Summer Crappie Fishing

Summer Crappie Fishing: Tactics and Patterns for Catching Crappie

Summer is typically one of the most challenging times of year to consistently catch crappie. The spawning season is over, and fish generally have migrated away from shallow stake beds and brush piles to deeper, cooler water. But that doesn’t mean you can’t catch a boatload of crappie; you just have to know where to find them! We’re going to dive deep (see what I did there?) into all things summer crappie fishing.

First, I’ll talk through summer patterns that will help you locate fish and make the most out of your trips on the water. I’ll then walk you through a few topographical map examples to illustrate how I’d approach finding fish on a new body of water. After that, I’ll explain some techniques and lures that are the go-to options for the summer. Finally, we’ll wrap up with a high-level overview of depth finders and electronics that I consider vital for summer fishing success. 

What is a pattern? 

Crappie, like most fish, follow similar patterns year in and year out. You know that in the spring, they will be spawning. In murky water, crappie will be tucked tight into cover. These are examples of potential patterns you can rely on to locate fish. 

What makes finding a pattern difficult is that it’s constantly changing. A spot or tactic that worked last week might not work at all this week. Finding a reliable pattern is about understanding how all factors – water temperature, time of year, water clarity, time of day, the body of water, etc. – influence where fish are located. 

It’s not easy, but once you find a pattern, you can repeat it across the lake and exponentially increase your catch rate. Locating fish is about identifying what’s working and being able to repeat it over and over again. 

Summer Fishing Key: Find the baitfish, find the crappie

One of the most reliable ways to start identifying a pattern is to find the baitfish! Most fish won’t stray too far away from their primary food source, so finding what depths and locations baitfish are will lead you to the crappie. 

When it comes to baitfish in the summer, you have to familiarize yourself with the thermocline. But, if you’ve never heard of the thermocline, fear not. We’ll get into the details on what it is and what it means for your fishing. 

What is the thermocline? 

The thermocline is a transitional layer of water in a lake. The water near the lake’s surface is warmed by the sun during the summer, which sits on top of a much colder layer of water underneath it. In between those layers is the thermocline – a column of water where the temperature changes drastically. 

The water just above the thermocline is where the temperature is the most comfortable for crappie and where the water has the most oxygen. Therefore, most fish species want to be just above that thermocline which means you can ignore any part of the lake deeper than that depth. 

How do I find the thermocline? 

There are two ways to find the thermocline: with electronics (sonar) or minnows. 

Using electronics is the most effective way to find the thermocline in a lake. You’ll want to increase the sensitivity a bit on your unit and look for a visible band indicating the thermocline. In my experience, you’ll have to adjust the sensitivity up or down on your particular unit to find the sweet spot. 

The other way you can use electronics to find the thermocline is by locating the baitfish. As I mentioned earlier, baitfish will typically congregate just above the thermocline during the summer, so finding a bait ball at a particular depth is a good indicator. 

If you don’t have a sonar unit you can use, you can still find the thermocline by using minnows. 

First, tie on a light wire hook and a live minnow. Then, drop the minnow down a certain number of feet, say 18. Let the minnow suspend at that depth for a minute or two before reeling them in. If the minnow is still alive, the thermocline is deeper than the depth you tested. Otherwise, you’ll know the thermocline is above your depth. In that case, tie on another minnow and try a few feet shallower. Repeat this process until you can nail down the exact depth of the thermocline. 

Summer Crappie Hotspots

In addition to baitfish and the thermocline, there are common areas on a lake that crappie will gravitate towards during the summer. These areas are great places to start when exploring a new body of water or having trouble locating fish. 

Deep brush piles and cover

Finding deep water with brush piles, standing timber, or some cover is an ideal spot for crappie. As mentioned above, we’d be looking for deep water above the thermocline with something that the crappie can relate to. 

The easiest way to find these types of spots is with your electronics. You can make back and forth passes on your lake, marking any brush piles you see on GPS. If that’s not an option for you, some local guides also sell GPS coordinates for brush piles that you can buy on their websites. 

Another pro tip for finding deep brush piles is to visit your lake during the winter. Most lakes will draw down the water levels during the winter, revealing any normally underwater cover. A few hours taking a walk around your favorite shorelines will be very helpful during the summer when all that cover is underwater. 

One other option for deep cover is to create your own stake beds. Of course, you should check your local lake regulations before proceeding, but building a stake bed that you can sink at a particular spot is a great way to create your own piece of cover! Christmas trees are a popular cover option. 

Humps and Underwater Islands

A hump or underwater island can be enough to hold crappie in the absence of cover. You can typically find these humps using a topographic map of your lake or by using your sonar. I’m normally looking for something that rises from around 20 ft to about 15 ft. 

Once you find these islands, it helps to mark them with a buoy. The buoy will stay in place, giving you a reference point for making casts. You may also need to cast across the hump from different angles to get a strike. 

You’ll want to fish these humps and islands like you would a piece of cover. I’d suggest dragging a drop shot over the top with a few plastics, but we’ll discuss some additional techniques below. 

Bridges

Bridges and bridge pilings are fantastic locations for summer crappie fishing. 

