In the minds of most sportsmen, the "dog days" of late summer, when stifling heat and wilting humidity hold the land tight, are viewed as a time when fishing is in the doldrums. There's some truth in such views, for many species do slow their activity or move so deep in search of more comfortable water temperatures that they are almost impossible to reach. Likewise, a bit of "couch potato" mentality on the part of anglers, with a marked preference for air-conditioned comfort rather than sweltering conditions, must be considered too.
Yet for those with enough gumption to deal with hot weather and sufficient know- how associated with their angling efforts, crappie can offer great dog days fun. Here are some thoughts on approaches to catching this popular and tasty panfish during dog days, along with a few suggestions on doing so in comparative comfort.
Live Bait vs. Jigs Or Other Artificials
Spending a few minutes to capture your own bait (where legal) will save you money and put better minnows in your bait bucket.
When things get tough, most veteran slab fishermen will tell you that it is easier to catch crappie on live minnows than on jigs or other artificials. Summer's hottest, calmest days certainly qualify as "tough times," and on the whole you will do better with live bait. Any decent bait shop sells minnows, but sometimes the trip can consume valuable fishing time and money. Consider seining your own if legal. On most lakes, a few passes with a two-man net or throw net will produce plenty of bait for a day's fishing. This saves some money and adds to the overall pleasure of the experience. Of course, you can stick with jigs if you prefer, but in summer's lazy, hazy days you will catch fewer crappie.
The key to catching crappie in goodly numbers in any season is finding the depth where they are holding, and use of modern electronic aids can simplify this process a great deal. However, it also helps to know in advance the whereabouts of a lot of sunken brush or other structures. Try several depths until you locate a concentration of fish, and then try a little used yet highly productive approach to catching crappie not only during dog days but also at any time of the year.
A standard ultralight combo is a good all-around choice for most summer crappie fishing, although certain tactics might call for extra-long rods.
Using a super-sensitive rod, cast your minnow, weighted with a split shot or two, just beyond where the sunken structure is located. (The long rods made specifically for crappie fishing, a mooching rod of the sort sometimes used for salmon, an old fiberglass fly rod or a spinning rod with plenty of feel are good choices.) Then count to yourself 1001, 1002 . . ., figuring a sink rate of a foot per number. If the brush pile is 15 feet deep, you will count to 1015. Then slowly, ever so slowly, begin your retrieve, watching the rod tip as you do so. Often the tip will bounce a bit even though you do not feel a hit. If in doubt, always set the hook. Remember how many seconds it took, and repeat that rate of descent on the next cast.
This approach can be just the ticket to taking selective late-summer crappie in numbers, but before moving on to another tactic, several tips are in order. For starters, if you aren't ticking brush on your retrieve, you aren't getting deep enough. Add another number to your count. Alternatively, if you hang up (and you will when using the count down system properly), reduce by one count on the next cast. Expect to lose some hooks, but that's one of the beauties of using live bait. Plain hooks are inexpensive; jigs aren't. Finally, use light line. I've found 6-pound test monofilament to be just right.
Scattering multiple lines at different depths helps cover more of the water column and find fish more quickly.
Another effective approach during sweltering summer days is what is sometimes known as "spider rigging." This involves utilizing a number of set poles (old-fashioned cane poles work just fine) sticking out from all sides of a boat like the legs of a spider, keeping in mind exactly how many rods you can legally use at one time. Once situated over promising structure, whether it is sunken brush, a deep cove, the hideout/ambush spot offered by the end of a pier or something else, start out setting each pole with the bait at a different depth. The idea is to locate the preferred holding depth for crappie. Once you take two or three fish at a specific depth, you can then set all the poles at that depth. The technique works when anchored, drifting or trolling.
You can use jigs with this technique, but again, live bait works better. Use some type of bobber to help detect strikes, and remember they are likely to be light. Pencil- or porcupine quill-type bobbers are recommended, since they readily go under and offer little resistance when finicky crappie pick up the bait. Once you locate a good school of crappie, you may find it necessary to scale back from six or eight poles to just one or two. Otherwise things can deteriorate to an on the water Chinese fire drill in pretty rapid fashion.
A stringer full of slabs is a nice reward for a long, hot day on the water.
Sometimes, when all else fails, taking the road seldom traveled deserves a try. For example, almost no one uses in-line spinners to fish for crappie, but at times they can be quite effective. The same holds true for several of the tiny crankbaits made by Pradco and some other manufacturers. Along with trying unusual lures, don't forget that a concentration of baitfish can often attract the attention of schools of crappie. That's why fishing under lights at night has long been popular.
But why not try a daylight approach that effectively duplicates the use of lights? The reason lights work is that they attract insects, which in turn attract minnows. Another way to attract minnows is with the use of what might be called freshwater "chum." Dry dog food, corn meal or similar offerings can draw a bunch of minnows, and they in turn may bring in crappie. Again, it's worth a try, especially when things are slow.
Crappie continue eating during the dog days, even if they are delicate or picky diners. By trying techniques such as those suggested above—alternatives to the more traditional bouncing jigs, trolling or lobbing casts beneath docks and piers—you should be able to get down deep where crappie are at this season and deal with these delicious fish in a meaningful way.
Sidebar: Keeping Cool
When fishing in intense heat, keep several common sense matters in mind. For starters, be sure to use plenty of sunscreen and wear protective headgear. A wide-brimmed straw hat is ideal. Likewise, take along plenty of cold water and keep fully hydrated. One way to do this is to freeze quart or half-gallon milk jugs of water and put them in your cooler. They can double as a source of liquid and a way to ice down the fish you catch. An inexpensive accessory I've found most "comforting" is one of the absorbent, bandana-like neckbands you dip in cold water then put around your neck. They are wonderfully refreshing.
Title image by Walt Tegtmeier; body photos by Jim Casada