The first cold fronts of late summer and early fall have a profound effect on fish. When water temperatures fall five or 10 degrees, largemouth bass put on the feedbag, stripers wake up from their summer slump and crappies invade shallow cover.
For some reason, most crappie anglers don't follow.
They assume that once the trees fill out with their summer dressing and their favorite fish migrate to deep brush, good fishing is over until the following spring. But crappies aren't a one-season fish. In fact, finding and catching them in fall can be just as productive as targeting them when the first hint of green washes over the trees in spring-provided you know where to look and how to fish.
The obvious but often overlooked difference between fishing slabs in spring and fall, says NAFC member Todd Huckabee, winner of the 2004 Crappie USA tournament on Oklahoma's Fort Gibson Lake, is that autumn crappies are driven entirely by feeding instincts. That's why Huckabee looks for baitfish (mostly shad) before he even grabs a rod. ‘Bass fishermen say, ‘You won't find bass everywhere you find shad, but you'll find shad everywhere you find bass.' It's the same with crappies. They go where the food is," he says. Because of this, fall crappies tend to stay shallow and active longer than in spring, haunting three or four feet of water from September until late November in Southeastern lakes. ‘The fish will stay shallow until the shad leave," he says. ‘They may temporarily go out to deeper water-up to 20 feet-if a strong cold front comes through, but no matter the weather, bait is the key." Shad are constantly moving, so Huckabee stays mobile. Spots that held lots of fish one day might be void of crappies the next time you fish. Huckabee adds that crappies will be in the same general places you find them in spring-shallow cover like brush piles, grass edges, boat docks, laydowns, stickups and other typical places. However, much of this cover will be dominated by small or mid-size fish. Huckabee exclusively targets slabs over 14 inches by concentrating on small, isolated pieces of cover. He believes such crappies don't like crowds, so they often hang out by themselves-one subtle stickup might only hold one fish in fall, but it'll be a good one. ‘Take a busy McDonald's restaurant. When you see long lines and a bunch of kids inside, you probably leave to find another place to eat," he says. ‘Big crappies are the same-they don't want to compete with smaller fish, so they avoid places that attract bunches of smaller crappies."
In that vein, big crappies aren't on every piece of shallow cover you find. If a fish is there and you present your bait correctly, you'll probably get bit, especially when exclusively hitting big-fish spots. If you don't, an active fish simply isn't there. Knowing this, Huckabee hits as many spots as he can, working each one with the efficiency of a machine. Anglers who park on a brush pile and spend hours waiting for that first fish of the day may never find it. ‘Crappies are pretty active this time of year," he says. ‘I don't spend much time on a single piece of cover, but if I'm confident a fish is there and I don't catch him, I'll come back and try again." Huckabee works cover with a 10-foot Quantum ExtraLight Dippin' Rod, which he helped design (see ‘Summer Slabbin," July/August/September 2005). It's like a traditional noodle pole, but has a much faster action and offers far more sensitivity-both of which complement his unique technique. He doesn't cast, but rather sneaks his boat within reach of the long rod and gently lowers the bait to specific spots on the cover. He lets out as much as 12 feet of line while holding the line coming off the reel with his non-rod hand-like a fly angler-lowering the bait with his rodtip and hand and mixing in occasional twitches. It's all about controlling the fall and maintaining contact with the bait as it drops. ‘I'll work my bait up and down on either side of a tree or a stick-up, but that's about all the time I spend before I move on to the next one," he says. When he feels the telltale thump of a fish inhaling the lure, he sets the hook-hard. Although many anglers call crappies ‘paper-mouths," Huckabee says he has never missed a fish by setting the hook too hard, but has lost them by not setting it hard enough.
Supersize Your Baits
Huckabee swears by big baits in autumn. Crappies are feeding on shad that have been growing steadily throughout the summer, so you can get by with larger profile baits and target aggressive feeders while sorting through smaller fish. One of Huckabee's go-to lures is a 2-inch Yum VibraKing tube rigged on an 1/8- or 3/16-ounce head. He also likes a 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail, a flat-tailed grub. He favors contrasting colors-black and chartreuse, black and pink, and red and chartreuse-but says that the best color combination varies from day to day. On the rare occasion this presentation fails, Huckabee holds onto his big-bait mantra and throws crankbaits to riprap shorelines, another top fall spot. Firetiger Bomber Fat Free Fingerlings and Fat Free Guppies are tops for covering the four- to eight-foot depths. No matter what specific bait you use, there's a good chance it will work now if you follow Huckabee's methods. When you do, you'll find autumn crappie fishing isn't much different from spring fishing-except you probably won't have much competition from other anglers!