As the weather becomes crisp and the days short, many crappie anglers decide to call it quits until the hard water season begins. And there’s no question that fall crappie can be a frustrating challenge.
But before you pack in your tackle and wait for winter, perhaps you should rethink your approach to cool weather crappie. While perhaps not as productive as spring and summer, fall offers plenty of opportunity for monster slabs.
Veteran slab hunters know that fall demands a change in tactics, but that with the right adjustments, it can bring unexpected bounty.
Do you know where to find fall slabs? What changes to make in your lures? What techniques are most effective as summer fades and the water cools?
Keep reading to find out!
Table of Contents
- 1 Fall Crappie Behavior
- 2 Fall Crappie Tips and Techniques
- 3 Final Thoughts
Fall Crappie Behavior
Unlike largemouth bass, which head shallow for a final feast as the water cools, crappie begin migrating toward deeper water, staging for winter. They’ve shed their high-temp anorexia by this point, and like bass, are looking to pack on some fat to see them through the cold.
Therein lies the advantage seasoned crappie anglers rely on in fall: crappie are driven to feed, and unlike summer, where they’ve spread themselves thin across the lake, they’re now clustered in schools, looking for an easy meal.
One thing remains constant, however. When you think slabs, think structure and cover. Just as in spring and summer, fall finds crappie sticking close to brush piles, weed beds, and vertical structures like dock pilings and submerged trees.
And as Kyle Quine explains, “Once the water cools below 50 degrees, crappie will slow down and transition once again. They will leave the 10 to 15-foot depth range and move to their winter habitat, typically deeper basins in the 25 to 35-foot range. You can catch them in this transition on secondary and main lake points right at the edge of feeding flats near the drop-offs. Crappie will move in shallower during low-light periods and back out to deeper areas during the day.”
What does this mean for you?
Let’s boil this down to a few simple guidelines:
- Continue to fish structure and cover. Cooler water may change crappie behavior, but their love of the pilings, brush piles, submerged trees, and weed beds hasn’t–and won’t–change.
- Catch crappie as they move. Crappie move shallower at night, and you can catch them transitioning at dawn and dusk. As the sun rises and sets, hunt drop-offs adjacent to shallow, weedy flats and points holding weed beds that offer immediately deeper water.
- Look deep. I’ll have much more on this point below, but suffice it to say that fall crappie aren’t going to be holding at the same depths they were in July and August.
- Slabs are looking to fatten up for winter. Contrary to what you might expect, early fall may be peak hunger season for crappie. They’re looking for an easy meal, any time, and you can tilt that hunger to your favor.
- Crappie are slowing down. Cooler water temps mean that fish will feel more sluggish. As the mercury continues to drop, you should transition to techniques and lures that you use over the ice: micro-jigs and very subtle movements.
But what does “deep” really mean?
You’ll often hear experts prognosticating about the ideal depth to find cool-weather papermouths, but the truth is that it’s highly local. What counts as “deep” in my neck of the woods may be too shallow (or too deep) in yours.
But there are some good ways to figure this out.
One trick is to use your fish finder to locate live weed beds. On your lake, the deepest beds you find are at the depth crappie will be holding. If that’s 10 to 15 feet, 25 to 30 feet, or even deeper, that’s where I’d start targeting my jigs.
And if you’re fishing a shallow lake, find the deepest holes you can.
Jeff Sundin puts this very well. “It is important to remember that water depth is a relative term and on one lake, the term ‘deep weeds’ might mean 8 to 10 feet of water while on another lake of a different type ‘deep weeds’ could refer to 18 to 22 feet of water. Wherever you stop seeing weeds on your graph is what we would refer to as the deep weedline.”
“In the same light, fish on one lake may suspend in 35 feet of water. But if your lake’s deepest hole is 18 feet deep, then that would be the area for you to center your search for suspended fish. Your lake has its own personality, depth structure and cover, so you need to adjust your game plan to the type of water you’re fishing.”
Fall Crappie Tips and Techniques
Many of our general top tips and tricks are perfectly valid in fall. But with a few tweaks, you can really bring the slabs running!
Shoot docks and work the slow fall
Crappie love sticking close to the pilings under docks, and fall will find them there as surely as did summer.
The difference is that they’ll be holding deeper–and be a lot more sluggish–than they were when the heat was on, and as a result, you need to change up your technique a touch.
We’ve discussed shooting before, and if you need a refresher on the basic technique, take a look at this video:
So what adjustment should you make for fall?
