Drive into a boat launch during the weeks before Halloween and it would be easy for an angler to think their friends have been whisked from the planet by aliens — not a truck or boat trailer is typically there.
The owners of the vehicles that took up every single parking space just a few weeks ago are somewhere up a tree waiting for a buck to wander within arrow shot. Or maybe they’re home cleaning their shotguns or rifles getting ready for the fall hunting seasons.
But knowledgeable anglers know this is the time to fill a freezer for a winter fish fry. Prospects for big crappies in area reservoirs can be even better in October, November and December than during the spring spawn! Crappies school up and become more predictable as fall moves toward ice up.
“Give me October over May any time,” said Steve Welch, a crappie guide and tournament angler. “Everything is so dependable. We don’t have violent weather coming through and you have the lake to yourself.”
Welch is based on Lake Shelbyville in Illinois. He also journeys to Kentucky Lake later in autumn when things start to freeze up closer to home. But, the tactics he uses will work on any reservoir or flowage that has crappies.
Fall Crappies Hang By Wood
Remember one thing — fall crappies use a variety of wood cover ranging from fallen and standing trees to brush piles to stump fields. The key is to know when to look where.
The fun really starts in September when water temps begin to drop from the 70s and 80s into the low/mid-70s. Crappies move into the standing timber at the mouths of coves and suspend. They’re just 6 feet down in the upper branches of flooded trees 25 feet tall.
The lake turns over in October when the water temp reaches the high 50s. No longer limited by the thermocline and a lack of oxygen at the deeper reaches of the reservoir, fish of all kinds are free to move anywhere they want in the water column. Some crappies will stay in the deep trees at the mouths of coves if they have food.
Others move shallow again like they did in spring, and fish can be caught in coves. But the biggest crappies seem to go right up the feeder creeks and rivers chasing shad that are looking for warmer water. When Welch has a fall tournament on his schedule, he looks there first.
Fish in the feeder creeks can be extremely shallow and skittish. They will stay there until the lake levels begin to fall as reservoir managers begin increasing the flow to get water levels down in preparation of spring rains.
Whether with coves or creeks, the patterns should last nearly to Thanksgiving, perhaps a week or two before the holiday. Then, the fish are back to standing trees and fallen shoreline timber on points that reach all the way to deep water or on brush piles at the bends in the old river channel. Fish will be active to ice up, or in the case of reservoirs farther south like Kentucky Lake, the open-water patterns can hold all winter long.
One tool that is invaluable is a Humminbird sonar with side scan and down scan. With side scan, the resolution is so good Welch can motor along a shoreline and bypass trees with no fish rather than spend precious minutes to stop at each one looking for a bite. With down scan, he can move over standing trees or fallen trees and see crappies below appearing as white blobs lurking in the branches.
Once productive spots are found, add the coordinates to your GPS so you can return later that same day, next week or next year.
Location Dictates Tactics
One way to determine how deep crappies will be on a given day is to watch the sonar as soon as you leave the ramp. Note the depth where you spot schools of shad or other minnows, then focus your first efforts at that depth.
Deeper fish are easier to target. They’re less likely to be frightened by boat movement so you can move right over them. Tight-lined jigs can be returned to the ideal depth fast after a crappie is reeled in, and the sonar tips you off to the depth fish are holding.
Welch concentrates on brush piles and fallen timber in 14- to 20 feet of water. Most often, these targets are on the first major deep ledge from shore.
If fish are down in the branches, use heavier jigs than you’d think necessary. Welch’s favorite is a homemade 1/4-ounce with a smaller, light-wire, No. 4 hook. The heavier jig can make it through the branches and the No. 4 hook can be pulled free when snagged. Lindy NO-SNAGG jigs are actually designed for this task.
Medium-Action Rod Best
Forget the traditional 10- to 12-foot crappie rods. Stick with a 7- to 8-foot walleye medium-action rod, such as St. Croix’s new Eyecon series ECS70MLF, with 8-pound-test TUF-Line. You can snap a jig free without a tip breaking and the braided line helps get those jigs back. A 7-foot rod also allows him to lower his jigs in the sonar cone so he can watch them descend to the tops of the brush and fish beds where the big crappies suspend.
In standing timber, crappies will move very shallow at times to chase shad near the surface. Welch uses a pendulum approach then. Let out about 6 feet of line more than the length of the rod, use an underhand cast to put the jig about 6 feet beyond the tree and let the jig fall back to the boat. He switches to an 1/8-ounce jig or even 1/16-ounce to let it fall more slowly and stay in the strike zone longer. Lindy’s Little Nipper jig is a great jig for this application.
Welch says live bait isn’t necessary.
“Fish are so aggressive, you won’t need it,” he said.
Instead, he uses tube jigs and fills them with scent. Natural colors are best since reservoirs begin to clear in the fall. He uses clear tube jigs so he can change the color of his tube by changing the color of the filler.
Shallow fish on the stumps and in brush are likely to spook if you venture too close. Use a Thill slip bobber and 15-pound TUF-Line and stay back. Bigger crappies will be on the stumps just like a bass would be.
If water levels remain high and are free of ice into December, don’t be afraid to travel back into the creeks to try the stump beds even at that time of year.
For more information, call Welch at 217-762-7257, or visit Welch’s Crappie Specialties website at www.lakeshelbyvilleguide.com.
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