How hot was it?
This 2-1/2-pound shallow summer slab was pulled from an undisclosed Iowa reservoir by Dave Weston.
Insufferably hot. August-in-Tennessee hot. Fry-eggs-on-the-pavement hot. But not too hot to be catching crappie.
Here it was, the middle of the day with the air temperature right at 100 degrees, yet Harold Morgan's livewell was chock full of slabs. And we hadn't even left the tributary arm where he launched his boat! At the mouth of the creek, jet skis buzzed like swarming gnats. "Most crappie fishermen hate hot weather," the legendary Nashville guide laughed as he reeled in another fish. "I don't know about you, but I can stand a little heat when the fishing's this fast." Just then a ski boat idled past us, and a bikini-clad blonde smiled and waved as Harold held up the crappie. "Besides," he laughed, "you can't complain about the scenery!"
In the mythology of crappie fishing, summertime brings on the dreaded Dog Days, a torturous time when heat and humidity soar and fish lips clamp tightly shut. To the hapless angler, a day on the water now seems like a sentence to hell, with not even an occasional tug on the line to distract him from the sweltering, dripping, unrelenting heat.
But count on Morgan to have aces up his sleeve whenever conditions threaten to slow down the crappie bite. "If you play your cards right, you can score some nice fish in short order in midsummer, and you don't have to fish deep to catch 'em," he'd promised me before we set out on this hot-weather crappie excursion. As usual, he was right on the money.
Piece of the Puzzle
"There was a time when I hesitated to even talk about catching crappie in midsummer period, let alone from shallow water," Morgan said. "Whenever I'd tell folks I was slammin' lots of good fish up shallow from June through September, they'd look at me like I was either crazy or lying. I remember mentioning a great July crappie trip to one of my long-time customers when I ran into him at the dock. He laughed and said, "Harold, I didn't fall off the pumpkin truck. Don't feed me that baloney!' After that, I didn't talk about my shallow summer patterns for years."
But today's crappie fishermen are better-skilled and more open-minded than in the past, Morgan added. "There's greater interest in, and awareness of, the seasonal movements of crappie now than before," he said. "The skilled crappie angler now understands that once crappie leave their spring spawning grounds, they don't evaporate into thin air, but rather migrate into areas that suit their needs as the seasons progress. And the shallow summer pattern is a natural part of these seasonal movements, just another piece of the crappie fishing puzzle."
Quest for Knowledge
Morgan is quick to add that he's still learning about shallow summer patterns. "I pick up more tidbits of information every day I fish in summer," he explained. "Some of the things I've discovered lately will surely turn the heads of long-time crappie addicts."
Anyone who's fished for crappie as long as Harold Morgan has, is bound to have plenty of preconceived notions about the haunts and habits of these gamefish, But you'd do well to put these ideas on the shelf once summer rolls around, he insisted. "Like any veteran crappie angler, I have my own way of doing things. I used to figure all the crappie were out in deep water once June arrived and the lake's surface temperature hit the low 80s. For years, my sole summer pattern was to fish isolated stumps, brushpiles and stake beds on creek and river channel dropoffs, deep main-lake flats, long points with a slow taper into deep water, and offshore humps. Here crappie had more current flow from the main river channel and tributary channels, which meant greater levels of dissolved oxygen and plentiful bait. Invariably the fish were deep on this pattern; I found the 17 to 23 foot zone consistently productive for large schools of quality crappie."
But Morgan's quest for total understanding of the crappie's summer movements eventually led him into uncharted territory, including shallow bays, coves and tributary arms. "I often had my afternoons free during the summer months, since most of my guide trips during this period ran from dawn 'til noon due to the heat," he continued. "So once my clients left, I'd nose around shallow areas during the hottest part of the day, and I was astounded at what I found."
One thing Harold quickly discovered: water can't get too hot for crappie. "I've found they'll bite shallow regardless of the surface temperature. I've personally caught 'em in 95-degree water, and I know fishermen down in Mississippi who load the boat all summer long in their shallow lakes, even when the surface temp tops 100 degrees."