Overhead bridges act like a sunshade for crappie, helping keep water temperatures down and providing an ambush point for baitfish. Make sure to pick apart each of the bridge pilings and even the rip rap often found near the base of the bridge. Crappie will usually stage on the down current side of the bridge piling and let baitfish drift down towards them, so position your boat to cast past the piling and bring your lure back towards them. 

Ledges and Drop-offs

Ledges and drop-offs are classic staging areas for summer fish. 

You should look for ledges near the main river channel as they are typically the most productive. Similar to underwater islands, I’m usually looking for drop-offs that go from 10 ft deep on the top to 20 ft deep on the bottom, but this will likely vary from lake to lake. Slowly dragging a jig off these ledges can be effective during the summer as crappie like to stack up in the shade of the ledge. You can also throw a drop shot if the fish are a bit more finicky.

Topographic Maps To Find Crappie

Alright, so we know what types of spots we’re looking for and where crappie should be located. We also know that we have to be mindful of the thermocline and baitfish. Let’s combine all of that knowledge and break down how to eliminate water on a lake that you might not be familiar with (or maybe you just haven’t had much luck finding crappie). 

A topographic map of a local lake illustrating potential crappie hot spots for summer fishing.
A topographic map of a local lake illustrating potential crappie hot spots for summer fishing.

Here is a topographic map of one of my local lakes. I’ve taken a screenshot of a random section of the lake – I don’t know anything about this particular area, but it will illustrate what to look for.

First, I’m noticing that there are a bunch of really great-looking ledges in this area of the lake. I’ve highlighted three examples of these in the image above. If you aren’t used to looking at a topo map, you can tell there is a steep drop-off because the lines become close together. These three would be great spots to drive over and check with my electronics to see if I can find any crappie or baitfish.

Next, there is a tremendous underwater island/hump there to the left. It looks like it comes up to about 13 feet at its shallowest and drops down to 20+ feet deep. Now, remember that I need to consider the thermocline and where the bait is when fishing deep. So lets say I check my electronics and see the thermocline at 18 feet, then I know I need to focus on fishing this hump in the 13 to 18 ft range and can ignore anything deeper than that.

Lastly, I’ve highlighted a few flats where I might be able to find some deep brush piles or cover. You can tell where the flats are because the lines will be farther apart. These are areas I’d try and find brush piles in and then throw out a buoy to keep me on the spot.

I could keep going with this exercise, but the point is that I’ve quickly identified 7 or 8 spots that I can run to try and locate fish. If I find that they are stacked on that underwater hump, I can hopefully go out and find other humps in that 15ish foot range to develop a pattern. Similarly, if I find that the thermocline is at 18 feet, I immediately ignore any water deeper than that. That would probably eliminate 90% of the lake right off the bat.

I hope this helps illustrate how you can use a topo map to find some of the spots we’ve discussed above.

Tactics and Lures for Summer Crappie

Finding crappie during the summer is half the battle. But once you find them, you still have to catch them! 

Fishing for crappie during the summer requires you to make a few critical changes to your lures and presentations. Doing so will significantly improve your success out on the lake. 

Artificial Lures

One of the most important changes I recommend during the summer is staying away from minnows. While minnows are one of the best baits during the spring or fall, the summer is a different story. The heat and high water temperatures will kill minnows almost instantly. Instead, artificial lures and soft plastics should be your go-to lures. 

Something like a crappie magnet is a great choice. It’s going to last you a long time and is very effective at catching crappie. You can use these with just about any jig head

You can also find success throwing moving baits like rooster tails or crankbaits. In my opinion, these are most effective in late summer as crappie start to chase baitfish a bit more. 

Electronics

If you are fishing from shore, this isn’t going to be relevant for you. However, if you are fishing out of a boat or a kayak, electronics are probably the most important tool you have at your disposal to locate crappie consistently. 

Finding the appropriate fish finder for your boat or kayak is an entire series of posts in itself, but there are a few things I’d suggest to keep in mind. 

  1. You can save money by getting something without all the bells and whistles. Sidescan imaging, livescope, etc., are all great, but they certainly aren’t necessary. They also drive up the price significantly.
  2. Having two different units is often helpful in a boat. You can keep one in your dash while driving the boat and another you have at your feet while sitting at the bow. This is very helpful when trying to hold a particular spot with your trolling motor. 

In my opinion, a great starting point is something like the Hook 5 series. These are what I use on my kayak and have served me well and are relatively affordable. 

Wrapping Up Our Summer Crappie Fishing Tips

Summer crappie fishing doesn’t have to be a drag! A lot of people stop fishing for crappie after the spring which is unfortunate. You can catch crappie year around if you know where to find them.

In the summer, focusing on deep water cover, where the water is cooler and oxygen saturation is high will lead you to loads of crappie. Remember to keep an eye on the thermocline, and always be on the lookout for baitfish. Main channel ledges, points, and drop-offs are key features that can help you lay out a plan of attack for the day.

Summer fishing should be fun, and nothing is more fun than a boatful of crappie. Get out there and find those slabs! Tight lines.

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