One of the most productive methods of putting a large number of crappie in the live well is fishing at night with lights. The story goes like this: Put out a lot of light, which will attract bugs, and in turn, the bugs attract minnows or other small forage fish, which attract the crappie. And, it pretty much works that way, so long as you are in the right location. This isn't a crappie fishing secret, it is a very common practice on many larger reservoirs and lakes, and there are several things to understand to maximize your success.
One of those things is the time of year. The right time is when they are schooled up before or after spawning or when they are simply in open water as a suspended school near some structural feature below the water. When they are scattered and shallow during spawning, you may catch a few by night fishing, but no limits.
Limits require a school near your location. They school much in the summer over deeper water, frequently at a depth of around 15 feet to over 20 feet. Crappie usually prefer to hang out near deep water and along the top edge of steep underwater slopes. A good depth finder/fish finder is essential to quickly locating a school.
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A stable fishing platform is one that is tied to a tree, a dock, a cliff wall, or anchored with two anchors to keep it in one place. I have heard, but have no personal knowledge, that some very expensive trolling motors will hold you on station automatically. I prefer anchors because they do not cost $2,000! Usually, we try to anchor over a slope, one that may run from 6 feet at the font of the boat to 20 feet at the stern. Typical locations include off points, near creek mouths, and at the end of a cliff area where the original river, now flooded, meanders away from the bank. Obviously, you need a good depth finder to locate these spots, unless you are very familiar with the area. Tree tops above the water, if at the right depth and conditions, can be excellent, but some exploration will be needed to find the tree the schools prefer, and that can change over time. If you have access to a private dock, the owner will frequently place trees or fabricated structure on the bottom near the pier or dock. This can work at the right time of year or at the right depth. Permanent structure below a pier or dock can hold a few crappies year round.
Light, of course, is the thing that brings the crappie to you. There are a variety of arrangements, from battery powered lights mounted on the boat, to battery powered lights that are hung below the water surface, and generator powered lights of various types temporarily or permanently attached to the boat. One of the better rigs seems to be 48 inch shop lights along both sides of the boat, with a few outdoor lights fore and aft. An example is shown on photo 1 below. Photo 2 shows a rig with all temporary lights hung on the boat rails. Obviously, pontoon boats are a favorite for this type of fishing, particularly on Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Some folks modify their V bottom boats to use lights at night. See photo 3. We recommend that you not use your motor starting battery to operate your lights. You may have to paddle home!
You have a lot of choices when it comes to equipment. The basic list includes
Typically, in Florida, each person on board uses 5 to 7 rods or poles. You can see the rod holders of two types in Photo 3 above and in Photo 4 below. The rod holders in Photo 4 are home made from 6 inch PVC pipe. More on that later. There are several other styles of holders, and your choice should be guided by your pocketbook, as they all pretty much do the same job. As to depth finders, all you really need is something in the $100 neighborhood. Those will show you fish and the location of the slope or depth of water you are planning to fish. Expensive rods are not required either, unless you are big into slamming the hook into the fish, and ripping off its lips! In that case, get some ultralight rods. The easy bend will reduce the pull on the fish, and the lips will not be torn. You may notice that you lose quite a few at the boat as you try to lift them in. This is because their weight can cause the hook to tear out. So, keep a net handy for the big ones! And as the photos show, pontoon boats are the favorite for night fishing because they offer room to walk around set up a chair, and run a generator.
The overwhelming choice of bait at night is live minnows. Use an aerated minnow bucket and drop a small water bottle of frozen water in to improve the oxygen uptake of the water. That keeps them livelier longer. As always, pay attention to the size of minnow they prefer. That can change quickly and is usually set by the size of the natural forage minnows or shad attracted to the lights.
The really big issue is where to set up! Night fishing does not usually work well during the spawn, unless you are there just before they school up preparing to move inshore. What you are looking for is any location that provides them deep water where they can flee if needed and a plentiful source of food such as schools of small shad. When not spawning, they tend to school up in or near deep water, usually suspended at around 12 to 15 feet, or keyed into some structure such as a steep underwater slope from shallow to deep water. Nearby shallows and marshy areas also add to the probability of finding them.
In large reservoirs, one good place to look is where the flooded river scoured the bank and left a near vertical wall showing above the water as a cliff, or it can be below the water. The best location along such walls is usually each end where the vertical wall begins to shallow out because the river bends away from the wall at that location, but in some cases, there will be some unusual feature along the face of the cliff that will hold a school in the area. This could be a drowned tree or even just a rock jutting from the face of the wall below the water. Other potential spots include visible clefts in the wall. If the wall is below the water, you probably need a contour map of the lake to find such underwater features. Look for places where the contour lines are very close together. The closer they are, the steeper the slope.
Another excellent location is where old flooded creeks enter the main lake or widen out into a larger area. Again, look for steep slopes under water, especially near any marshy or large shallow area that serves as a holding area for forage species. To find the better spots, in daylight, pass slowly over the target areas and watch your depth finder for any sunken trees, schools of forage fish, or multiple indicators of larger fish. Then drop a line down with a minnow or a jig and see if there are any crappie around. If you catch one, come back at night and catch a bunch. In the daylight, figure out your positioning strategy. Sometimes, that can be difficult, and if you are there in the dark, it just gets harder to do. Most people actually get out to their selected spot and anchor up before it gets dark, catching a few before it gets dark. Dead flooded trees offer frequently good locations in the right depth of water, as long as the other conditions are also present, such as deep water nearby.
During the spawn, you can try near the known spawning beds, which are usually in vegetation in shallow water. I have found schools in 4 to 6 feet of water at times when they were not all on the beds. But, during the spawn, most folks just fish the shallows in daylight!
There are a lot of rod holders on the market, and they all pretty much work the same. The front is open so the rod tip can be lifted straight up to set the hook, and the rear has a bar across the rod butt or a hole the rod butt goes through so the rod or pole cannot be pulled overboard. One approach when you have a bite is to simply whip the tip of the rod up, followed by pulling the butt out of the holder while the rod is bending with the fish. When using slip bobbers, I frequently open the bail when I see a bobber go down, lift the rod out of the holder, reel down to eliminate lack, and set the hook. That way, the fish feels no pressure from the line and is not as likely to spit out the minnow before you set the hook. Another approach is a line with no bobber. I usually place a split shot about a foot above the hook. You know you have a bite when the rod starts to bend down. Grab it and flip the front of the rod up to set the hook and then get the rod out of the holder. A short word on slip bobbers. At night, fish are frequently down deeper, from 6 to 12 feet down, or even more. This makes slip bobbers the easiest thing to use. Most of the time we are fishing at night, we start fishing about 7 feet down, and adjust later if conditions dictate, based on what is going on at the time. See the rod holders in Photo 5 and 6 below for one economical type you can make for yourself. Photo 7 shows another type of commercially available holder.
And we should not finish the article without a word about the regulations. See Photo 8. This is a Florida Game Warden measuring two crappie a friend of mine kept on a night fishing expedition. He also came in with all his fishing lights on, and got a warning about that as well as a court date for the two crappie that were ¼ inch short. He had 29 legal crappie, so there was no reason to keep even a questionable fish. If your fishing lights are so bright as to obscure your red and green running lights, you are in violation of the regulations. The moral of that story is; do not get greedy and fail to measure any fish that appears to be questionable. And turn off your fishing lights before heading in at night. Finally, some states dictate how many poles you can use at one time, so check your state regulations before hitting the water. Enjoy the fishing and the eating!