Shallow Summer Scenarios
Morgan has learned that there are certain scenarios where crappie will move shallow in summer, and when these opportunities present themselves, you can score some unbelievable catches. He listed the following as prime examples:
Trees on dropoffs and sloping banks -- "I call these 'elevator trees' because crappie use 'em to move up and down in the water column," he explained. "Typically the best summer laydown trees have their trunks resting on shore or in shallow water adjacent to a sloping bank, with their branches fanning out across a deep channel, ditch or other major dropoff. The perfect tree has the ends of its longest branches sticking out like extended fingers into deep, open water. The trunk and branches develop a coating of algae, which baitfish feed upon. Crappie schools moving along the channel will encounter the tree and follow the branches and trunk into shallower water to feed. In clear lakes, they'll often position themselves around the 10-foot zone around the tree; they may be only a couple feet deep if the water is murky."
A lone tree may pull in a huge number of crappie from a wide area, Morgan said. "If you don't see any fish on your graph in the 15 to 25 foot zone on open-water structures, move to the nearest fallen tree -- betcha you'll load the boat!"
Harold loves to fish fallen trees with a twist-tail grub or small tube jig. He'll move out to the end of the tree and cast parallel to the trunk. "Start by targeting the shady side of the tree. Let the jig fall until the line goes slack, then instantly turn the reel handle at a slow to moderate pace, swimming the lure down the trunk toward deeper water. If you feel it tick the wood, speed up slightly. Don't hop-and-drop the bait -- you'll hang up for sure."
Windy days -- "Most crappie fishermen try to avoid the wind, but if there's ever a time to fish in a windy spot, it's in midsummer," Morgan insisted. "A stiff breeze will push drifting plankton blooms from the main lake into the shallows, bringing big schools of shad along with it. Crappie are more interested in an easy meal than staying deep, and they'll pull up stakes and follow their forage shallow in a heartbeat. So when you're out there on those deep humps and ledges and the wind starts knockin' you around, move to the nearest wind-blown shallow area for some fast action."
Compared to the fallen tree scenario mentioned above, this is an open-water pattern, one where the crappie are likely to be suspended. Morgan drift-trolls a combination of tube and twister jigs and live minnows weighted down with split shot behind his boat, criss-crossing a shallow bay or tributary cove. "I start about 12 feet deep around a long point or flat and work progressively shallower, alternatively following a depth contour and then cutting across several contours in a lazy S pattern," he said. "Often the fish are loosely scattered on this pattern, so you'll pick 'em up at various depths." Don't be surprised if something considerably larger than a crappie makes a run with your lure or bait, Harold added: "Besides crappie, I've caught big largemouth and smallmouth bass, hybrids and stripers on this pattern."
Low dissolved oxygen -- "On some Sun Belt lakes, dissolved oxygen levels may become extremely low in midsummer," Morgan noted. "Following an extended period of cloudy weather, plankton, which depends on sunlight for survival, often dies and drifts toward the bottom, where it decays -- this phenomenon is known as 'fallout' by biologists. The decay process burns up oxygen, and water below the 8 to 10 foot zone may become dangerously low in dissolved oxygen, forcing baitfish and gamefish shallower."
Unlike the first two patterns mentioned, this one most commonly occurs in open water. "I don't own a dissolved oxygen meter, but I can always tell this pattern has kicked in when I see bait and crappie schools on my graph suspended high in the water column over deep main-lake structures," Morgan indicated. "I vertical-fish these deep spots with a Kentucky rig, which has a heavy bell sinker at the end of the line and live minnows or jigs on short leader lines above the sinker. When I'm not catching any crappie while bumping the sinker along the bottom, I'll reel up to move to another spot, and might catch two crappie at once when the rig enters the 10 foot zone right under my boat. This happened so often at Priest Lake near Nashville that I asked a fisheries biologist about it; he said the lake was suffering from low oxygen levels. So the moral of the story is, if you aren't catching 'em near the bottom on deep structure in summer, reel straight up and you might locate a big school of fish."
Inflowing murky water -- "Often in summer, heat and humidity cause a buildup of thundershowers," Harold said. "These summer storms can be real toad-stranglers, sending a great deal of muddy water into the system via the tributaries. This murky runoff is a veritable chowder of insects, worms and microscopic organisms, and calls in minnows like a dinner bell. Crappie that were in deeper water sense the feeding opportunity and move into the murky runoff for an easy meal."
After heading for the back of a tributary arm, Morgan casts a chartreuse grub, twister or small crappie crankbait into the murky inflow. "I've caught slab crappie as shallow as 1 foot on this pattern," he claimed. "There can be an unbelievable number of fish ganged up in that shallow runoff to put on the feed bag."