Crappie are pretty easy to catch, but the summer heat can test even the best anglers’ patience with papermouths. And as every slab addict knows, high summer separates the real pros from the casual crappie chasers.
But the dog days of summer don’t need to mean the end of crappie season--if you know where to look for them!
We’d like to help, so keep reading! Below, you’ll find an in-depth discussion of the thermocline, as well as our best tips for snagging summer crappie. We’ll also tell you a bit about some of our favorite hot weather lures:
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You might think that water is water, and that everything below your keel is just one constant stretch of water to the bottom.
But that’s not true at all, at least not for anything more than a few feet deep.
In fact, as the sun heats your local lake, it’ll cause the water to stratify into distinct layers: the epilimnion, metalimnion, and hypolimnion.
The epilimnion is the layer of sun-warmed water at the top, circulated by wind and pretty uniformly heated. It’s rich in oxygen because of its contact with the air above, wave action, and wind, and it’s there that crappie find it easy to breathe.
But the summer heat makes this oxygen-rich zone uncomfortably hot for crappie, and they won’t often congregate or feed there.
The hypolimnion is the layer of cool water near the bottom. Without direct contact with the air above, it will be oxygen-poor, and crappie won’t school or feed here for long, either, as they just can’t get enough life-supporting oxygen to flourish.
The metalimnion, commonly known as the thermocline, is a narrow zone separating the epilimnion from the hypolimnion. Water temperature varies greatly here, as does oxygen saturation.
And it’s here that you’ll find the crappie when the heat is on.
They’ll stick to the metalimnion like hot duct tape, dipping down when they need to cool off and up when they need more oxygen.
But don’t take our word for it. Professional crappie angler Dan Dannenmueller has this to say:
"In stratified lakes, even those with rivers running through, the anoxic line can occur 12 to 15 feet down … A common depth for summer crappies in the Midsouth is 18 to 20 feet. Eliminate all areas on your map deeper than the thermocline, and you've vastly narrowed the search.”
That’s good advice, especially for large lakes, as it cuts down the area you need to search.
Sac-a-lait and structure go together like rice and gravy, and that doesn’t change when the mercury rises.
But rather than shallow cover like pilings, you need to think deep and keep the thermocline in mind. At a depth of about 15 to 20 feet, you should be looking for cover like deep brush piles, downed trees, and weed beds, as well as structure that can break up a current or hold shad or minnows.
Other areas to target include anywhere that the water will be both cool and oxygen-rich. That often includes the water just below dams, where hydroelectric generation means water and air mixing to provide life-sustaining oxygen.
As the day progresses, the sun will differentially heat the lake water, and you need to be working the shade for the added advantage of a few degrees difference.
As Dannenmueller explains, "At sunup, I look for crappies on the east (shady) sides of the channel ledges and go to the opposite, west-side ledges closer to sundown. During midday, crappies often linger down in 18 to 20 feet. Inactive fish seem to hold up against ledges, while those chasing shad schools can be well off bottom and away from the edge."
Since the thermocline can vary a bit from day to day, and since crappie can school just above or below it, it’s always a good idea to run more than one line.
Where legal, spider rigging is a staple of summer crappie fishing. It offers many advantages when the heat is on, not the least of which is the ability to work different depths and colors simultaneously.
Learn more about spider rigging for crapping!
It’s important to vary your depth, as well as the colors and lures you present, to identify exactly where the crappie are and what they’re taking. Two rods or eight: the logic is the same--work your terminal tackle at a variety of depths until you start getting bites.
Mike Baker, a professional crappie guide, uses this technique. "I like to pull double rigs with two jigheads … One weighs 1/48 ounce and the other weighs 1/32 ounce. I try to pick colors that mimic natural baitfish in the area. I may go through 50 different color combinations before I catch a fish, but once I find out what they want, I can usually catch a bunch of crappie."
That’s good advice, too, and if you work through a wide range of colors and lures, you’ll find the one that’s money!
Not everyone likes this technique, however, and you can count Jo Haley among them. A pro angler, he likes to run a single rod for crappie. As he explains, "I like to fish with a single rod and one bait … With one pole in hand, I can detect subtle bites when the fish hit really soft. Sometimes, I can't even feel the bite. I just watch for a little line change. It might just go slack or something else subtle."
That’s a solid technique when the heat has the crappie stressed.
I like to throw smallish jigs along ledges, letting them fall slowly into deeper water. This way, I’m working the water column through the thermocline, trying to trigger a bite as the jig wriggles through and past a school.
Fishing the thermocline means fishing deeper, and as we’ve discussed at length before, that means considering lure color carefully.
As every experienced angler can tell you, color choice can be the difference between fishing and catching. After years of fishing and lots of research, here’s what we have to say on the matter:
Take a look at the chart below, and note that if you’re fishing shallow water, color matters a lot. If you’re jigging for crappie on the bottom, however, red and orange may not show up very well, depending on just how deep you’re fishing. In general, the shallower your quarry, the more color matters.
So what do we recommend? If I were choosing only four lure colors for crappie, these would be my top picks:
While live bait is almost always a good idea, keeping minnows alive and active in the heat is challenging. As a result, I usually skip them and stick to soft plastics and jigs.
As is usual for crappie, I throw small jig heads, though I do vary their sizes until I find what’s being hit that day. Among my favorites, you’ll find plenty of Strike King Mr. Crappie Slab Slasher Jig Heads in my tackle box, and I like to keep a variety of colors on hand at all times. 1/32 and 1/16 are great sizes to reach for in summer.
Soft plastics are the kings of summer, and I particularly like Strike King’s Mr. Crappie Thunder. Available in a range of colors like Electric Chicken, Junebug Chartreuse Glitter Tail (pictured below), and Tuxedo Black Sparkle Laminate, you’ll find something in this range that will work well at the depths you’re fishing.
Especially when hot weather makes live bait a tough choice, I like to throw realistic soft plastics like Berkley Gulp! Minnows. The next best thing to a real minnow, that fluked tail wriggles enticingly on the fall, calling crappie over for a bite to eat. As these are a live bait substitute, look for life-like colors like Smelt (pictured below) and Black Shad.
Another awesome choice for summer crappie are Bobby Garland soft baits. A perennial favorite, you’ll find me throwing both Bobby Garland Stroll’Rs and Bobby Garland Baby Shad, especially when trolling double rigs. Here, I’ll go a bit more bold if I’m fishing stained water, or on the darker end if not.
Available in an astounding variety of colors, they offer the tail wiggle crappie crave, making them a tournament favorite. The Troll’R features a long paddle tail for extra vibration, and I find that this really calls crappie in. By contrast, the Baby Shad’s delicate tail creates a delicate wriggle as it sinks.
Long story short--both work like magic!
Whatever I choose, I always spray a bit of Slabsauce on my summer plastics. A tip I picked up from the unstoppable Richard Gene, it really works to increase bites.
Summer crappie may be a tough catch, but with the right information, you’ll be up to the challenge.
We hope that this article will help you catch more hot-weather slabs, and we’d love to hear from you! If you catch more fish with something we’ve recommended, feel free to share your experience (and maybe a pic or two!).
Please leave a comment below.