Slow down and let the jigs sink to the right depth. Crappie will stick deeper than they did in summer, even under a dock, and you need to give your jig a chance to get where they are. Moreover, the cooler water temps will have them moving a bit more slowly, and so a slow fall on the jig is ideal.
Watch Richard Gene demonstrate the slow fall:
For this technique, I like the Bobby Garland Slab Slay’r and the Bobby Garland Mo'Glo Baby Shad Glow-in-The-Dark. Why? Well, they’re proven performers, and for shooting docks, a curly-tail just won’t cut it. You need something a little more streamlined to skip across the water just right.
Stick the colors that worked for you in the summer–there’s no need for a change.
As always, I recommend that you size down your jig head, and throw the lightest ones you can. I start with 1/32 and 1/16 ounce options, and generally speaking, you should run the smallest jigs that you can throw and fish well.
Give Strike King’s Mr. Crappie Slab Slasher Jig Heads a try. Sized right for papermouths, they’re available in a range of weights and colors.
Working transition points
Fall finds crappie in motion, especially while there are still leaves on the trees. While the sun is out, they’ll be “deep.” But sundown will find them moving shallow in search of warmer water and prey.
Avid slab hunters know to set up along likely transition areas at dawn and dusk.
Look for shallow flats and points alongside drop-offs and fish the edges. While the paper mouths are moving, this will maximize your chances.
I like to work a small plastic like the 2-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad. I slowly retrieve, letting the soft bait swim, keeping in mind that crappie are going to be sluggish. In shallower water, I’ll pull it off the bottom and let it drop, looking to trigger a bite on the free-fall.
Especially while the thermocline is in transition, this technique is murder.
Jigging brush piles and weeds (for warm climates)
In the Deep South and along the Gulf coast, “fall” and “winter” are relative terms.
And if where you live is warm enough to keep weed beds alive all year, this can be a killer technique as the water cools. And if there’s a single technique that works in any season in warmer climates, its jigging brush piles and weed beds.
What’s the key to success with this technique?
Move. Study your fish finder carefully, isolating the most productive brush piles. And when the bite turns off, it’s time to go. You’ll need to cover a lot of water, but hunting brush piles and weed beds will pay off.
Because the water temperature isn’t going to plummet as it will in cooler climates, crappie won’t be headed as deep as they might in Minnesota, Michigan, or Wisconsin. Instead, I’d look for them in water that’s between 10 and 25 feet.
That puts you pretty close to the fish in most cases–and stealth is essential to avoid spooking your sac-au-lait.
I recommend a relatively long rod for jigging in these conditions. I’d stay away from the dedicated spider rigging rods–they’re simply too long for good sensitivity. But you want a bit of extra length to help you stand-off from the brush pile, while still retaining excellent feel.
One of my favorite choices is the B'n'M Sam Heaton Super Sensitive. At 9 feet, it gives you reach, while preserving sensitivity.
I like to reach for the tried-and-true 2-inch Berkley PowerBait Original Power Grub. Available in an array of colors including “white,” “yellow,” and “natural chartreuse,” that curly tail is a killer for this technique.
Jigging basins (for cool climates)
If you live where winter brings hard water, weed beds aren’t likely to hold crappie as the season progresses. And in contrast to warmer climates, water temps are going to drop like a lead sinker.
But as the legendary Brian Brosdahl explains, fall can be a transition period toward ice fishing, with the vertical jigging techniques and tackle of the hard water in play from a boat.
As the water cools in earnest, crappie are going to head for deep basins holding slightly warmer water than the surface. And by using your fishfinder to identify the transition points between muddy- and hard-bottoms, you can find where the crappie are schooling.
Their depth will vary, as we discussed above, so it pays to learn your local lakes.
But when you do find them, think of your boat as a mobile ice shelter. Fish directly above your transducer, using a short rod and gentle wrist motion to set your jig dancing.
Shorter rods are your friend, as are smaller jigs. Wrist action, not elbow grease, should get your lures wriggling. Be gentle, and use finesse.
I like the new 13 Fishing Ice Plastics Coconut Crab. Just a touch over an inch long, these bad boys have plenty of appendages to provide action as you gently work them.
Another nice option is the Bass Pro Shops Hat Trick. Just 1 ¼ inches long, that slender tail is designed to move with every flick of your wrist.
Fall doesn’t need to be a slow season for slabs. As seasoned anglers can attest, cool-weather crappie fishing can be amazingly productive–if you know what you’re doing!
We hope these tips and techniques will help you fill your live well with sac-au-lait, and we’d love to hear from you if they do.
Please leave a comment below.