Todd Huckabee, who guides on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, knows the worst times and the best times for late season crappie fishing can come just minutes apart.
"You might fish for hours for four or five fish, then move to a place and catch a 100 in an hour in an area the size of your boat," said Huckabee, 34.
But, he loves the challenge. Even though summertime crappie locations are very predictable, he still enjoys putting on his thinking cap to figure out where crappies are as the season changes.
"The lakes are turning over, you have funky fronts going through with the wind changing direction, then a day or two later, it's dead calm. Then wind shifts back to more normal. It's a lot of fun to figure out just what the heck they are doing because things are changing so much," he said.
Huckabee has learned one thing for sure in three decades of chasing this good-tasting species - finding baitfish is the key. Crappies and other predators are feeding heavily to fatten for the cold months ahead. Find the forage, find the crappies.
But, that's not always as simple as it sounds. Before turnover, the thermocline, that depth during summer where oxygen levels drop dramatically below it, kept fish locked in the upper few feet of water, down about 15 feet in the case of Lake Eufaula. But, after the water temperature starts to drop about 10 to 15 degrees from its highest summer point, the water begins to mix again. Oxygen reaches down deep and crappies and other fish can go where they please.
Believe him when he says crappies will do exactly that. One day they can be in just a foot of water on the stumps. The next they can be on brush piles at mid-depth. While pre-fishing for a tournament, he watched as boat after boat entered a popular cove to try to find some fish that eventually would end up being the winning spot. Then he watched as each boat left dismayed a short time later. He didn't worry. He'd already found out where they were. They were down so close to the bottom in 20 feet of water they had mud on their bellies when he reeled them in. Since crappies feed up, the other anglers were afraid to fish that close to the bottom for fear their baits would be below the fish.
"When water turns over, they can be in the back of creeks or pockets in a foot of water or out along standing timber 30 feet deep just because they can. That's the challenge, finding those suckers," he said.
But, locating crappies doesn't have to be rocket science. Huckabee starts the minute he leaves the boat dock. As he idles away, he looks for telltale marks on the sonar screen indicating fish, any kind of fish, to see where they are in the water column. If they're shallow, he looks for crappies to be shallow, too. If the fish are deeper, he expects crappies will be, too. If he sees nothing on the screen, there's still no need to panic.
Forage fish can be in water so shallow the graph can't see them. "Shad are getting in the back of the pockets because that's where the algae bloom is going on. Bait fish are there and everything else goes back to feed on the bait fish. A lot of times in fall, those bait fish will get super, super skinny. Big 1½-pound and 2-pound crappies can be in a foot of water," Huckabee said. "That time of the year, you can't fish too shallow for big crappie."
The forage may also get so concentrated that only the last 20 yards of a cove 200 yards long will hold crappies, he added.
Creeks and rivers connected to a reservoir also will attract crappies that follow shad upstream, he said.
Huckabee's choice of gear sometimes surprises anglers. For shallow water, he uses a stiffer-than-normal 10-foot Meat Dragger rod he designed for Quantum. He pairs it with a Quantum Energy Reel and 10 pound Silver Thread line.
Until recently, he used 1/4-ounce Lindy Max Gap jigs with 2-inch YUM Wooly Beavertails exclusively. He's switched to Lindy's prototype X-Change jigs that allows anglers to change color and/or jig sizes in a snap without retying. (More on that development later.)
Huckabee's shallow tactic mimics flipping and pitching jigs for bass. Stay back from the blow down and cast beyond it. Swim the bait through the limbs. The stouter rig lets him feel potential hang ups better than wimpy stuff. He rarely gets snagged.
"Your sensitivity actually goes down with the lighter rig. With heavier line and a heavier rod, you can feel everything the jig touches," Huckabee said.
He avoids hovering over wood in shallow water. He isn't so much worried about spooking crappies. But a swimming jig is more likely to hook a shallow crappie than one dangled in front of its nose.
"He'll hammer it and never get hooked," Huckabee said of a stationary jig.
He usually targets brush or standing timber when fish are deeper. He normally drops that same 1/4-ounce jig with a 2-inch Beavertail down to the depth just above where he sees marks on the sonar. If you think the bait he uses is too big, he invites you to compare its size to a shad.
"The bait is still smaller than what they are eating," he said.
When crappies aren't on the bank, finding the right depth can be a matter of trial and error.
"There isn't any, 'The sun is over there, and the wind is here, so they will be over there.' They can be anywhere they feel like."
As a result, the key is to fish fast, but fish slow. The "fast" refers to checking different depths and moving soon if you don't get a fish. Crappies aren't bashful. They'll strike a bait if they're close by. But present the jig slowly. Don't treat a jig as if it's a jigging spoon, he said.
Though most anglers think they have to be aggressive when it comes to jigging action, Huckabee tells clients to treat a jig like live bait. Merely lower it to a depth, hold it steady and wait. If nothing, lower it another foot or so, wait, and repeat. If still nothing, raise it to your starting point and move upward foot by foot. Don't start by dropping the jig all the way to the base of a standing tree. It's likely that branches have fallen and collected there. Dropping to the bottom is a sure way to get snagged right away.
Color matters. If water is muddy, he likes black and pink. If water is fairly clear, he tries black and chartreuse or white and chartreuse. If water is really clear, he likes a color called Carolina pumpkin and chartreuse.
"There are days when you can catch them on anything. But, there are other days when color is important," he said.
That's where the new X-Change jigs come into play. Even Huckabee admits he was never one to take time to change colors too often. If red was working, that was fine with him. Sure, like everyone else, in the back of his mind he might wonder if he could catch more crappies on a larger jig. Or maybe if he took the time to cut the red jig off and try, say, an orange one.
"Everybody thinks about it, but nobody does it because they don't want to lose any fishing time," he said.
X-Change jigs solve that challenge. The jig head and the Max Gap hooks are made separately. The head merely snaps on and off. The size or color of the jig head can be changed in the time it takes to touch one.
"I can refine it down to the exact colors and color combinations that are getting more bites and more aggressive bites," Huckabee said. "I can also see where color makes a difference in terms of the size of the fish." The X-Change jigs come large enough to use for other species, too, like walleyes.
The autumn strategies generally work until the water temperature reaches about 10 degrees above what the lowest point can be expected to be in winter. At Lake Eufaula, the water never gets below about 35 degrees, so he expects crappies to be in their winter homes by the time the temperature reaches 45 to 50 degrees. From that point on, crappie locations become predictable again. He targets bridge pilings, standing timber and brush in about 18 to 20 feet of water. Where relative vicinity to a creek or river channel wasn't so important in fall, cover located near the channels is preferred.
Autumn can be the worst of times or the best of times to pursue crappie. How any trip will turn out is up to you and your willingness to follow the forage.