By Ben Leal
Ah, summertime… that time of year when we’re all looking for a place to cool down. The average day in August typically reaches highs in the mid-’80s, and lows will dip down to the mid-’60s. We have had, as you all know, days and even weeks that will reach up into the mid-’90s and cook mother earth. And like us, every living thing will search out places where it’s cooler, crappie among them. So, where’s the colder living areas in a body of water? Deep, usually, the deeper, the better, and of course, cooler.
One thing that does affect where the fish will hang out is the thermocline. And what exactly is that you ask? Well…I am glad you asked! Let’s turn to the experts first. NOAA’s defines the thermocline as:
“Bodies of water are made up of layers, determined by temperature. The top surface layer is called the epipelagic zone, and is sometimes referred to as the “ocean skin” or “sunlight zone.” This layer interacts with the wind and waves, which mixes the water and distributes the warmth. At the base of this layer is the thermocline. A thermocline is the transition layer between the warmer mixed water at the surface and the colder deep water below. It is relatively easy to tell when you have reached the thermocline in a body of water because there is a sudden change in temperature. In the thermocline, the temperature decreases rapidly from the mixed layer temperature to the much colder deep water temperature.”
Why is this information so valuable? The short answer is that the thermocline is where the most dissolved oxygen will exist, and that’s where the fish will be. Knowing where the thermocline is in your lake can be incredibly beneficial! As the air temperatures rise during the summertime, the thermocline layer begins to lose more and more dissolved oxygen.
It’s important because the water column below the thermocline won’t have any dissolved oxygen, which is needed for fish to survive. Therefore, knowing that we can call the layer below the thermocline, a “dead zone.”
I know I know…many of you are asking, “where or how do I find out where the thermocline is?” Enter modern technology and the electronics we all use these days to find fish. A quick way, using your boat electronics is to locate baitfish. During the middle of those hot summer days, they will stage just above the thermocline where there’s dissolved oxygen (D.O.), and colder water exists. Once you’ve found the baitfish start fishing areas of the lake at the same depth where structure aligns with the depth you’ve found. A second way and one that gives you a very graphic representation of the thermocline is to turn the sensitivity of your unit all the way up. In the example below, you can see the area we’re referencing by the red shaded area.
As you can see on the next page, the thermocline is clearly outlined and has a mean depth of about 12 feet. All of those arches just above that twelve-foot mark are fishing sucking up all that D.O.! Start fishing!
Tips and Tactics
Let’s talk about the tackle. One of my favorite ways to chase after these feisty fish is by using ultra-light gear. Six and a half foot to seven-foot rods work well, smaller reels loaded with four to six-pound test line and small jigs, 1/32 to 1/8 ounce. Colors…well, I think that colors tend to be a personal preference as well as those that you have confidence in.
For me, a pink jig head with a white grub works wonders. I also tend to lean toward black and chartreuse tube jigs. Again, those are confidence baits, ones that I usually turn to.
A trend that I’ve tended to lean towards and read about throughout my fishing and writing career is that crappie fishing can be tough in the warm summer months. Especially when the surface temps heat up, and most fish are searching for cooler places to hang out. A question that I posed, and prefaced by saying to H.S.M. Outdoors Chad Peterson was, “crappie fishing can be tough in the heat of the summer. What are some of your tips on when’s the best time to target these fish?” To which Peterson replied, “This, to me, might be a bit of a trick question, but…crappies can be very easy to catch in the summer. But I crappie fish all year long, and I’d say summertime can be the easiest”.
Here are a few examples of what you can do to increase your odds of success during the summer months. Look for heavy weedlines or cabbage next to sharp break lines and vertically jig them like you would in the wintertime; troll next to weedlines; pitch into cabbage beds and areas where cabbage is dominant in that 9-12FOW. “Some of the best fishing is around the cabbage, which you can target all day,” he adds.
Best times of the day? “All day,” he says. “By that, I mean, I’ve caught them all day from jigging them in the morning and then switching up to trolling for them during the day. Then, of course, in the late afternoon to dusk. Everyone thinks that the late afternoon to dusk is the best, and that can be true, but the daytime trolling bite has proven to me to be the best”.
For most crappie anglers, ultra-light to light rods from 6.6 to seven feet in length are typical. I’ve had a lot of success with ultra-lights rods and very light lines, typically in the four pound test variety and usually monofilament.
“The type of rod that I vertical jig with is the St. Croix Panfish Series-seven foot Ultralight”, continues Peterson. “Great backbone but the sensitive tip to indicate the bite, and it works like a spring bobber on an ice fishing rod. You’ll always know when you have a bite. My trolling rod is a St. Croix Triumph seven foot light rod and has somewhat of a soft tip to show the action of the Salmo Hornets that I like to run with.” One of Petersons’ go-to baits for trolling is the Salmo #3 and #3.5 Hornets. “They’ve proven every year to be successful at catching summertime crappies”, he adds.
In previous articles, I’ve written about springtime crappie fishing, and I always point out that you should never be too quick to put away those ice fishing jigs you’ve been having success with all winter. The same holds true for summer. “For vertical jigging, I go to the Northland Firefly tipped with plastic. Funny, but never put your ice fishing jigs away because you can use those all year as well, even in the heat of the summer”, recommends Peterson. “Now for the times when fishing a tad deeper, like 12-15 FOW, I’ll break out one of my favorites, and that is the Salmo Chubby Dater. I know, you’re thinking of an ice fishing lure during the summer. Yep, I do it all the time, and it’s really no different than a Shad Rap for walleyes, but the Chubby Darter works, and you should definitely try it!”
Summertime crappie can be, at times, hard to target, but with some sound advice from crappie anglers such as Chad Peterson, we can find ways to set the hook on a few of these warm-water crappies. “The best advice I can give is to learn to fail,” encouraged Peterson. “You’re not always going to be successful each time you head out, but the more you study the lake structure and experiment with vertical jigging and trolling, you’ll be able to find the crappies on any lake you fish.”
Always remember that we need to take care of the resources we enjoy across the State of Iowa and this great Nation of ours. Limit your catch; don’t catch your limit and C.P.R. (Catch, Photo, Release) the bigger fish, so the genetics of those larger fish stay in the fishery. Stewardship is everyone’s responsibility and one that passes down from generation to generation.
Summertime crappie can always be an excellent adventure for the family. Get out and make some great adventures folks and, Tight Lines All!