repeats itself until the temperature throughout the water column equalizes. It can be a funky time of year during this process.

The thermocline is a happy place for many fish but during the turnover the water is constantly changing and so are the fish but once temps even out overall, consistent bites can be located more easily.

Ultra-light rods make for a spirited battle when fishing for these underappreciated panfish.

After The Turnover

Typically, the turnover is complete by mid-November and as we reach late fall the fishing continues to get better. Earlier in the fall you would’ve been chasing roaming schools of fish as they reacted to changes in temperature. Come late fall they stack up in specific areas and will hold there through the winter. Different behaviors can be observed in the same spots. One would be inclined to believe that they would all act the same but this is not true. Large schools of crappie will often hold on structure such as stone walls and rocky points. Other schools roam, sometimes at unreal speeds as they cruise around. Depth is a factor as well. I’ve found most fish to be deeper and hold just off the bottom but it isn’t out of the question that some wander higher up in the water column.

Putting your bait right in front of their face is often what you need to get bit. Especially when they are really moving. A few feet off to one side of the school and your offering may go unnoticed. Crappie are also very particular and finicky fish. Here in southern New England we have black crappie which act differently than white crappie. I like to bring a variety of baits out when targeting these fish. My arsenal is loaded with just about everything from EuroTackle. This includes their Micro Finesse line of soft plastics and also all of their hard baits. I like to mix it up because some days the fish key in on one thing and that’s all they want. Sometimes it can be a particular bait or even just a color that makes all the difference.

Going Ultra-Light

Getting down to the gear, I like to fish 5- to 6-foot ultra-light setups with a 500 series reel when fishing Micro Finesse soft plastics. They’re super sensitive which is key for those cold water bites that can be so subtle at times. I use 6-1/2-foot medium light and 7-foot medium action rods with a 1000 series reel for some of the “heavier stuff”. The heavier setups are best used with hard baits. Generally the jigheads I use with soft plastics are very light, like 1/32- to 1/16-ounce. The hard baits however, are a bit heavier, up to 1/4-ounce.

My medium action rods are better suited for jigging and making sharp upward snaps which the fish usually inhale on the drop. I love the St. Croix Triumph series rods. I am also very loyal to Shimano when it comes to my reels and you can’t beat a Sedona for the price, or bump up to the Stradic if you prefer. For line I like to use 4- to 6-pound mono. Fluoro is fine for leaders, but should never be used as your mainline for cold water fishing, fluorocarbon is stiff and only gets stiffer in the cold. I use the Trilene XL Smooth Casting mono have experienced almost zero issues.

The Garmin Livescope fishfinder system is a gamechanger when trying to stay on these roving panfish schools.

Micro Baits

I’ve used just about every micro soft plastic out there over the years. Growing up all we had were tubes and curly tail grubs. EuroTackle has changed the game when it comes to ultralight fishing. Their Micro Finesse line offers about 20 different soft plastics including everything from classic tubes and grubs to swimbaits and even scuds. Each is offered in at least a half-dozen color options as well. These small offerings catch a ton of fish and some big ones too. Tungsten is heavier than lead, so the jigheads are smaller, making your presentation more compact and able to get down to the school quickly. The Soft-Lock jigheads have a bead that slides on the shank of the hook. It secures your soft plastic without tearing it up like traditional leadhead collars do.

On the hard bait side of things I like to use lipless cranks from their Z-Viber lineup. They range from 1/16- to 5/8-ounce. I generally like to stay on the smaller side and the 1/8-ounce size has proven to be perfect for these cold water crappies. A little bit larger profile than the soft plastic baits and a lot more noise too! My new favorite that will be a cold water killer is the Z-Darter V2. Similar to the old school Jigging Rap from Rapala but with a better design that allows it to dart and shoot around as opposed to swimming in circles mostly. It also has a rotating hook on the belly of the bait that eliminates the problem of having it lock up and pop out of the fish’s mouth. Crappie are nicknamed “paper mouths” for a reason. It is very easy for hooks to tear right out of their delicate lips while reeling them in.

Technology Time

Now that we have covered the location and gear, let’s talk about electronics. The Garmin Livescope has by far been one of the most useful tools in locating and catching fish and it is very eye-opening with regard to what you used to think was going on down there. Having these electronics can really change your views on these fish and their behavior. The perspective view adds to the insanity of it all. To not only be able to see down but also sideways makes it seem nearly impossible for these fish to escape you. Everything is in real time so you can literally see a fish leave the school and come up to your jig. Seeing huge schools of fish converge on your jig and then regroup again is unreal.

As I mentioned before, some of these fish cruise at high speeds. Compared to what I used to think it seems just crazy. By the time you can unhook a fish and toss it back, the school could be 50 yards (or more) away. It’s crazy to think they can turn on the jets like that but they do. Being able to get back on their tails and stay there is important. Kind of rough when battling the wind as you are trolling and playing catch up. They don’t always seem to be running, though, depending on the day and the fish I’ve come to realize. If running and gunning isn’t for you, then looking for a structure to locate stationary fish is a better bet.

The Z-Viber lipless cranks are deadly when jigging for late-fall crappie.

Beating The Elements

Battling the elements is important as well. Staying warm and dry is key to long days on the water. Nothing is worse than being cold and miserable all day. I fish a lot of November into December before the ice sets in where I live in Connecticut that usually means freezing cold and rainy weather. Having a good suit is important to remain comfortable out there. My outerwear of choice is the Norfin Element float suit. The jacket and bib combo is good for sub-zero temperatures so honestly only my hands ever get cold. StormR makes some great gear as well and I’ve always liked their stuff but I made the switch last year and I’m very happy that I did.

This is an excellent time of year to harvest fish too. Ice cold slabs are great for the dinner table and don’t feel bad about stocking up the freezer for the winter either. Pulling them from deeper water can cause something known as barotrauma which is when a fish can be injured due to the rapid change in barometric pressure. Even releasing them quickly can still prove to be fatal (sometimes days later) if you don’t fizz your fish. So why not take them home for dinner? There are some “high-and-mighty’s” out there who will try to make you feel bad for bringing home dinner. Just don’t take more than your limit or more than you plan on eating. I also try to let the bigger fish go and keep smaller fish that are around the 12-inch mark. It’s always nice to enjoy the fruits of your labor. When the weather gets cold this fall, don’t neglect this amazing bite for crappie. They’re challenging, fun, great to eat and a blast on light tackle.



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