Keith Sutton: Hot crappie

It was a typical summer day in Arkansas¬ófiery and humid with only an occasional breeze to bring relief. For several hours, bluegill fishing on the old river-run lake had been outstanding. But now, as the chuck-wills-widows started their evening roundelay, the bream fishing tapered off.

Plop. The bobber twisted and settled. No takers. Move to the next spot. Plop, twist, settle. Wait. Still nothing. We maneuvered our crickets in, over, under, through and around every piece of visible cover, but no amount of wheedling could rouse another strike.

I decided a last-ditch effort for bass was in order. A barn swallow skimmed the water's surface as I tied the boat to a tall mid-lake snag. I'd seen two men sink a big cedar tree there just a couple of months earlier.

A bait-casting rod was put into play, and for the next 30 minutes, I plied the brushpile with a variety of lures. Nothing. Switching to an ultralight spinning combo, I tied on a tiny chartreuse tube jig, tipped it with a lively minnow and cast near the sunken tree. Maybe the big guys wouldn't bite, but perhaps I could entice a couple of little ones.

The next half hour was unforgettable. Not for the glorious rose-and-amber sunset that capped the day. Not even for the river otter I saw playing across the lake. On the first cast, I hooked a pound-and-a-half crappie, and there were 20 thrashing in the ice chest within 30 minutes. None was a real "barn door," but several rated at least a "Wow!"

This fishing trip, and others like it, has convinced me to pursue crappie during summer. Granted, catching these feisty panfish isn't as easy in summer as during the spring spawn when crappie are concentrated in the shallows. But for the angler who knows where, when and how, the rewards of summer crappie fishing are many.

The first rule of summer crappie fishing is keying in on deeper-water areas outside the normal realm of shallow-water anglers. Despite the fact they're often moving, that's where most crappie hang out on a regular basis.

Concentrate your search in the 10- to 25-foot range. The clearer the water, the deeper you should look. Crappie are usually near woody cover along the edges of inundated stream channels, points and turns on weed edges, rock piles rising into well-oxygenated water, man-made fish attractors and other structure-oriented cover.

In waters with plentiful cover, the trick is finding the small percentage of it that holds fish. You may have to work hard to locate a concentration of crappie. Where cover is in short supply, a single sunken treetop may harbor dozens of slabs, but you must find that spot first.

Some deep-water crappie can be found using hit-and-miss tactics like drift-fishing and trolling. But if you want to increase your hooking time and decrease your looking time, buy a good sonar fish-finder. Electronic hardware is essential to find deep-water crappie consistently. Deep water can hide a lot.

For example, it's one thing to know a river channel zigzags through a long narrow cove. It's quite another to find a bend, ledge or some other nuance on the channel that will attract a school of crappie. Without sonar, you might never find such an area. But with a serious look at a bottom contour map and a quick check of prominent bottom changes with sonar, you could be catching slabs in minutes.

On lakes that stratify during summer, it's even easier to narrow down the waters where crappie are found. Stratified lakes have a layer of cool, unoxygenated water on bottom and a layer of hot, oxygen-rich water on top. A layer of fairly cool, oxygen-rich water called the thermocline is sandwiched between the two. Regardless of whether the thermocline is 8 inches thick or 8 feet thick, that's probably where you'll find crappie.

The depth of the thermocline varies from lake to lake. To find it, keep an eye on your sonar while moving around the lake, and look for suspended fish. You'll notice that most are about the same depth. That's the thermocline. When fishing, start at that depth.

If you don't have sonar, try drifting or trolling. Rig your poles with minnows and/or different color jigs set at different depths. Then use the wind or your trolling motor to drift over prospective crappie-holding areas. Make large zigzagging sweeps that take you past stump fields, weed edges and other types of cover in fairly deep water.

When you catch a crappie, change your rigs to conform to the fishes' bait and depth preferences, and toss out a marker buoy to pinpoint the location. Summer crappie are likely to be congregated in a fairly small area, and drifting a few yards either way could mean getting out of the action.

A common mistake is staying in one place too long. In summer, if crappie are present and feeding, they'll usually let you know right away. Contrary to popular belief, summer is not a period of sluggishness. A high metabolic rate means hot-weather crappie are frequently feeding, and heavy schooling creates competitive group activity. If you aren't catching fish within 15 minutes, try another spot.

In murky or stained waters, summer crappie may feed during the bright light of midday. But on clear lakes, fishing edges of cover before dawn and after dusk usually brings the best summertime action. To avoid intense sunlight, crappie in transparent waters often shift the majority of their feeding activity to night.

Night fishermen create their own crappie delicatessens by placing strong lights in or over the water. The lights attract hordes of insects, the insects attract baitfish like shad and minnows, and when the baitfish start swarming around, it's just a matter of time before crappie stop by for a late-night snack.

Almost any light will work. Some anglers hang propane lanterns over the water. Others prefer a 12-volt floating or sinking crappie light that shines through the water. Lights around boat docks, parks and bridges also attract fish.

Remember, you can't just throw out a crappie light and start hauling them in. You must place your lights near structure and cover where crappie are likely to be feeding. And you must be patient long enough for the light to attract the insects, then the baitfish, then the crappie, a sequence that may take more than an hour. Prime nighttime fishing spots include underwater timbered islands, sunken brush piles near piers and docks, bridges and causeways over deep water, and drop-offs along underwater creek and river channels.

Lightweight, sensitive fishing equipment is a must for light-biting summer crappie. A good ultralight spinning outfit or graphite jigging pole works great, but try to find one with a soft, sensitive tip. This allows you to lift up slightly and watch for the slightest bend in the tip that indicates a fish has taken your bait. Watch your line for a slight twitch or slackening that signals a hit.

If you enjoy panfishing and haven't fished for crappie during summer, I suggest you give it a try this year. Hot crappie aren't hard to catch, they're just a little harder to find. When you've zeroed in on a hot-weather slab hideout, likely as not you can stay in one place and catch enough to feed your family¬ómaybe enough to feed the next-door neighbors, too. Summer days are crappie days, despite what you may hear.